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Encyclopedia of Psychology Alan E. Kazdin, PhD, Editor-in-Chief

Attitude Change

Attitudes are formed and changed on the basis of cognitive, affective, and behavioral processes. Research on the cognitive determinants of attitude change has shown that people form beliefs about the characteristics of entities in their environment (known as “attitude objects”) and that the evaluative content of these beliefs determines how favorable or unfavorable attitudes are.

Attitudes can be modified by changing the beliefs, affects, or representations of behavior that people hold in relation to an attitude object. By making various assumptions about the cognitive, affective, and behavioral determinants of attitudes, psychologists (and researchers in allied fields) have developed detailed theories about the particular processes that underlie attitude change and tested these theories in a very large number of research programs.

The most prominent of these paradigms, often referred to as the study of “message-based persuasion,” concerns the effects of exposing people to relatively complex messages emanating from other people. Also important is research on the effects of people’s own behaviors and messages on their attitudes, a research area often referred to as the study of “attitudinal advocacy.” In this tradition. participants engage in behaviors or deliver messages that counter their own attitudes, and the researchers assess the impact of these behaviors or messages on participants’ attitudes. Also relevant are investigations of social influence in group situations.

Although psychologists have long assumed that attitudes bias information processing in favor of material that is congruent with one’s attitudes (for example, by making it easier to remember), this congeniality principle has often not been substantiated. Instead, attitudes have been shown to have a variety of effects on information processing.

This tradition reflects the proposition that people’s attitudes are a function of the cognitions that they generate about the objects of their attitudes.

Another dual-process approach, the elaboration likelihood model (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), incorporates a peripheral route to persuasion, defined in terms of psychological mechanisms that do not require detailed thinking about the content of the message. For example, adopting someone’s attitude merely because she is a friend would constitute persuasion by the peripheral route. This model contrasts the peripheral route to persuasion with the central route, which involves careful, detailed processing of messages’ semantic content.

A key assumption of dual-process theories is that people process information superficially and minimally unless they are motivated to do otherwise.

Simple persuasive devices of these and other types are commonly used in advertising, because members of target audiences are often not motivated to devote much attention to processing messages or may not be able to do so.

This complexity is consistent with the fact that a great variety of persuasive appeals appear in advertising, public health announcements, and political campaigns, and that many of these techniques are effective in producing attitude change. Achieving systematic understanding of why differing approaches to persuasion are effective remains a challenging goal, toward which attitude researchers have made considerable progress.

ATTITUDES: Attitude Measurement

Direct Attitude Questions

Answering an attitude question entails several tasks. Respondents (I) need to determine the meaning of the question; (2) need to retrieve relevant information from memory to (3) form an attitude judgment; and (4) usually need to format this judgment to fit the response alternatives provided by the researcher. Moreover, (5) they may want to edit their judgment before they report it, due to reasons of social desirability and self-presentation. Respondents’ performance of these tasks is highly context dependent (for a comprehensive review of relevant theorizing and research see Sudman, Bradburn, & Schwarz, 1996, chapters 3-6).

Tags: encyclopedia of psychology
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