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Social psychology Essay

The term ‘attitude’ has been referred to as social psychology’s most indispensable concept, and the study of attitudes has dominated social psychology since the 1920s (Allport, 1935, p. 798; McGuire, 1986). In the early 19th century, attitude research was considered to be of such fundamental importance to social psychology that both were thought to be one and the same, and each to be the definition of the other (Watson, 1930; Hogg & Vaughan, 2011, p. 148).

While social psychologists’ interest in attitude research may be seen to have somewhat waned over recent decades, attitudes are again the focus of much attention for social psychologists, with a recent review going so far as to define attitudes as “the crown jewel of social psychology” (Crano & Prislin, 2006, p. 360). An attitude has been defined as “a positive or negative evaluation towards a stimulus, such as a person, object, action, or concept” (Tesser and Schaffer, 1990), and much of our social thinking has been said to involve the attitudes that we hold towards external stimuli (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011, p. 48).

Attitudes enable us to define our identity, react to events, and influence how we judge other people and make sense of our relationships with other people in everyday life. Common sense allows us to see the effect that attitudes have on society; people’s views on politics, racial issues, education and even on the latest up and coming pop star, influence and guide the development of affairs all over the world.

As attitudes have sometimes also been defined as behaviour patterns (LaPiere, 1934), common sense might also lead us to believe that people’s attitudes tend to dictate their behaviour, or that there might be a strong link between the attitudes a person holds and the behaviour they indulge in, but numerous scientific studies and surveys have found the link between attitudes and behaviour to be less clear-cut, and somewhat controversial (Ajzen, 2001; Hogg & Vaughan, 2011, p. 148).

A classical study of ethnic attitudes by the sociologist Richard LaPiere (1934) provided an early challenge to the validity of the concept of attitude as a predictor for behaviour. LaPiere spent two years traveling the United States by car with a couple of Chinese ethnicity. During that time they visited 251 hotels and restaurants and were turned away only once.

At the conclusion of their travels LaPiere posted a survey to all of the businesses they visited with the question, “Will you accept members of the Chinese race in your establishment? Of the 128 establishments that responded, only 1% stated that they would accept them, a direct contradiction to the way they had actually behaved. While the validity of LaPiere’s study may be called into question due to its unscientific design, it is by no means the only piece of research which questions the common assumption that our attitudes determine our actions. Several other studies have used more sophisticated methods to find a similar discrepancy between people’s attitudes and their actual behaviour.

One study found that adolescent’s attitudes towards smoking were relatively unimportant predictors of future intention to smoke, when compared to the influence of subject norms, or current or previous experiences of smoking (Eiser, et al, 1989). Similarly, Christina Salmivalli and Marinus Voeten (2010) examined the connections between attitudes and student behaviour in bullying situations and found that while attitudes did predict behaviour at the student level in most cases, these effects were moderate after controlling for gender.

The attitude concept reached an all-time low during the 1970s, with the publication of Allan Wicker’s literature review, which indicated that only 9percent of the variability in a behaviour is accounted for by an attitude and concluded that “taken as a whole, these studies suggest that it is considerably more likely that attitudes will be unrelated or only slightly related to overt behaviours than that attitudes will be closely related to actions” (Wicker, 1969; Hogg & Vaughan, 2011, p. 55). This review caused a crisis in attitude research as many doubted the validity of a century of attitude research. However, it has since been suggested that Wicker may have been somewhat over-zealous in his rejection of the validity of the attitude concept, due to the fact that he actually found “noticeable variations amongst studies in the size of attitude-behaviour relations reported, including some quite strong relations” (Fraser, et al. , 2001, p241).

Moreover, a number of the low or zero relations were probably more likely a consequence of poorly designed studies than due to the absence of attitude-behaviour connections. Research on this topic has been on-going, and continues to be conflicting, although it is now generally accepted that certain conditions can help explain why attitude-behaviour consistency tends to vary from case to case. When better controlled research has taken these conditions (such as behavioural intentions, habit, the ccessibility/availability of the attitude, the stability, relative endurance, and personal relevance of the attitude, social norms, and environmental and situational factors) into account, findings have indicated that attitudes do predict behaviour (White et al. , 2002; Doll & Ajzen, 1992; Smith & Stasson, 2000). Numerous frameworks and conceptual models have been developed to incorporate some of these conditions and assist researchers in examining the link between attitudes and behaviours, with varying success.

Two of the most influential frameworks to have been developed are the theory of reasoned action and the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Ajzen, 1988). Ajzen and Fishbein’s theory of reasoned action (TRA) is a conceptual model that links attitudes to intentions to actions. The theory of reasoned action is composed of three broad constructs: behavioural intention (BI), attitude (A), and subjective norms (SN). The theory proposes that a person’s behavioural intention depends on the person’s attitude about the behaviour, and the subjective norms that influence that person (BI = A + SN).

In simple terms, the theory of reasoned action proposes that a person’s attitude and the subjective norms they’re influenced by combine to form their behavioural intention, i. e. an action will usually be performed if both the person’s attitude and the social norm are favourable. Fishbein used this theory to predict people’s voting preferences and found that the correlation between scores and the feelings the participants expressed concerning the candidates were high, lending some support to the validity of the model (Fishbein & Feldman, 1963; Fishbein & Coombs, 1974).

His later research also found a strong correlation between people’s voting intentions and how they actually voted, in both elections and referendums (Fishbein, Ajzen, & Hinkle, 1980; Fishbein et al. , 1980). While a major feature of the theory of reasoned action is the proposal that the best way to predict a behaviour is to ask whether the person intends to do it, it is also one of the major limitations of the model. TRA emphasises the belief that the behaviour is under the individual’s conscious control, but unfortunately this is not always the case (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011, p. 55). For example, a smoker may develop a negative attitude to smoking and form a behavioural intention to quit, which would more than likely be supported by social norms, yet fail to give up smoking. Because some actions are less under people’s control than others, Ajzen extended the theory of reasoned action to include the role of perceived behavioural control, and named it the theory of planned behaviour (TPB) (1989).

The theory of planned behaviour proposes that an individual’s behaviour can be more accurately predicted from an attitude when the individual believes they have control over that behaviour. For example, one recent study which described the theory of planned behaviour as “the most widely adopted social-cognitive framework on health related behaviours” found that safe driving behaviour can be predicted quite accurately by using constructs from the theory of planned behaviour, and deemed the theory of planned behaviour as “a valid framework for safety related behaviour” (Victoir et al. 2005). The theory of planned behaviour has been tested on many behaviours including pedestrians’ intentions to violate traffic rules (Moyano Diaz, 2002), drivers’ intentions to drink and drive ( Aberg, 1993; Marcil et al. , 2001), use of a child restraint device while driving (Godin & Kok, 1996) and drivers’ self-reported compliance with speed limits (Elliott, Armitage, & Baughan, 2003).

Although TPB has been referred to as “probably the dominant account of the relationship between cognitions and behaviour in social psychology” (Cooke & Sheeran, 2004, p. 159), and it can be applied to predict a variety of behaviours, both TPB and TRA have a number of limitations and criticisms. Both theories neglect to consider emotional variables such as fear, threat, mood, and other variables such as people’s moral values and individual habits (Schwartz, 1977; Manstead, 2000; Norman & Conner, 2006; Trafimow, 2000).

Also, most research findings are correlational, and evidence based on experimental studies is less convincing (Sniehotta, 2009). Despite these criticisms and limitations, the theory of planned behaviour is still actively researched and extended, and is still probably the dominant account of the relationship between cognitions and behaviour in social psychology (Ajzen & Fishbein, 2005). Reviewing the literature available on this topic brings us to no definite conclusion on the question of attitudes predicting behaviour.

It appears that certain conditions must be met in order for an attitude to have any predictive value concerning behaviour, yet the only consistent aspect of this predictive quality seems to be that it is decidedly variable and inconsistent. It is clear that this relationship is far from simple, even if we do accept the proposition that attitudes can guide behaviour (under certain conditions), can it also be said that behaviours may guide our attitudes? One classic experiment concluded that the behaviour we engage in can influence our attitudes (Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959).

American participants were asked to repeatedly perform ‘boring’ tasks (emptying and filling trays, turning pegs) for an hour, and were then offered $1, $20, or no money at all (control) to lie to the next participant by saying that the task was interesting. Participants were then asked to fill out a ‘routine form’ rating the enjoyability of the tasks in the experiment. Common sense might predict that participants who were paid $20 would rate the tasks more highly enjoyable than other participants, but again, as with attitudes, common sense makes an inaccurate prediction.

Surprisingly, those offered $1 to lie rated the task most positively, while the participants who received $20 rated it negatively, and the control group who received no payment rated the tasks most negatively. Leon Festinger predicted and explained this outcome with the development of his theory of cognitive dissonance (1957). Festinger first coined this term in 1956 when he published “When Prophecy Fails”, a classic book which chronicled the members of a UFO cult as reality refuted their ardent belief in an imminent apocalypse (Festinger et al. 1956). The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people change their attitudes to bring them in line with how they have already behaved. Festinger proposes that people strive for consistency in their cognitions, and that when two or more cognitions are conflicting (such as ‘I am a truthful person’ and ‘I just told another student a lie about the experiment’), the individual experiences an uncomfortable state of tension and heightened physiological arousal (cognitive dissonance) and becomes motivated to reduce this dissonance.

The theory predicts that to reduce dissonance and restore a state of cognitive consistency, people will change one of their cognitions or add new cognitions (Passer et al. , 2009, p. 611). Festinger proposes that this is why participants who were offered $1 to lie rated the task most positively. They reduced their cognitive dissonance about lying by convincing themselves that they actually did enjoy the task, thereby changing their attitudes to keep them consistent with their behaviour.

Behaviour that is inconsistent with one’s attitudes is called counter-attitudinal behaviour, and it causes dissonance only if we perceive that our actions were freely chosen rather than forced (Passer et al. , 2009, p. 611). Therefore the participants that were paid $20 to lie had an external justification, so they experienced little or no cognitive dissonance and did not have a need to convince themselves that the task was interesting after all.

However, this theory is based on the premise that our behaviour creates an uncomfortable state of tension, and while this appears to occur in certain situations (Harmon-Jones, et al. , 1996), what happens in situations when counter-attitudinal behaviour occurs without creating significant arousal? Daryl Bem answered this question when he put forward his self-perception theory, which proposes that we infer what other peoples’ and our own attitudes must be by observing how we and others behave (Bem, 1972).

For instance, if we were to observe an individual campaigning for a political party, we would more than likely assume that the individual holds a positive attitude towards that party. One study applied the theory to a real-life situation and found that after adolescents repeatedly participated in volunteering services, their attitudes were determined to have shifted to be more caring and considerate towards others (Brunelle, 2001). Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance and Bem’s theory of self-perception both predict that counter-attitudinal behaviour results in attitude change.

Cognitive dissonance theory best explains attitude change in situations where our behaviour directly contradicts our attitudes and threatens our self-image (Stone & Cooper, 2003), while self-perception best explains attitude change when our counter-attitudinal behaviour does not threaten our self-worth and our attitudes were weak to begin with (Bem, 1972). Both theories appear to be correct in different circumstances and more significantly, both agree that our behaviours can influence our attitudes (Tesser & Schaffer, 1990; Passer et al. , 2009, p. 612).


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