Attitudes and Attitude Change – Social Psychology Term paper


Educators and psychologists are able to describe how human beings constantly learn new things. According to Smith and Mackie (2007), there are three general types of learning that take place in human beings namely attitudes, knowledge, and skills. One of the core topics of contemporary social psychology that has attracted the attention of researchers is attitudes and attitude change. Bohner and Dickel (2011) defines attitude as a person’s feelings about something. Suppose attitude is a type of learning, then the different feelings that people have are learnt. For instance, human beings learn to be attracted to different people, to enjoy doing certain things, and to hate or like someone. Social psychologists are highly concerned about the various components of attitude, how attitude is formed, how attitude is measured, and how attitude change. Attitude can either be positive or negative, but it may sometimes be unclear. For example, a person may have mixed feelings about someone or an issue (Smith and Mackie, 2007). This paper analyzes the concept of attitude as well as how attitude change occurs.

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Components of attitude

Majority of social psychologist believe that attitude involves three components: cognitive component, affective component, and behavioral component. The cognitive component involves thoughts and beliefs about a particular object or issue (Barden and Tormal, 2014). For example one might believe that an object is either good or bad. The affective component is concerned with how a person, issue, or an object makes someone feel. In this case, the object or issue is always defined by a person’s feelings. As far as behavioral component is concerned, social psychologists are concerned with how a person’s attitude influences his or her behavior. For instance, a person may develop a negative attitude towards an object in order to get rid of it (Bohner and Dickel, 2011).

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The cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of attitude describe how people understand, feel, and behave respectively. This explains why there is a close relationship between attitude and image. As human beings interact with others, they constantly send signals that people in their immediate environment pick up. Depending on the nature of a person’s attitudes, people will either be attracted towards or away from him. Basically, attitudes can make people to view a person as either attractive or repulsive. Therefore, the image that one’s friends and associates have of him or her is what he or she projects through attitudes (Schwarz and Bohner, 2001).

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How attitudes develop

Development of attitudes is influenced by a number of factors including experience, social factors, and learning. A person’s attitudes develop directly as a result of experience. For instance, one may develop a positive attitude towards an object following a personal experience with that object or by observing the good things associated with it. According to Schwarz and Bohner (2001), development of attitudes can also be influenced by social norms and social roles. Social roles concern how people within a given environment are expected to behave while social norms involve rules that define behaviors that are considered appropriate by a particular group of people.

Additionally, people develop attitudes through learning. However, the manner in which attitude is developed differs from the way a person develops skills or knowledge. Social psychologists who have studied human learning have revealed that the critical factor in the development of attitudes is emotion. Examples of emotions that shape people’s feelings about life events include joy, compassion, anxiety, and fear. When a life event is accompanied by a particular emotion time after time, it creates an intense feeling that may be very difficult to transform. Attitudes can be learnt through operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and by observing things done by people in the surrounding. Operant conditioning works when a person quits a given behavior after receiving a negative feedback from people around him. Classical conditioning works when one develops either a positive or negative attitude towards a given object following repeated exposure to attractive and appealing imagery of the object (Smith and Mackie, 2007).

Measuring attitudes

Researchers are always interested in measuring the attitudes of participants in order to understand how they evaluate objects, people, and issues. In order to effectively measure attitudes, researchers often use self-report scales which require the respondent to evaluate an object by giving responses that can be given numeric values. Self-report scales are effective tools in measuring attitudes because they are easy to use and allow respondents to report their attitudes accurately. One major disadvantage of using self-report scales to measure attitudes is the fact that some people may hide their negative attitudes in order to present positively (Bohner and Dickel, 2011).

In order to overcome this challenge, difference in response time is used to minimize any form of biases that may result during measurement of attitudes. When using variations in response time when measuring attitudes, researchers assume that people evaluate objects differently therefore, they should produce different levels of responses when given an opportunity to evaluate a given stimulus. Ideally, variations in response times allow researchers to discover hidden attitudes (Smith and Mackie, 2007).

According to Schwarz and Bohner (2001), attitudes may be more stable than previously thought. Even though self-reports are prone to biases, they are capable of revealing implicit attitudes mainly because they are context-dependent and can be made to suit a given group of people basically by changing the question format or question  order. People are assumed to hold stable attitudes but their feelings can easily be influenced by causing contextual variations. Bohner and Dickel (2011) add that when researchers measure attitude, they try to evaluate the types of judgement that respondent construct, based on their feelings towards people, issues, or objects. With this regard, it becomes easy to learn human behavior and cognition through detailed analysis of their judgmental processes (Hew and Cheung, 2014). People with stable attitudes can give variable attitude reports when self-report is used to measure their attitudes depending on the knowledge structure accessed by the researcher. As Schwarz and Bohner (2001) emphasize, individuals can hold multiple attitudes about an object, but the stability of these feelings depend in the knowledge structure being accessed.

How Attitudes Change

Modification of an individual’s general evaluation of an object, person, or issue is what is referred to as attitude change. Therefore, alterations in a person’s feelings towards a stimulus, whether the feelings are positive or negative, are classified under attitude change. Attitude change represents a particular form of social control that does not occur through compulsion (Wood, 2000). A number of theories can be used to explain how attitude change occurs. These theoretical perspectives include conditioning and modeling approach, verbal learning approach, judgmental approach, motivational approach, attributional approach, combinatory approach, and self-persuasion approach (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994).

Conditioning and modeling approach focuses on the impacts of the direct administration of punishments or rewards on the subject. Positive attitudes towards a stimulus are associated with pleasant contexts while negative feelings are associated with unpleasant contexts. Thus, evaluative conditioning plays a very big role in attitude change. Additionally, studies of modeling indicate that a person’s attitude towards a specific stimulus can change through classical and operant conditioning (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994).

As far as verbal learning approach is concerned, attitude change is also associated with effects of various factors of communication on a person. These include the source factors such as trustworthiness, message factors such two-sided message, recipient factors such as intelligence, and channel factors such as print (Hew and Cheung, 2014). Additionally, the retention of arguments contained in a verbal message play a very significant role in information processing which underlying attitude change (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994). Judgmental approach to attitude change focuses on how judgments are made based on a person’s past experiences with the object or issue in question. Distortions in a person’s judgement are directly associated with attitude change because they alter a person’s feelings towards a stimulus. A number of variables ranging from cultural backgrounds to the nature experience can alter a person’s attitudes towards a stimulus, leaving the attitude strength unchanged (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994).

The next approach to attitude change known a motivational approach focuses on the relationship between a person’s motives and persuasion. The most important motive is to main a state of equilibrium among different cognitive elements. When a person wants to remove feelings of unpleasant tension, he or she has to restore consistency among cognitive elements. In this manner, negative attitudes towards a stimulus are replaced by positive feelings towards the same stimulus. As far as attributional approach is concerned, attitude change occurs through inferences generated by a communicator’s behavior. It means therefore that a person’s attitude can be attributed either to something about a person or to a situation (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994).

Combinatory approach can also be used to explain how attitudes change. According to Cacioppo, Petty and Crites (1994), attitude change can also occur through a combination of beliefs about a stimulus that can be expressed using mathematical models. For instance, beliefs that result into attitudes can be represented in terms of syllogisms, and any change in attitude can be predicted using a mathematical function related to changes in beliefs. Self-persuasion approach views attitude change as a consequence of ideas, arguments, and thoughts that are generated by individuals themselves. This theory assumes that when a person receives a persuasive communication, he or she makes an attempt to relate that information to an already existing attitude towards a stimulus. In this sense, the self-generated report may either be positive or negative which determines the type of attitude developed towards a stimulus (Cacioppo, Petty and Crites, 1994).

Irrespective of the type of approach used to explain attitude change, Cacioppo, Petty and Crites (1994) document that there are only two routes to attitude change. The two routes to attitude change include; where an individual responds to various heuristics in a situation, and where a person generates and processes attitude-relevant information. Basically, attitude change only takes one of two routes at any given time. Therefore, the various approaches to attitude change are useful in organizing and understanding the basic processes that underly attitude change (Wood, 2000). Social psychologists should be conversant with the different theories used to explain attitude change as well as the two routes to attitude change in order to understand why people’s attitudes towards stimuli can change with time.

Consequences of Attitudes

The main reason why attitudes and attitude change is a very important topic in social psychology is the fact that attitudes influence behavior and guide information processing (Brinol, Rucker and Petty, 2015). Depending on the attitude that a person has towards a stimulus, he or she will communicate either positively or negatively about an object or a person. This explains the degree of influence that people’s attitudes have on their cognitions. Furthermore, attitudes influence a person’s behavior because people’s behaviors are largely guided by their attitudes. A number of factors make people behave according to their attitudes. For instance, when a person’s attitudes are the result of his personal experience, he will develop behaviors that either support or reject those attitudes (Bohner and Dickel, 2011).

Additionally, when one is an expert in a particular subject, he or she will develop behaviors that encourage him or her to participate in the subject. Moreover, expectations of favorable outcomes will attract positive behaviors. Again, attitudes that are expressed repeatedly are likely to generate behavior that is related to that particular attitude. Social psychologists agree that a person’s attitudes can change to match behavior, a term known as cognitive dissonance. This is a phenomenon where, if a person experiences psychological distress as a result of conflicting beliefs, he or she will have to change attitudes to reflect a specific belief in order to reduce the tension. However, the change in attitude must always occur to assist a person achieve personal desires at any given time (Smith and Mackie, 2007).

Strategies to improve attitude

Attitude determines the nature of relationship that a person will have with his or her colleagues in a social setting. Attitude change may not be easy but one thing that people must agree about is the fact that attitude change can only be done by a person himself and developing positive attitudes towards people, objects, or issues can be very satisfying and enlightening. Replacing negative attitudes with positive ones is the best kind of personal reform that a person can do. In order to eliminate negative attitudes, one can follow three steps towards self-improvement as suggested by Barden and Tormal (2014).

First, it is important to identify specific attitudes that need to be replaced. In order to achieve this, one needs to have a mental picture of his or her current image and the new image that needs to be acquired following attitude improvement. Second, one needs to make a resolution to develop the new attitudes. The main goal here should be to cultivate new qualities that are needed to model self-renewal. Third, a person should use the image of his or her personality as a model for the new behavior. Ideally, the new attitudes will serve to improve a person’s personality (Velasco and Harder, 2014).


            Attitudes and attitude change remain a very significant topic in the field of social psychology. When studying attitudes and attitude change, social psychologists need to focus on the affective, behavioral, and cognitive components of attitudes. Again, by understanding how attitudes develop, it becomes possible to explain how attitudes change. People can avoid negative consequences that result from negative attitudes by changing their feelings towards specific stimuli.

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