29 Understanding Attitudes

Attitudes refer to our relatively enduring evaluations of people and things (Albarracín, Johnson, & Zanna, 2005). We each hold many thousands of attitudes, including those about family and friends, political parties and political figures, abortion rights, preferences for music, and much more. Some of our attitudes, including those about sports, roller coaster rides, and capital punishment, are heritable, which explains in part why we are similar to our parents on many dimensions (Olson, Vernon, Harris, & Jang, 2001). Other attitudes are learned through direct and indirect experiences with the attitude objects (De Houwer, Thomas, & Baeyens, 2001).

1. The Purpose of Attitudes

Human beings hold attitudes because they are useful. Particularly, our attitudes enable us to determine, often very quickly and effortlessly, which behaviors to engage in, which people to approach or avoid, and even which products to buy (Duckworth, Bargh, Garcia, & Chaiken, 2002; Maio & Olson, 2000). You can imagine that making quick decisions about what to avoid or approach has had substantial value in our evolutionary experience.

For example:

  • Snake = bad → run away
  • Blueberries = good → eat

Attitudes are important because they frequently (but not always) predict behaviour. If we know that a person has a more positive attitude toward Frosted Flakes than toward Cheerios, then we will naturally predict that they will buy more of the former when they get to the market. If we know that Amara is madly in love with Leila, then we will not be surprised when she proposes marriage. Because attitudes often predict behaviour, people who wish to change behaviour frequently try to change attitudes through the use of persuasive communications.

Marketing Context

A few years ago, KFC began running ads to the effect that fried chicken was healthy—until the U.S. Federal Trade Commission told the company to stop. Wendy’s slogan that its products are “way better than fast food” is another example. Fast food has a negative connotation, so Wendy’s is trying to get consumers to think about its offerings as being better.

An example of a shift in consumers’ attitudes occurred when the taxpayer-paid government bailouts of big banks that began in 2008 provoked the wrath of Americans, creating an opportunity for small banks not involved in the credit bailout and subprime mortgage mess. The Worthington National Bank, a small bank in Fort Worth, Texas, ran billboards reading: “Did Your Bank Take a Bailout? We didn’t.” Another read: “Just Say NO to Bailout Banks. Bank Responsibly!” The Worthington Bank received tens of millions in new deposits soon after running these campaigns (Mantone, 2009).

2. The ABC’s of Attitudes

An attitude is a predisposition to evaluate an object or product positively or negatively. The attitudes we form about a product or service will affect whether we’re likely to buy that product or not. Attitudes have three components also known as the ABCs of Attitudes:

  1. Affect: our feelings & emotions that help us express how we feel about an object
  2. Behavior: what we intend to do regarding the object
  3. Cognition: our thoughts and beliefs about an object

Our attitudes are made up of cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Consider an environmentalist’s attitude toward composting, which is probably very positive.

3. Response Hierarchies: Which Comes First?

Thinking, feeling, and doing can happen in any order. Psychologists originally assumed that we form attitudes through a fixed sequence of these three components: We first think about the object, then evaluate our feelings about it, and finally take action: Cognition → Affect → Behavior [C-A-B].

Research evidence, however, shows that we form attitudes in different sequences based on different circumstances. If we’re not very involved in or don’t care much about a purchase, we may just buy a product on impulse or because we remember a catchphrase about it instead of carefully evaluating it in relation to other products. In that case, action precedes feeling and thought: Behavior → Affect → Cognition [B-A-C].

Conversely, feelings—rather than thoughts—may drive the entire decision process; our emotional reactions may drive us to buy a product simply because we like its name, its packaging design, or the brand image that ads create. In this case, we see the product, have a feeling about it, and buy it: Affect → Behavior → Cognition [A-B-C].

Involvement Level Example Response Hierarchy
High Vacation, wedding dress, new car C-A-B
Low Car wash, tin foil, toilet cleaner B-A-C
(Impulse) Ball cap, purse, video game A-B-C

Although most attitudes are determined by affect, behavior, and cognition, there is nevertheless variability in this regard across people and across attitudes. Some attitudes are more likely to be based on feelings, some are more likely to be based on behaviors, and some are more likely to be based on beliefs. For example, your attitude toward chocolate ice cream is probably determined in large part by affect—although you can describe its taste, mostly you may just like it. Your attitude toward your toothbrush, on the other hand, is probably more cognitive (you understand the importance of its function). Still other of your attitudes may be based more on behavior. For example, your attitude toward note-taking during lectures probably depends, at least in part, on whether or not you regularly take notes.

Different people may hold attitudes toward the same attitude object for different reasons. For example, some people vote for politicians because they like their policies, whereas others vote for (or against) politicians because they just like (or dislike) their public persona. Although you might think that cognition would be more important in this regard, political scientists have shown that many voting decisions are made primarily on the basis of affect. Indeed, it is fair to say that the affective component of attitudes is generally the strongest and most important (Abelson, Kinder, Peters, & Fiske, 1981; Stangor, Sullivan, & Ford, 1991).

Attitudes are also stronger when the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition all align. As an example, many people’s attitude toward their own nation is universally positive. They have strong positive feelings about their country, many positive thoughts about it, and tend to engage in behaviors that support it. Other attitudes are less strong because the affective, cognitive, and behavioral components are each somewhat different (Thompson, Zanna, & Griffin, 1995). Your cognitions toward physical exercise may be positive—you believe that regular physical activity is good for your health. On the other hand, your affect may be negative—you may resist exercising because you prefer to engage in tasks that provide more immediate rewards. Consequently, you may not exercise as often as you believe you ought to. These inconsistencies among the components of your attitude make it less strong than it would be if all the components lined up together.

4. The Principle of Attitude Consistency

The Principle of attitude consistency (that for any given attitude object, the ABCs of affect, behavior, and cognition are normally in line with each other) thus predicts that our attitudes (for instance, as measured via a self-report measure) are likely to guide behavior. Supporting this idea, meta-analyses have found that there is a significant and substantial positive correlation among the different components of attitudes, and that attitudes expressed on self-report measures do predict behavior (Glasman & Albarracín, 2006).

However, our attitudes are not the only factor that influence our decision to act. The theory of planned behaviour, developed by Martin Fishbein and Izek Ajzen (Ajzen, 1991; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), outlines three key variables that affect the attitude-behavior relationship: (a) the attitude toward the behaviour (the stronger the better), (b) subjective norms (the support of those we value), and (c) perceived behavioral control (the extent to which we believe we can actually perform the behavior). These three factors jointly predict our intention to perform the behavior, which in turn predicts our actual behavior.

In the Theory of Planned Behavior, values, beliefs, and other intrinsic values all contribute to whether or not an individual decides to participate in pro-environmental behavior (Chan & Bishop; Greaves et al.).  Deep beliefs and values often result in behavior, and studying what individuals value can give an insight about their environmental mindset (Greaves et al.).6  The Theory of Planned Behavior helps predict what intentions will turn into actions, and the degree of control a person has over what intentions turn into actions (Chan & Bishop; Greaves et al.). 

Imagine for a moment that your friend Sharina is trying to decide whether to recycle her used laptop batteries or just throw them away. We know that her attitude toward recycling is positive—she thinks she should do it—but we also know that recycling takes work. It’s much easier to just throw the batteries away. But if Sharina feels strongly about the importance of recycling, if her family and friends are also in favor of recycling, and if she has easy access to a battery recycling facility, then she will develop a strong intention to perform the behavior and likely follow through on it.

In comparison, the self-determination theory can also be utilized to help predict the likelihood of pro-environmental actions (Huffman, 2014).  This theory describes motivated behavior as part of a continuum that ranges from autonomous to controlled actions (Huffman, 2014).

Another intrinsic motivator is the warm-glow effect, which consists of personal satisfaction and altruistic motives that benefit the well-being of others (Abbott et al.).  Individuals “feel good” for partaking in pro-environmental behaviors and continue to repeat the activities regardless of extrinsic rewards (Abbott et al.).

5. The Four Functional Theories of Attitude

Functional theorists Katz (2008) and Smith, Bruner, & White (1956) addressed the issue of not knowing which base (affective, cognition or behavior) was most important by looking at how the person’s attitude serves them psychologically. They came up with four different functions that an attitude might serve:

  1. One of the most beneficial things an attitude can do for us is to make our lives more efficient. We do not have to evaluate and process each thing we come into contact with to know if it is good (safe) or bad (threatening; Petty, 1995). This is called the knowledge function and allows us to understand and make sense of the world. My attitude towards insects is somewhat negative. I tend to have large reactions to bites from them and although most do not bite, my immediate reaction is to avoid them if at all possible. In this way my attitude keeps me from having to evaluate every type of insect I come into contact with. Saving time and allowing me to think of other things in life (Bargh, et al.,1992). This example might have prompted you to think that this generalization could lead to discrimination and you would be correct. In an attempt to be more efficient, I am not stopping and processing every insect I come into contact with and some insects are good (safe). We will discuss how this helps explain prejudice and discrimination in a later module.
  2. Our attitudes can serve an ego-defensive function which is to help us cover up things that we do not like about ourselves or help us to feel better about ourselves. You might think cheerleaders are stupid or superficial to protect yourself from feeling badly that you aren’t a cheerleader. Here you defended against a threatening truth – you aren’t a cheerleader which you want to be and boosted your self-image by believing that you are better than them – you are smart and complex.
  3. We can categorize some of our attitudes as serving as tools that lead us to greater rewards or help us to avoid punishments. So, individuals might have developed an attitude that having sex with many partners is bad. This has both a knowledge function and a utilitarian function by helping people avoid the societal punishment of being called promiscuous and then seeking the reward of being the kind of person that someone would take home and introduce to their parents.
  4. The final function centers around the idea that some of our attitudes help us express who we are to other people, value-expressive function. We see this a lot on social media. If you were to examine someone’s Facebook or Instagram page you would see that their posts are full of their attitudes about life and they intentionally post certain things so that people will know who they are as a person. You might post a lot of political things and people might see you as a politically engaged person, you might post a lot about the environment and people see that you are passionate about this topic. This is who you are.

6. Cognitive Dissonance

Social psychologists have documented that feeling good about ourselves and maintaining positive self-esteem is a powerful motivator of human behavior (Tavris & Aronson, 2008). Often, our behavior, attitudes, and beliefs are affected when we experience a threat to our self-esteem or positive self-image. Psychologist Leon Festinger (1957) defined cognitive dissonance as psychological discomfort arising from holding two or more inconsistent attitudes, behaviors, or cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, or opinions). Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance states that when we experience a conflict in our behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs that runs counter to our positive self-perceptions, we experience psychological discomfort (dissonance). For example, if you believe smoking is bad for your health but you continue to smoke, you experience conflict between your belief and behavior.

When we experience cognitive dissonance, we are motivated to decrease it because it is psychologically, physically, and mentally uncomfortable. We can reduce cognitive dissonance by bringing our cognitions, attitudes, and behaviors in line—that is, making them harmonious. This can be done in different ways, such as:

  • changing our discrepant behavior (e.g., stop smoking),
  • changing our cognitions through rationalization or denial (e.g., telling ourselves that health risks can be reduced by smoking filtered cigarettes),
  • adding a new cognition (e.g., “Smoking suppresses my appetite so I don’t become overweight, which is good for my health.”).

7. Multi-Attribute Attitude Model

Marketers desire the ability to better understand consumers’ attitudes towards their products and services. However, attitudes are complex and a consumer may have a range of attitudes (favourable and unfavourable) towards a single product or service – not just one. In additional to the various qualities held by a product or service, consumers are also faced with the added complexity of seeking approval, whether that comes from friends, family, or society. Attitude models are designed to help identify the different factors that would influence a consumer’s evaluation of attitude objects.

Due to the complexity surrounding attitudes, researchers use multi-attribute attitude models to explain them. Simply put, multi-attribute models say that we form attitudes about a product based on several attributes of that product, our beliefs about those attributes, and the relative importance we assign to those attributes.

The decision to purchase a car like an SUV offers a good illustration of how a multi-attribute model affects purchase behavior. On the one hand, the styling and stance of a particular model might evoke feelings of power, confidence, and ruggedness. The vehicle’s high ground clearance and roomy back might be great for the consumer’s intended camping trips. On the other hand, the brand could make the consumer ill at ease—perhaps a friend had a bad experience with that car maker. And the more rational side of a consumer might balk at the high cost and poor gas mileage. Yet the vehicle looks great, so the consumer isn’t sure. And, regardless of their personal feelings about the vehicle, the consumer may also factor in social pressure: will their friends criticize them as a wasteful gas-guzzler if they buy an SUV instead of a compact hybrid? Will they buy or won’t they? The decision depends on how the buyer combines and weights these positive and negative attitude components.

8. Normative Influences

Norms can have a powerful influence on consumer attitudes & behaviour. Norms define how to behave in accordance with what a society has defined as good, right, and important, and most members of the society adhere to them. Formal norms are established, written rules. They are behaviors worked out and agreed upon in order to suit and serve the most people. Laws are formal norms, but so are employee manuals, college entrance exam requirements, and “no running” signs at swimming pools. Formal norms are the most specific and clearly stated of the various types of norms, and they are the most strictly enforced. But even formal norms are enforced to varying degrees and are reflected in cultural values.

For example, money is highly valued in the United States, so monetary crimes are punished. It’s against the law to rob a bank, and banks go to great lengths to prevent such crimes. People safeguard valuable possessions and install anti-theft devices to protect homes and cars. A less strictly enforced social norm is driving while intoxicated. While it’s against the law to drive drunk, drinking is for the most part an acceptable social behavior. And though there are laws to punish drunk driving, there are few systems in place to prevent the crime. These examples show a range of enforcement in formal norms.

There are plenty of formal norms, but the list of informal norms—casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to—is longer. People learn informal norms by observation, imitation, and general socialization. Some informal norms are taught directly—“Kiss your Aunt Edna” or “Use your napkin”—while others are learned by observation, including observations of the consequences when someone else violates a norm. But although informal norms define personal interactions, they extend into other systems as well. In the United States, there are informal norms regarding behavior at fast food restaurants. Customers line up to order their food and leave when they are done. They don’t sit down at a table with strangers, sing loudly as they prepare their condiments, or nap in a booth. Most people don’t commit even benign breaches of informal norms. Informal norms dictate appropriate behaviors without the need of written rules.

Descriptive norms are defined as, “the perception of what most people do in a given situation” (Burger, 2020). Most of us, most of the time, are motivated to do the right thing. If society deems that we put litter in a proper container, speak softly in libraries, and tip our waiter, then that’s what most of us will do. But sometimes it’s not clear what society expects of us. In these situations, we often rely on descriptive norms (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990).

Researchers have demonstrated the power of descriptive norms in a number of areas. Homeowners reduced the amount of energy they used when they learned that they were consuming more energy than their neighbors (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007). Undergraduates selected the healthy food option when led to believe that other students had made this choice (Burger et al., 2010). Hotel guests were more likely to reuse their towels when a hanger in the bathroom told them that this is what most guests did (Goldstein, Cialdini, & Griskevicius, 2008). And more people began using the stairs instead of the elevator when informed that the vast majority of people took the stairs to go up one or two floors (Burger & Shelton, 2011).

However, it’s not always easy to obtain good descriptive norm information, which means we sometimes rely on a flawed notion of the norm when deciding how we should behave. A good example of how misperceived norms can lead to problems is found in research on binge drinking among college students. Excessive drinking is a serious problem on many campuses (Mita, 2009). There are many reasons why students binge drink, but one of the most important is their perception of the descriptive norm. How much students drink is highly correlated with how much they believe the average student drinks (Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Larimer, 2007). Unfortunately, students aren’t very good at making this assessment. They notice the boisterous heavy drinker at the party but fail to consider all the students not attending the party. As a result, students typically overestimate the descriptive norm for college student drinking (Borsari & Carey, 2003; Perkins, Haines, & Rice, 2005). Most students believe they consume significantly less alcohol than the norm, a miscalculation that creates a dangerous push toward more and more excessive alcohol consumption. On the positive side, providing students with accurate information about drinking norms has been found to reduce overindulgent drinking (Burger, LaSalvia, Hendricks, Mehdipour, & Neudeck, 2011; Neighbors, Lee, Lewis, Fossos, & Walter, 2009).

Social Judgement Theory (not yet complete!!)


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