What are attitude formation and change?

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Research has suggested many theories of attitude change; these theories have led to the development of numerous persuasion tactics and principles that find use in a variety of settings, ranging from the mass media to consumer sales to organizational negotiations.
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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 they 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, peers, the mass media, schools, 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 (the “who”) of a message and found that people tend to be most persuaded by credible, trustworthy, attractive, and similar communicators. Research on message characteristics (the “what”) has shown that appeals to fear increase persuasion if accompanied by specific recommendations for how to avoid the fear; that there is a tendency for arguments presented first to have more impact, especially if there is a delay between hearing the arguments and making an evaluation; and that messages that present only one side of an issue are most effective when the recipient lacks the skills or motivation to process the information. In general, research has shown that an audience (the “whom”) is less persuaded if the message is wildly discrepant from their original beliefs; such research also finds that an audience is less persuaded if they have been forewarned about the persuasion attempt and take steps to prepare a counterargument. The effects of social influence are usually described in terms of compliance (attitude change, often short-lived, as a result of wanting to obtain rewards or avoid punishment), identification (change as a result of seeking to be similar to or distinguished from the source of a message), and internalization (change as a result of accepting a position on the basis of its merits).

Early Research

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 1950s. 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 1960s 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 use this counterintuitive approach are cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory. According to consistency theories such as cognitive dissonance theory, people attempt to rationalize their behavior and to avoid a state of dissonance, or simultaneously holding two contradictory cognitions (ideas, beliefs, or opinions). Persuasion occurs as a result of resolving this dissonance. For example, fraternity and sorority pledges often must perform embarrassing behavior to gain admission to the organization. The thoughts “I just ate a plate of grasshoppers as an initiation rite” and “It is stupid to eat grasshoppers” are dissonant with a positive view of the self. One way to reduce this dissonance is to reevaluate the fraternity or sorority more positively: “I ate those grasshoppers because I wanted to join a great club.”

Self-perception theory states that attitudes are based on observing one’s own behavior and then attributing the behavior to underlying beliefs. For example, suppose a man is at a dinner party and is served brown bread, which he then eats. When asked if he likes brown bread, he observes his eating behavior and concludes that he does (unless there is some other plausible reason, such as coercion or politeness). Although dissonance theories serve to explain attitude change when existing attitudes conflict with a person’s current behavior, self-perception theory proposes that when there is no better available explanation for a person’s behavior, observing what the person does is the best indication of his or her attitudes.

Social judgment theory attempts to explain how attitude formation and change occur within a single social context. Attitude change can occur when the context for making judgments is changed. For example, in one study, men rated photographs of women as much less attractive after viewing the 1970s television show Charlie’s Angels. In other words, the very attractive female stars of Charlie’s Angels provided a highly positive context in which to rate the photographs and thus made women of average attractiveness appear much less attractive.

Dual-Mode Processing Models

In an effort to synthesize the vast amount of 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: the recipient’s motivation and the recipient’s ability to process an argument.

Richard Petty and John Cacioppo have suggested that 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. Persuasion via this route 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, rather than 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 of the most important ones are evaluation and elaboration. Most cognitive responses to a message are either positive evaluations (support arguments) or negative evaluations (counterarguments) of the message’s conclusion. Studies have shown that disrupting these cognitive responses and decreasing the recipient’s ability to process the argument using a mild distraction, such as background noises or difficult-to-read print, results in more persuasion when the recipient’s natural tendency would be to make arguments against the message and less persuasion when the recipient normally would have supported the message. Elaboration refers to how much thought a recipient gives to a message. Recipients who are highly motivated to analyze an argument are likely to give it more thought.

Dual-process models of attitude change have led researchers to examine when and why recipients are motivated to process a message carefully. Three such motivations have been suggested: to make sense of themselves and their world, to protect or defend existing self-perceptions or worldviews, and to maintain or enhance their social status. When the message corresponds to an individual’s immediate motivations, persuasion attempts are more effective. For example, individuals who are more image conscious and motivated to enhance their social status are more likely to be persuaded by arguments that emphasize the social consequences of a behavior, while messages that emphasize the personal benefits of a behavior are more effective with those who are more internally guided.

Functional theories of attitude change incorporate these motivational goals. Functional theories posit that attitude formation and change are made when such change would function to serve a recipient’s needs. For example, consider someone who is prejudiced against an ethnic group. This negative attitude helps the person interpret, often incorrectly, social reality (“Members of this ethnic group can do no good and often are the cause of problems”) and maintain a positive view of self (“I am better than they are”), and it may also enhance the person’s social status (“I am a member of a superior social group”). Advertisers make use of functional theories when they market products to appeal to self-images; in such cases, a product is used in order to obtain a desired image, such as appearing to be sophisticated, macho, or a modern woman.

History of Persuasion Research

In an article published in 1935, Gordon Allport declared that attitude is social psychology’s “most indispensable construct.” Research on attitudes began in the 1920s 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 citizens' attitudes and opinions regarding 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 measurement to understanding attitude change and persuasion. Many of the post–World War II attitude researchers had either fled Nazi Germany or worked for the Allies in an attempt to defuse Nazi propaganda and bolster their fellow citizens’ attitudes toward the war effort. After the war, in the 1950s, many researchers attempted to explain the propaganda and attitude-change tactics used during the war and later increasingly employed in the mass media. This research resulted in the development of learning, functional, social judgment, and cognitive consistency theories of persuasion.

Practical Applications

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, some consumers were asked to imagine the benefits of subscribing to cable television, while others were simply informed about those benefits. Those who imagined subscribing were two and a half times as likely to subscribe as those who were merely told why they should.

The foot-in-the-door technique makes use of cognitive dissonance theory. In this tactic, the communicator secures compliance with a large request by first putting his or her “foot in the door” by asking for a small favor that almost everyone will typically do. For example, in one study, residents were asked to place in their yards a large, ugly sign that read “Drive Carefully.” Few residents complied unless they had been “softened up” the week before by an experimenter who got them to sign a petition favoring safe driving. For those residents, putting the ugly sign in the yard helped avoid cognitive dissonance: “Last week I supported safe driving. This week I will be a hypocrite if I do not put this ugly sign in my yard.”

Another effective tactic is to add a decoy, or a worthless item that no one would normally want, to a person’s set of choices. For example, a real-estate agent may show customers overpriced, run-down homes, or a car dealer may place an old clunker of a used car on his or her lot. Consistent with social judgment theory, such decoys create a context for judging the other “real” alternatives and make them appear more attractive. An unsuspecting consumer is then more likely to select and buy these more attractive items.

Attitude research since the 1960s has sought to test and develop the major theories of attitude change, to refine the principles of persuasion, and to apply these principles to an ever-expanding list of targets. For example, research on the relationship between attitude change and memory of a communication led to the development of a cognitive response analysis of persuasion in the late 1960s. Many of the compliance techniques described by Robert Cialdini and by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson were first elaborated in this period. As knowledge of persuasion improves, the principles of persuasion are increasingly applied to solve social problems. Prosocial goals to which theories of persuasion have been applied include decreasing energy consumption and increasing waste recycling, slowing the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) by changing attitudes toward safe-sex practices, lowering the automobile death toll by increasing seat-belt use, improving health by promoting practices such as good dental hygiene and regular medical checkups, improving worker morale and worker relationships, and reducing intergroup prejudice.


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