Skip over navigation

Social Psychology



Social Influence

Attitudes are evaluations people make about objects, ideas, events, or other people. Attitudes can be positive or negative. Explicit attitudes are conscious beliefs that can guide decisions and behavior. Implicit attitudes are unconscious beliefs that can still influence decisions and behavior. Attitudes can include up to three components: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.

Example: Jane believes that smoking is unhealthy, feels disgusted when people smoke around her, and avoids being in situations where people smoke.

Dimensions of Attitudes

Researchers study three dimensions of attitude: strength, accessibility, and ambivalence.

  • Attitude strength: Strong attitudes are those that are firmly held and that highly influence behavior. Attitudes that are important to a person tend to be strong. Attitudes that people have a vested interest in also tend to be strong. Furthermore, people tend to have stronger attitudes about things, events, ideas, or people they have considerable knowledge and information about.
  • Attitude accessibility: The accessibility of an attitude refers to the ease with which it comes to mind. In general, highly accessible attitudes tend to be stronger.
  • Attitude ambivalence: Ambivalence of an attitude refers to the ratio of positive and negative evaluations that make up that attitude. The ambivalence of an attitude increases as the positive and negative evaluations get more and more equal.

The Influence of Attitudes on Behavior

Behavior does not always reflect attitudes. However, attitudes do determine behavior in some situations:

  • If there are few outside influences, attitude guides behavior.

Example: Wyatt has an attitude that eating junk food is unhealthy. When he is at home, he does not eat chips or candy. However, when he is at parties, he indulges in these foods.

  • Behavior is guided by attitudes specific to that behavior.

Example: Megan might have a general attitude of respect toward seniors, but that would not prevent her from being disrespectful to an elderly woman who cuts her off at a stop sign. However, if Megan has an easygoing attitude about being cut off at stop signs, she is not likely to swear at someone who cuts her off.

  • Behavior is guided by attitudes that come to mind easily.

Example: Ron has an attitude of mistrust and annoyance toward telemarketers, so he immediately hangs up the phone whenever he realizes he has been contacted by one.

The Influence of Behavior on Attitudes

Behavior also affects attitudes. Evidence for this comes from the foot-in-the-door phenomenon and the effect of role playing.

The Foot-in-the-Door Phenomenon

People tend to be more likely to agree to a difficult request if they have first agreed to an easy one. This is called the foot-in-the-door phenomenon.

Example: Jill is more likely to let an acquaintance borrow her laptop for a day if he first persuades her to let him borrow her textbook for a day.

The Effect of Role Playing and the “Prison Study”

People tend to internalize roles they play, changing their attitudes to fit the roles. In the 1970s, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted a famous study called the prison study, which showed how roles influence people. Zimbardo assigned one group of college student volunteers to play the role of prison guards in a simulated prison environment. He provided these students with uniforms, clubs, and whistles and told them to enforce a set of rules in the prison. He assigned another group of students to play the role of prisoners. Zimbardo found that as time went on, some of the “guard” students became increasingly harsh and domineering. The “prisoner” students also internalized their role. Some broke down, while others rebelled or became passively resigned to the situation. The internalization of roles by the two groups of students was so extreme that Zimbardo had to terminate the study after only six days.

Attitude Change

Researchers have proposed three theories to account for attitude change: learning theory, dissonance theory, and the elaboration likelihood model.

Learning Theory

Learning theory says that attitudes can be formed and changed through the use of learning principles such as classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning:

  • Classical conditioning: The emotional component of attitudes can be formed through classical conditioning. For example, in a billboard ad, a clothing company pairs a sweater with an attractive model who elicits a pleasant emotional response. This can make people form a positive attitude about the sweater and the clothing company.
  • Operant conditioning: If someone gets a positive response from others when she expresses an attitude, that attitude will be reinforced and will tend to get stronger. On the other hand, if she gets a negative response from others, that attitude tends to get weaker.
  • Observational learning: Seeing others display a particular attitude and watching people be reinforced for expressing a particular attitude can make someone adopt those attitudes.
Dissonance Theory

Leon Festinger’s dissonance theory proposes that people change their attitudes when they have attitudes that are inconsistent with each other. Festinger said that people experience cognitive dissonance when they have related cognitions that conflict with one another. Cognitive dissonance results in a state of unpleasant tension. People try to reduce the tension by changing their attitudes.

Example: Sydney is against capital punishment. She participates in a debate competition and is assigned to a team that has to argue for capital punishment. Subsequently, she is more amenable to the idea of capital punishment.

The phenomenon called justification of effort also results from cognitive dissonance. Justification of effort refers to the idea that if people work hard to reach a goal, they are likely to value the goal more. They justify working hard by believing that the goal is valuable.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

The elaboration likelihood model holds that attitude change is more permanent if the elaborate and thought-provoking persuasive messages are used to change the attitude. Basically, if someone can provide a thorough, thought-provoking persuasive message to change an attitude, he is more likely to succeed than if he provides a neutral or shallow persuasive message.

Example: Ten teenagers who smoke are sent to an all-day seminar on the negative consequences of smoking. Many of the students subsequently give up the habit.

More Help

Previous Next

Follow Us