Social Psychology of Attitudes: Part 1 of 2

You may not have given much thought to the way that you respond to a particular situation, but your attitude is significantly related to your behavior. How is it learned? Through experience, both direct and indirect. While social psychology covers a variety of theories, there is a substantial amount of theory just on the social psychology of attitudes, which is why it has been separated into it’s own posts. The topic of Social and Cultural Bases of Behavior is weighted at 12% and is very theory, and term heavy, so understanding the differences between all the theories is important for the EPPP. The information is best used in collaboration with your own knowledge and what you have already been taught, your previous notes or textbooks, and research if you need more information on a particular topic.  Or you could check out the product reviews page.

Understanding an Attitude

There are three elements to an attitude, all of which are learned through either direct experience (playing a sport) or indirect experience (overhearing your parents conversation about a political issue).  The three elements are:

  • Cognitive: The individual thoughts and beliefs that influence an attitude.  For example, a person may believe everyone should recycle.
  • Affective: The individual feelings that influence an attitude. For example, a person may feel happy when they recycle and angry when others do not recycle.
  • Behavioral: The thoughts and feelings predispose the individual to act in certain ways.  For example, The individual regularly recycles.

Although these 3 elements are connected, there is only a weak relationship as situational constraint often means that despite have a cognitive or affective stance, the situation may not always be appropriate for a behavioral stance.  This concept was demonstrated by Richard LaPierre (1934) in his classic study where he spent 2 years travelling, staying in hotels and eating at restaurants with a Chinese couple, and in the 2LaPierre51 occasions they were only turned away once (keep in mind this was during a time where there was rampant racism towards Asian people).  After the travels were completed LaPierre mailed out a survey and of the 128 that responded 92% identified that they would refuse service to individuals of the Chinese race, which was contrary to what LaPierre had experienced.

Cognitive Consistency Theories

Heavily influenced by Gestalt psychology, and based on the assumption that people seek to understand their environment in simple and organized ways.  They became very popular in the 1950’s but slowed down by 1970.  We will look at 4 major theories.

Balance Theory

Developed by Heider in 1946, and was one of the earliest of the cognitive consistency theories. It’s easiest to explain with an example, and is based on the individuals relationship with 2 other elements to form a triad (typically one of these elements is another person).  A balanced state is when all the elements are positively related.  For example Karla and Heather are friends and they both like scary movies, both liking scary movies equals 2 positive elements and the friendship is another positive element.  Another way to achieve a balanced state is if there is one positive and two negative elements.  For example, Karla and Heather are friends and they both dislike scary movies, the friendship is a positive element and both disliking scary movies is 2 negative elements.  Imbalance occurs if there are 2 positive elements and one negative.  For example, Karla and Heather are friends and Karla likes scary movies but Heather does not, then the friendship and Karla liking scary movies are 2 positive elements and Heather not liking scary movies is the negative element.  And finally imbalance also occurs if there are 3 negative elements, Karla and Heather both do not like scary movies and they don’t like each other, the 3 negative elements are not liking each other and not liking scary movies.

Balance can be restored if there is an imbalanced triad by: a)one changing their attitude (eventually Heather comes to like scary movies). b) one distorts reality in order to perceive balance (Karla thinks Heather likes scary movies even though she does not). c) One can separate the single occasion from affecting the attitude of element as a balance theorywhole (Karla decides that even though Heather doesn’t like scary movies, they can still be friends because of other things they have in common).  A couple shortcomings of this theory is that it can only categorize a relationship between 3 elements, and it doesn’t assess the strength of an attitude.

Strain Toward Symmetry Model

Newcomb built upon Balance Theory in 1961 by the belief that there are actually 3 types of balanced relationship, and a non balanced structure really only occurs if there are 3 negative elements.  This is because not all the elements are created equal, and the strength of the relationship plays a role.  So in our example, even if Heather doesn’t like scary movies there is still balance because the friendship between her and Karla is so strong.  But if Karla and Heather don’t really like each other that much, then there is imbalance.

Congruency Theory

Osgood also expanded on balance theory in 1955 by adding in predictions.  Basically you can predict the attitude change that will occur depending on which element has the stronger relationship.  If Karla likes Heather more than scary movies, her fondness of scary movies will probably decrease.  But if Karla likes scary movies more than Heather, her fondness of Heather will likely decrease.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

Developed by Festinger in 1957 and one of the most popular consistency theory, which is base on Gestalt theory assumptions that people seek simplicity and uncomplicated.  It proposes that when individuals experience cognitive inconsistencies, they tend to change their attitudes to decrease aversive feelings of tension.  A classic study by Festinger & Carlsmith in 1959 had a paid a test subject either $1 or $20 (2 test group) to perform a very dull task for an hour, and when they left they were asked to tell the next subject (actually a controlled individual in the experimental design) that the task was interesting.  After they told the lie they were asked to rate how interesting the experiment was.  Those paid $1 rated the experience more favorable than those paid $20.  Festinger believes that lying was contrary to an individuals values and when paid $20 the individual could justify lying, but when paid $1 the individual could not justify the lie which caused cognitive dissonance and therefore the subject changed their attitude slightly.  There are 4 circumstances where attitude changes:

  • Postdecisional Dissonance: When faced with 2 good choices, the individual after choosing feels remorse for the choice they did choose and emphasize the positive of the other choice.
  • Effort Justification: After significant time and effort trying to achieve something that ends up not being worthwhile, the individual will still try to justify all the positive aspects of the time and work they did.
  • Insufficient Justification: If an undesirable behavior has been displayed for a small reward, the individual will emphasize the positive aspects of that behavior.
  • Insufficient Deterrence: If a desirable behavior is not displayed because of a small obstacle, the individual will emphasize the negative aspects of that behavior.

Self-Perception Theory

rewardThis is the major competing theory to Cognitive Consistency Theory, and was developed by Daryl Bem.  Rather than behavior being the result of attitudes, this theory implies that attitudes are actually the result of behavior.  An individual observes their own behavior and then after this self-perception forms the belief that since they completed the behavior they must believe in the behavior.  Bem reviewed the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment and came up with a different conclusion for the results.  Those that were paid $20 simply interpreted their behavior to be for profit, but those that were paid $1 interpreted their behavior differently.  Those individuals could not believe that they would be lying for such a low profit, therefore must have actually enjoyed the task.

Self-Perception Theory also explores the opposite side of the Festinger and Carlsmith experiment to see what happens if a desirable behavior is now given a large reward.  The overjustification hypothesis states that if a desirable behavior is given a reward, the individual’s previously intrinsic motivation for performing the activity will decrease.  For example a young man volunteers at a children’s camp and is eventually offered a paid position, but once making money he finds he doesn’t enjoy spending time with the kids as much as he previously did.

There is still not a firm consensus on if attitudes change is a result of cognitive dissonance theories or self-perception theory, which do you agree more with?  Do we change our attitude in order to decrease arousal like in Cognitive Dissonance Theory?  Or do we form and change our attitude as a result of our perception of our own behavior like self-perception theory.

You may find the information on this site is not enough to help you feel confident about your ability to pass the exam, That is OK and only you can be the judge of what you need. If this information seems overwhelming to you it does NOT mean you will fail the exam, but you may require a little more in depth material than is offered here. That is why there is a Product Reviews page which will give you a variety of additional options, as well as practice exam questions which I highly recommend as explained on the Study Tips page.

6 thoughts on “Social Psychology of Attitudes: Part 1 of 2

  1. Hey there,

    This is such a detailed post on the psychology behind attitudes, I’ve always thought the way you react to things around you will vastly determine your life satisfaction. I also love that last question, very thought-provoking.

    Here’s my thoughts; personally, I found it much easier to change my perception first before tackling onto outer attitude. Some folks seemed to find changing your posture or smiling to work as well, but I found that internal changes are much more lasting while trying to fix yourself on the outside is usually short-term and you’ll have to go back to deal with your conscious and subconscious problems one way or another anyways.

    Thanks for sharing and I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic as well!



    1. Hi Ahn, thanks so much for your contribution. It seems you have a good grasp on what drives you, and maybe lean a little more towards cognitive dissonance theory. This is my preference as well as far as explaining my attitude. I think we naturally seek to solve internal distress and that is what drives my attitudes at least, I’m naturally fairly laid back and prefer to be in a state of being laid back. I like that this theory helps us to deal with our subconscious as you suggest, as it helps us increase awareness which is always a good step in psychodynamic interventions.

  2. This is pretty interesting information. As I read thru each theory, I could find myself understanding and believing each one, as if each as a little part of the whole. For instance with balance theory, I can see this with myself. I find that if I like someone more than someone else, the person I like least will just sort of leave my mind, and I will put them on the back burner. Maybe not always the best thing to do, but just human nature I think.

    1. I think the “human nature” reality of this is what I find so interesting about the psychology attitudes. We often think our attitude is what makes us unique and individual, but then we see through study and investigation that actually even our unique attitudes are not actually all that unique. in fact they are so common across different people that they have come up with a theory to explain and predict how we interact and perceive our world an friendships. This can be really effective information in a counselling session when someone has a pattern of interpersonal difficulties to categorize and bring awareness to these interactions, and to normalize the distressing emotions that accompany these behaviors.

  3. Very interesting post. Psychology is one subject that fascinates me. I love reading about it. It’s amazing how much can change in our lives if we change our attitudes. Near the end, what exam are you referring to? I’m assuming it has something to do with obtaining a psychology degree?
    Anyway, you did an excellent job here. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Ian. It is amazing when we look at attitudes as a science and break down human tendencies. The exam is the EPPP, the Examination for the Professional Practice in Psychology. Just because you have a degree in psychology doesn’t mean you are necessarily a psychologist or licensed to practice psychology. There are additional processes to become “licensed” and passing the EPPP is one of those processes, basically a way of proving you know everything you are supposed to. The information on this website is what a psychologist is required to know, and its pretty extensive. So if you are ever seeking professional support this information is what typically separates a licensed psychologist from other counselors or life coaches.

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