How are Attitudes formed and how it changes and shapes behaviours?


"ABILITY is what you're capable of doing. MOTIVATION determines what you do. ATTITUDE determines how well you do it."

Lou Holtz

"Don't be so quick to judge me. You only see what I choose to show you."

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

Winston Churchill

Should prayers be the first thing in schools? Should violence on television be regulated

What's opinion on the culture of working after office hours?

Have you had a heated discussion with someone on the above questions? Chances are that you probably have fairly strong opinions on these and similar questions. You've developed attitudes about such issues, and these attitudes influence your beliefs as well as your behaviour.

What exactly is an Attitude? How does it develop?

How Do Psychologists Define Attitudes?

Psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. This can include evaluations of people, issues, objects or events. Such evaluations are often positive or negative, but they can also be uncertain at times. For example, you might have mixed feelings about a particular person or issue.

Researchers also suggest that there are several different components that make up attitudes. The components of attitudes are sometimes referred to as CAB or the ABC's of attitude.

Cognitive Component: Your thoughts and beliefs about the subject.

Affective Component:How the object, person, issue or event makes you feel.

Behavioural Component:How the attitude influences your behaviour.

Attitudes can also be explicit and implicit. Explicit attitudes are those that we are consciously aware of and that clearly influence our behaviours and beliefs. Implicit attitudes are unconscious, but still have an effect on our beliefs and behaviours.

How Do Attitudes Form?

There are a number of factors that can influence how and why attitudes form.

1. Direct Personal Experience:

A person's direct experience with the attitude object determines his attitude towards it. The personal experience of an individual, whether it is favourable or unfavourable, will affect his attitude deeply. These attitudes which are based on personal experience are difficult to change.

For example, an individual joins a new job, which is recommended to him by his friend. But when he joins the job, he finds his work repetitive, supervisors too tough and co-workers not so co-operative, he would develop a negative attitude towards his job, because the quality of his direct experience with the job is negative.

2. Association:

Sometimes an individual comes across a new attitude object which may be associated with an old attitude object. In such a case, the attitude towards the old attitude object may be transferred towards the new attitude object.

For example, if a new worker remains most of the time in the company of a worker, who is in the good books of the supervisor, and towards whom the supervisor has a positive attitude, the supervisor is likely to develop a favourable attitude towards the new worker also. Hence the positive attitude for the old worker has been transferred towards the new worker because of the association between the old and the new worker.

3. Family and Peer Groups:

Attitudes like values are acquired from parents, teachers and peer group members. In our early years, we begin modelling our attitudes after those we admire, respect or may be even fear. We observe the way our family and friends behave and we shape our attitudes and behaviour to align with theirs. We do so even without being told to do so and even without having direct experience. Similarly, attitudes are acquired from peer groups in colleges and organisations.

For example, if the right thing is to visit "Pop Tates", or the "Dominos", you are likely to hold that attitude. If your parents support one political party, without being told to do so, you automatically start favouring that party.

4. Neighbourhood:

The neighbourhood in which we live has certain cultural facilities, religious groupings and ethnic differences. Further, it has people, who are neighbours. These people may be Northerners, Southerners etc. The people belonging to different cultures have different attitudes and behaviours. Some of these we accept and some of these we deny and possibly rebel. The conformity or rebellion in some respects is the evidence of the attitudes we hold.

5. Economic Status and Occupations:

The economic status and occupational position of the individual also affect his attitude formation. Our socio-economic background influences our present and future attitudes. Research findings have shown that unemployment disturbs former religious and economic values. Children of professional class tend to be conservatives. Respect for the laws of the country is associated with increased years of higher education.

6. Mass Communications:

Attitudes are generally less stable as compared to values. Advertising messages for example, attempt to alter the attitude of the people toward a certain product or service. For example, if the people at Hyundai Santro can get you to hold a favourable feeling toward their cars, that attitude may lead to a desirable behaviour (for them)-your purchase of a Santro car.

Attitudes can be learned in a variety of ways. Consider how advertisers use classical conditioning to influence your attitude toward a particular product. In a television commercial, you see young, beautiful people having fun on a tropical beach while enjoying a sports drink

Operant conditioning can also be used to influence how attitudes develop. Imagine a young man who has just started smoking. Whenever he lights up a cigarette, people complain, chastise him and ask him to leave their vicinity. This negative feedback from those around him eventually causes him to develop an unfavourable opinion of smoking and he decides to give up the habit.

Finally, people also learn attitudes by observing the people around them. When someone you admire greatly espouses a particular attitude, you are more likely to develop the same beliefs. For example, children spend a great deal of time observing the attitudes of their parents and usually begin to demonstrate similar outlooks.

Attitudes can Change to Match Behaviours

In some cases, people may actually alter their attitudes in order to better align them with their behaviour. Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon in which a person experiences psychological distress due to conflicting thoughts or beliefs. In order to reduce this tension, people may change their attitudes to reflect their other beliefs or actual behaviours.

An Example of Changing an Attitude Due to Cognitive Dissonance

Imagine the following situation:You've always placed a high value on financial security, but you start dating someone who is very financially unstable. In order to reduce the tension caused by the conflicting beliefs and behaviour, you have two options.

You can end the relationship and seek out a partner who is more financially secure, or you can de-emphasize fiscal stability importance. In order to minimize the dissonance between your conflicting attitude and behaviour, you either have to change the attitude or change your actions.

Attitude Change

While attitudes can have a powerful effect on behaviour, they are not set in stone. The same influences that lead to attitude formation can also create attitude change.

Learning Theory of Attitude Change:Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning can be used to bring about attitude change. Classical conditioning can be used to create positive emotional reactions to an object, person, or event by associating positive feelings with the target object. Operant conditioning can be used to strengthen desirable attitudes and weaken undesirable ones. People can also change their attitudes after observing the behaviour of others.

Elaboration Likelihood Theory of Attitude Change: This theory of persuasion suggests that people can alter their attitudes in two ways. First, they can be motivated to listen and think about the message, thus leading to an attitude shift. Or, they might be influenced by characteristics of the speaker, leading to a temporary or surface shift in attitude. Messages that are thought-provoking and that appeal to logic are more likely to lead to permanent changes in attitudes.

Dissonance Theory of Attitude Change: As mentioned earlier, people can also change their attitudes when they have conflicting beliefs about a topic. In order to reduce the tension created by these incompatible beliefs, people often shift their attitudes.


American Psychological Association Attitudes and Behavior Change.