What is attitude-behavior consistency?

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Research on attitude-behavior consistency examines the extent to which self-reported attitudes predict and guide behavior. It has outlined the conditions under which attitudes can and cannot be expected to be consistent with behavior, and has provided an understanding of the process by which attitudes may influence behavior.
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Why does John go to see films often? Why will Sue not eat broccoli? Why does Mark read mystery novels? Why does Mary usually wear green? Most people would answer these questions by referring to the attitudes of the person in question. An attitude is defined as a positive or negative evaluation of a person, place, or thing. John goes to films because he likes them; Sue will not eat broccoli because she does not care for broccoli; Mark reads mystery novels because he enjoys them; and Mary wears green because it is her favorite color.

Social psychologists have found that most people routinely explain behavior in terms of underlying attitudes. People tend to believe that attitudes influence and are predictive of most behaviors. Despite these intuitive notions, however, research has suggested that attitudes in general are actually very limited predictors of behavior. There is generally not a high degree of consistency between people’s attitudes and their behaviors; in fact, the extent to which attitudes predict and are consistent with behavior appears to depend on a number of variables, including what type of behavior is to be predicted, how the attitude was formed, what kind of personality the person has, and how easily the attitude can be recalled.

Imagine that a researcher wanted to predict whether people regularly attend religious services. He or she might reasonably ask them about their attitudes toward organized religion, expecting that those with more favorable attitudes would be more likely to attend services regularly than those with less favorable attitudes. If the researcher did this, however, he or she would not be likely to find much correspondence at all between attitudes and behaviors.

The reason for this is that the researcher would be asking about a very general attitude and very specific behavior. For attitudes to predict behavior, both must be measured at the same level of specificity. If the researcher wants to predict a specific behavior, he or she needs to ask about an attitude specific to that behavior. In this example, rather than asking about general attitudes toward religion, the researcher should ask about attitudes toward attending religious services, which would be much more predictive of behavior. Attitudes that best predict behavior are attitudes about that specific behavior.

Sometimes, however, even specific attitudes will not correspond to specific behaviors. Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein’s theory of reasoned action proposes that attitudes toward a behavior are only one influence on behavior, and a second factor to consider is the subjective norm, which refers to individuals’ beliefs about what important others (for example, parents, teachers, or peers) think they should do. For some behaviors, the subjective norm is more important than attitude in predicting behavior. Even though someone might have a positive attitude toward attending religious services, he or she still might not go because of a belief that important others do not think that he or she should go.

Factors in Predicting Behavior

Even in the case of behaviors that are primarily influenced by attitude, there are other factors that determine the extent of that influence. One such factor is how the attitude was formed, which generally is in one of two ways. Attitudes may be based on direct, personal experience with the object or person in question; a person may dislike religious services because he or she attended a few and had a number of unpleasant experiences. Alternatively, attitudes may be based on indirect, secondhand experiences; a person may dislike services because of what he or she has read and heard about them. In general, attitudes based on direct experience are much more predictive of behavior than are attitudes based on indirect experience.

A second factor is the type of person someone is. According to psychologist Mark Snyder, when deciding how to behave in a social situation, some people look to the environment and try to be the type of person called for by the situation; they are known as high self-monitors. If the situation calls for a quiet, introverted person, they will be quiet and introverted. If the situation calls for a loud, extroverted person, they will be loud and extroverted. In contrast, low self-monitors look inside themselves and ask, “How do I feel right now?” They base their behavior on their feelings regardless of what is called for in the situation. If they feel like being introverted, they will be introverted; if they feel like being extroverted, they will be extroverted. As might be expected, low self-monitors display a higher degree of attitude-behavior consistency than do high self-monitors.

A third, and perhaps most important, factor is the ease with which an attitude can be recalled from memory, known as the degree of attitude accessibility. Simply put, the more accessible the attitude, the more likely it is that the attitude will predict behavior. Attitudes based on direct experience tend to be more accessible than attitudes based on indirect experience, and low self-monitors tend to have more accessible attitudes than do high self-monitors. In general, any factor that increases attitude accessibility increases the extent to which that attitude will guide future behavior.

Impact on Politics

One arena in which attitude-behavior consistency is an important concern is politics. Millions of dollars are spent on advertising during a political campaign in an effort to influence attitudes, in the hope that attitudes will then influence behavior. This raises the question of whether this money is well spent—that is, whether attitudes toward political candidates predict voting behavior.

To investigate this question, psychologists Russell Fazio and Carol Williams examined the relations between attitudes toward the two major-party candidates in the 1984 United States presidential election, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, and various behaviors, such as perceptions of the televised presidential debates and voting. They assessed individuals’ attitudes toward the candidates in June and July of the election year. The presidential debates were held in October, the election in November. As it turned out, overall, attitudes were indeed very predictive of behaviors. Attitudes toward the candidates predicted reactions to the presidential debates, with Reagan supporters believing he was more impressive than Mondale and Mondale supporters believing the opposite. Attitudes also generally predicted voting behavior very well: those supporting Reagan tended to vote for him, and those supporting Mondale tended to vote for Mondale. Although it is impressive that attitudes assessed in the summer months predicted behaviors three and four months later, so far the results may not be very surprising.

Fazio and Williams did not only examine the relations between attitudes and behaviors, however. When they assessed individuals’ attitudes during the summer months, they also measured the accessibility of those attitudes—that is, how easily the subjects could call the attitudes to mind. To do this, they asked participants in their study to agree or disagree with different tape-recorded statements (for example, “A good president for the next four years would be Ronald Reagan”) as quickly as possible by pressing one of five buttons on a computer; the buttons represented “strongly agree,” “agree,” “neutral,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” The computer then recorded how long it took the participants to respond after they heard the statements. Fazio and Williams reasoned that the more quickly people could respond, the more accessible their attitudes were.

Based on the results, Fazio and Williams classified some people as having highly accessible attitudes and others as having less accessible attitudes. When they then reexamined reactions to the presidential debates and voting behavior, they found that attitude-behavior consistency was much higher for those with highly accessible attitudes than for those with less accessible attitudes. That is, those with highly accessible attitudes were much more likely to act in a way consistent with their attitudes than were those with less accessible attitudes. For example, not everyone who agreed in June or July that Reagan would be a good president for the next four years voted for him in November. Those for whom this attitude could easily be brought to mind were much more likely to act on it and vote for Reagan than were those who had the same attitude but could not bring it to mind as quickly. It appears that, for attitudes to guide behavior successfully, they must be easily retrieved from memory.

Frequency of Attitude Expression

Two of the factors that influence the ease with which attitudes can be recalled have already been discussed: how the attitude was formed and whether one is a high or low self-monitor. An additional factor seems to be the number of times the attitude is expressed. In one study, students watched a videotape of five different puzzles and then expressed their interest in each of the puzzles. Some students were asked to express their attitudes once, while others were asked to express them three different times, on three different forms. When they were later asked to rate the puzzles along different dimensions as quickly as they could on a computer, just as in the voting study discussed above, those who had initially expressed their attitudes three times had quicker reaction times than those who had initially expressed their attitudes once, suggesting that repeated attitude expression makes attitudes more accessible. In a follow-up study, after students had seen the videotape of the puzzles and had expressed their attitudes toward them either one or three times, the researchers allowed the students actually to play with the puzzles. Attitudes toward the puzzles predicted playing behavior much better for those who had initially expressed their attitudes three times than for those who had initially expressed their attitudes once. The more often an attitude is expressed, the more accessible it becomes and the more likely it is to influence behavior.

Evolution of Attitude-Behavior Theories

The extent to which attitudes predict and influence behavior is at the heart of social psychology. At its inception, social psychology was defined as the study of attitudes, and although the importance of attitudes has waxed and waned as the field has matured, most social psychologists would still consider them to be a central concept.

In this context, one can imagine the shock that the social psychological community felt when, in 1969, A. W. Wicker published a review of numerous studies examining the relations between attitudes and behaviors that concluded that attitudes generally bear little relation to overt behavior and do not predict behavior well at all. At about the same time, a personality psychologist named Walter Mischel was making similar conclusions about personality traits, noting that in the research he reviewed, there did not seem to be much relationship between people’s personality traits and their behavior.

The reaction to Wicker’s review was mixed. Some called for social psychology to abandon attitudes as a focal point of research, arguing that, since the goal of any field of psychology is to predict behavior, if attitudes could not predict behavior, it would be foolish to spend more time and effort studying them. Others took a more optimistic approach to addressing what became known as the attitude-behavior problem; while Wicker’s review concluded that, on average, attitudes do not seem to predict behavior, in some of the studies he reviewed, attitudes did predict behavior quite well. The question for these researchers, then, was not whether attitudes predict behavior—because in some cases, they clearly do—but rather when and under what circumstances. As a result, in the 1970s and 1980s, considerable research was directed at identifying those factors that seemed to increase or decrease the degree of attitude-behavior consistency. It was these efforts that shed light on the role of direct experience and self-monitoring.


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