What Exactly Is Attitude?

In 1874, three ladies applied for admission to the madras Medical College. The college officials were in favor of having lady doctors in the country, but were concerned about their training phase. The principal, an English gentleman, maintained that: the laws of purity and modesty necessarily demand that in their strictly professional instruction and practical training, the sexes should be separated, mixed classes being an offence upon common decency.

The principal was expressing an attitude—towards co-education. The study of attitudes has been of fundamental concern to the social psychologists, throughout the world.

  • Should abortion be illegal?
  • Should there ever be a death penalty for any crime?
  • Should the government implement reservations on caste basis?
  • Should an individual’s religion be a criterion for admission to religious places?
  • Are you a cricket fan, a music lover or a movie buff?

The answers to all these questions depend upon the psychological characteristics that define who we are—our attitudes. Very few examples of human behavior can be found, which are not influenced by one’s attitudes. The effect of attitude can extend from mundane things such as food preferences, to issues of war and peace, to the more subtle issues of religion and lifestyle.

Attitude is probably the most distinct and indispensable concept in contemporary social psychology Opens in new window. It is important for two basic reasons:

  1. The first reason being that, it strongly influences our social thought—the ways in which we think, as well as process, many kinds of social information. In fact, when attitude is described as an evaluation of the world around us, then, attitude becomes the aspect of all forms of thought.
  2. The second reason is that, the social psychologists have been interested in attitudes for decades, because it has been widely assumed that they strongly affect behavior.

If attitudes influence behavior, then knowing something about them can help us predict people’s behavior, in a wide range of context. Since, we also hold attitudes toward specific persons, for example, we like them or dislike them, and hence the knowledge of attitude, can play a crucial role in our relations with these persons.

Here, in this entry, we explore the concept of attitude. First, we look at and elaborate definitions of the term.

Nature of Attitudes

The word attitude often appears in our everyday conversations.

Definitions, models and theories of attitudes abound. Although attitudes have been the single most researched topic in social psychology, the precise meaning of the term is more usually tacit. It is useful, therefore, to be clear now about what social psychologists typically mean by ‘attitude’:

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Attitudes are evaluations. They convey how we orient ourselves to some object, or attitude referent. All attitudes have a referent, an ‘object of thought’, a ‘stimulus object’.

Referents may be specific and tangible: Barack Obama, Brussels sprouts and Jameson’s whiskey may each be the object of an attitude. But so, too, may referents be esoteric, abstract and intangible: liberalism, equality and social psychology are the objects of attitudes as much as Obama, sprouts and Jameson’s.

By denoting the attitude-holder’s orientation to the referent, an attitude conveys that person’s evaluation of the referent. ‘Like/dislike’, ‘approach/avoid’ and ‘good/bad’ are the language of attitudes. When the object of the attitude is important to the person, the evaluation of the object produces an effective, or emotional, reaction in that person.

The definition that has been most attractive to the social psychologists, perhaps because of both its breadth and its ancient philosophical roots, conceives attitude as having three components—affective, cognitive, and behavioral (see Figure I, shown below).

This definition can be broken into three parts with important implications:

attitude components
Figure I: Components of Attitude

An attitude is really a summary of an attitude structure, which consists of these interconnected components. For example, a group of people in your neighborhood start a tree plantation campaign as a part of a ‘green environment’ movement.

Based on sufficient information about the environment, your view towards a ‘green environment’ is positive (cognitive or ‘C’ component, along with the evaluative aspect). You feel very happy when you see greenery. You feel sad and angry, when you see trees being cut down. These aspects reflect the affective (emotional), or ‘A’ component of the same attitude.

Now suppose you also actively participate in the tree plantation campaign. This shows the behavioral or ‘B’ component of your attitudes towards a ‘green environment’.

In general, we expect all the three components to be consistent with each other, that is, in the same direction. However, such consistency may not necessarily be found in all situations.

For example, it is quite possible that the cognitive aspect of your ‘green environment’ attitude is very strong, but the affective and behavioral may be relatively weaker. Or, the cognitive and affective components may be strong and positive, but the behavioral component may be neutral.

Therefore, predicting one component on the basis of the other two, may not always give us the correct picture about an attitude.

Characteristics of Attitudes

Several features are important in the above definitions of attitude.

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Functions of Attitudes

One of the important reasons why attitudes are formed and people hold on to their attitudes, is that, attitudes serve a specific set of functions. That is, attitudes are functional in nature. The functional approach to the attitudes asserts that attitudes are formed to satisfy the current needs. The basic functions that attitudes serve are addressed under the following headings.

Ego-defensive Function

This is where attitudes proceed from within the person, and the objects and situation to which they are attached, are merely convenient outlets for their expression.

We thus hold positive attitudes toward the objects that project us, from the unpleasant truths about ourselves, or towards our group, by allowing the projections of these feelings towards other persons or groups. An example is, an individual, who projects hostility to a minority in order to protect himself from feelings of inferiority.

Value-expressive Function

People have a need to express attitudes that reflect their own central values, or components of their idea of themselves.

For instance, it can give you great satisfaction to express your opposition to the laws imposing capital punishment, when you believe deeply in the value of human rights. This kind of attitude expression is directed mainly towards confirming the validity of one’s own self-concept Opens in new window, and less at impressing others. The latter aim, nevertheless, is another important function of attitudinal expression.

Instrumental, Adjustive or Utilitarian Function

Attitudes help people to reach desired goals, such as rewards, or to avoid undesirable goals, such as punishment. It is therefore, assumed that people express favorable attitudes towards the attitude objects that satisfy their personal needs, and negative attitudes towards the objects that are associated with frustration or negative reinforcement.

Furthermore, what is rewarding or punishing, is the expression of attitudes itself. For example, most of the people—not only the social psychologists—know that similarity often breeds liking. Therefore, it may be functional or instrumental to adopt similar attitudes, to those of someone whom it is desirable to win as a friend.

Knowledge of Economy Functions

Attitudes also serve the function of organizing or structuring an otherwise chaotic world. If we try to deal specifically with every detail of our (social) environment, we would be overwhelmed by the complete information overload.

Attitudes allow us to categorize the incoming information, such as new experiences along the established evaluative dimensions, and can help us to simplify and understand the complex world in which we live. For example, if you like the work of a certain student very much, you will expect him or her to pass their examinations quite successfully. Your attitude, then, tells you what to expect in this situation.

The recent researchers regard this knowledge, economy or schematic function of attitudes, as being of central importance. Guiding information processing, is seen as a central function of, if not all attitudes, then at least all the attitudes that are highly accessible and well-established. Although no new functions have been added, the existing concepts have been clarified.

It has been emphasized that an attitude can serve either one (central) function or multiple functions: for example, a positive attitude towards a certain political program, such as energy conservation, can serve utilitarian functions (this attitude is approved of by important others); it can be an expression of central values (belief in responsibility for future generations); and it can guide or structure information processing (it may indicate the usefulness of paying close attention, to the information provided by a certain political candidate).

How you acquire an attitude, plays a very important role in how you use it. The social psychologists are of the opinion that, attitudes can be formed by mere exposure, learning social comparison and heredity. See the next entry, as we address the methods of attitude formation Opens in new window.