Attitude formation and change
Introduction (Psychology and Mental Health)
An attitude is a person’s positive or negative evaluation of an object or thought; examples include “I support gun control,” “I dislike brand X,” and “I love the person next door.” Much research finds that attitudes can influence a broad range of cognitive processes—such as social inference, reasoning, perception, and interpretation—and can thereby influence behavior. In general, people favor, approach, praise, and cherish those things they like and disfavor, avoid, blame, and harm those things they dislike. Given that attitudes can have pervasive effects on social behavior, it is important to understand how attitudes are formed and changed.
Attitudes can be formed directly through observation of one’s own behavior or through experience with the attitude object. They may also be formed by exposure to social influences such as parents and peers, the mass media, schools and religious organizations, and important reference groups. William McGuire notes that attitudes are one of the most extensively studied topics in social psychology. Much of this research has centered on the question, Who says what to whom, with what effects?
For example, research has varied the source (or “who”) of a message and found that people tend to be most persuaded by credible, trustworthy, attractive, and similar communicators. Research on message characteristics (or “what”) has shown that fear appeals increase...
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Early Research (Psychology and Mental Health)
The learning model, perhaps social psychology’s first theory of persuasion, is based on the research of Carl Hovland and his colleagues at Yale University in the 1950’s. According to this model, a message is persuasive when it rewards the recipient at each of the following stages of psychological processing of a message: attention, comprehension, message learning, and yielding. For example, a highly credible source is persuasive because people find it rewarding to attend to and comprehend what he or she says, and then to act on it.
One problem with the learning model of persuasion is that subsequent research in the 1960’s found that persuasion could occur even if the message was only minimally comprehended and the message’s content was forgotten or never learned. To account for these results, the cognitive response approach posited that the key determinant of persuasion was not message learning but the thoughts running through a person’s head as that individual received a communication. Effective communications are ones that direct and channel thoughts so that the target thinks in a manner agreeable to the communicator’s point of view.
Later research reversed the causal sequence of the learning model from one of “attitudes cause behavior” to “behavior causes attitudes.” Two theories that utilize this counterintuitve approach are cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory. According to...
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Dual-Mode Processing Models (Psychology and Mental Health)
In an effort to synthesize the vast persuasion research, psychologists proposed a dual-mode processing approach to attitude formation and change. Dual-mode processing models emphasize two factors that influence the success of a persuasion attempt, both the recipient’s motivation and the recipient’s ability to process an argument.
Richard Petty and John Cacioppo have suggested there are two routes to persuasion. In the peripheral route, recipients give little thought to a message, perhaps because they have little motivation to think about it or lack the necessary skills, and persuasion is based less on the arguments made and more on simple persuasion cues or heuristics such as the credibility of the source and the number of other people who agree with the message. Cognitive dissonance, self-perception, and social judgment theory models of attitude change often emphasize peripheral routes, as anxiety reduction, the lack of alternative explanations, and contextual cues are the important determinants of persuasion as opposed to careful analysis of the message.
In the central route, where people are motivated and able to process the message, recipients carefully scrutinize the communication, and persuasion is determined by the quality and cogency of the arguments. The central route is emphasized in cognitive response theories of persuasion. Although cognitive responses can vary on a number of dimensions, two...
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History of Persuasion Research (Psychology and Mental Health)
As early as 1935, Gordon Allport declared that attitude is social psychology’s “most indispensable construct.” Research on attitudes began in the 1920’s in the United States as a response to changing social conditions. The period was marked by the rise of new mass media such as radio and mass-circulated magazines, the development of large-scale consumer markets, and the changing nature of political activity. Such developments required that the attitudes and opinions of citizens toward a variety of issues be measured and tracked. Academic researchers responded by developing techniques of attitude scaling and measurement and by laying the foundation for survey methodology. The first empirical research on attitudes sought to address questions such as “How are movies changing Americans’ attitudes and values?” and “Has modern life changed traditional cultural attitudes?”
World War II changed the focus of attitude research from an interest in measurement to an interest in understanding attitude change and persuasion. Many of the post-World War II attitude researchers either had fled Nazi Germany or had worked for the Allies in an attempt either to defuse Nazi propaganda or to bolster their fellow citizens’ attitudes toward the war effort. After the war, in the 1950’s, many researchers attempted to explain the propaganda and attitude-change tactics used during the war and later increasingly...
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Practical Applications (Psychology and Mental Health)
Research and theorizing on attitude change have led to the development of numerous tactics and principles of persuasion. These principles are useful for interpreting persuasion effects such as those that occur in mass media and interpersonal or organizational settings, and for directing persuasion attempts. Three of the more popular tactics will be discussed here.
One of the simplest and most surefire ways to ensure positive cognitive responses is to induce the target to argue for the message conclusion, a tactic known as self-generated persuasion. For example, in one study during World War II, women were asked to “help” a researcher by coming up with reasons that other women should serve organ and intestinal meats (brains, kidneys, and so on) to their families as part of the war effort. These women were eleven times as likely to serve such meats as those who were merely lectured to do so. In another study, consumers were asked to imagine the benefits of subscribing to cable television versus being told about those benefits. Those who imagined subscribing were two and a half times as likely to subscribe as those who were merely told about the benefits.
The foot-in-the-door technique makes use of cognitive dissonance theory. In this tactic, the communicator secures compliance to a big request by first putting his or her “foot in the door” by asking for a small favor that almost everyone will typically do....
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Sources for Further Study (Psychology and Mental Health)
Allport, Gordon W. “Attitudes.” In Handbook of Social Psychology, edited by Carl Allanmore Murchison. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967. The first review of the attitude concept, published originally in 1935. Provides a useful introduction to the historical origins of attitude research.
Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: How and Why People Agree to Things. 3d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. This highly readable account provides a fascinating discussion of six of the most frequently used compliance tactics.
Crano, William D., and Radmila Prislin, eds. Attitudes and Attitude Change. New York: Psychology Press, 2008. A group of international researchers offers essays on the measurement, development, and change of attitudes.
Eagly, A. H., and S. Chaiken. The Psychology of Attitudes. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993. A comprehensive analysis of a half century of research on attitudes and attitude change.
Perloff, R. M. The Dynamics of Persuasion. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2008. Easy-to-read text with practical examples of persuasion from cults to mass media.
Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1996. An excellent textbook that provides a description of major theories of persuasion and supporting research.
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