Attitudes and Behavior
by Saul McLeod published 2009
An attitude is "a relatively enduring organization of beliefs, feelings, and behavioral tendencies towards socially significant objects, groups, events or symbols" (Hogg & Vaughan 2005, p. 150)
"..a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor" (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993, p. 1)
Structure of Attitudes
Attitudes structure can be described in terms of three components.
- Affective component: this involves a person’s feelings / emotions about the attitude object. For example: “I am scared of spiders”.
- Behavioral (or conative) component: the way the attitude we have influences how we act or behave. For example: “I will avoid spiders and scream if I see one”.
- Cognitive component: this involves a person’s belief / knowledge about an attitude object. For example: “I believe spiders are dangerous”.
This model is known as the ABC model of attitudes. The three components are usually linked. However, there is evidence that the cognitive and affective components of behavior do not always match with behavior. This is shown in a study by LaPiere (1934).
The Function of Attitudes
Attitudes can serve functions for the individual. Daniel
Katz (1960) outlines four functional areas:
• Knowledge. Attitudes provide meaning (knowledge) for life. The knowledge function refers to our need for a world which is consistent and relatively stable. This allows us to predict what is likely to happen, and so gives us a sense of control. Attitudes can help us organize and structure our experience. Knowing a person’s attitude helps us predict their behavior. For example, knowing that a person is religious we can predict they will go to Church.
• Self / Ego-expressive. The attitudes we express (1) help communicate who we are and (2) may make us feel good because we have asserted our identity. Self-expression of attitudes can be non-verbal too: think bumper sticker, cap, or T-shirt slogan. Therefore, our attitudes are part of our identify, and help us to be aware through expression of our feelings, beliefs and values.
• Adaptive. If a person holds and/or expresses socially acceptable attitudes, other people will reward them with approval and social acceptance. For example, when people flatter their bosses or instructors (and believe it) or keep silent if they think an attitude is unpopular. Again, expression can be nonverbal [think politician kissing baby]. Attitudes then, are to do with being apart of a social group and the adaptive functions helps us fit in with a social group. People seek out others who share their attitudes, and develop similar attitudes to those they like.
• The ego-defensive function refers to holding attitudes that protect our self-esteem or that justify actions that make us feel guilty. For example, one way children might defend themselves against the feelings of humiliation they have experienced in P.E. lessons is to adopt a strongly negative attitude to all sport. People whose pride has suffered following a defeat in sport might similarly adopt a defensive attitude: “I’m not bothered, I’m sick of rugby anyway…”. This function has psychiatric overtones. Positive attitudes towards ourselves, for example, have a protective function (i.e. an ego-defensive role) in helping us reserve our self-image.
The basic idea behind the functional approach is that attitudes help a person to mediate between their own inner needs (expression, defense) and the outside world (adaptive and knowledge).
Functions of Attitudes Example
Imagine you are very patriotic about being British. This might cause you to have an ethnocentric attitude towards everything not British. Imagine further that you are with a group of like-minded friends. You say:
“Of course there’s no other country as good as Britain to live in. Other places are alright in their own way but they can’t compare with your mother county.”
(There are nods of approval all round. You are fitting in - adaptive). The people in the group are wearing England football shirts (This is the self-expression function).
Then imagine you go on to say:
“The trouble with foreigners is that they don’t speak English. I went to France last year and they were ignorant. Even if they could speak our language they wouldn’t do so. I call that unfriendly.
(Others agree with you and tell you of their similar experiences. You are making sense of things. This is the knowledge function). Then someone who has never travelled takes things a stage further…
“I don’t mind foreigners coming here on holiday…but they shouldn’t be allowed to live here….taking our jobs and living off social security. Britain for the British is what I say….why is it getting so you can’t get a decent job in your own country.”
(Now the others in the room join in scapegoating foreigners and demonstrating the ego defensive function of attitudes).
Attitudes and behaviors: How Can We Be Controlled?
Eagly and Chaiken, (1993). The Psychology of Attitudes, Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Hogg, M., & Vaughan, G. (2005). Social Psychology (4th edition). London: Prentice-Hall .
Katz, D. (1960). Public opinion quarterly, 24, 163 - 204.
LaPiere, R. T. (1934). Attitudes vs. Actions. Social Forces, 13, 230-237.
How to cite this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2009). . Retrieved from
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