Social Psychology -
Attitudes: Development and Use

By: Guari Sarda-Joshi, PhD Candidate

When we come across a new experience, we evaluate it to form long-term reactions that then govern the way we perceive that object again. Attitudes are these lasting evaluations that people make of the world around them [1]. An attitude includes both cognitive and emotional information, and describes the way an individual makes associations between the object and opinions about that object. Attitudes can exist for a vast number of things, including people, events and behaviors; and are formed rapidly [2]. They are also relatively persistent; and often determine the manner in which an individual responds to events at a later point [3].

Forming Attitudes

Most attitudes are formed through Social learning, where people observe attitudes in others, or form associations between emotional responses and certain stimuli [4]. Typically, different forms of Conditioning seem to play a role in the process of attitude formation [1, 3].

  • Classical Conditioning – People sometimes makes associations between positive or negative experiences and certain stimuli; and thus learns to associate the stimulus with the emotion [2]. For example, if a child receives a lot of attention (and thus feels happy) each time a particular guest visits, but receives none (and thus feels sad) whenever another guest visits; the child is likely to develop a positive attitude towards the first guest and a negative attitude towards the second.
  • Instrumental Conditioning – when a particular view or attitude is reinforced with rewards of praise and encouragement, the attitude strengthens; while an attitude that is punished with negative experiences is less likely to persist [2].
  • Subliminal Conditioning – at times, the cues to attitude development are so subtle, that people are not aware of them. When such cues reinforce attitudes, subliminal conditioning is said to be at work [1].

Modeling is another important means of attitude formation [1]. People, particularly children, try to emulate the persons they admire; and this includes accepting the attitudes held by these people as one’s own. Even as adults, modeling affects attitude formation [2]. For example, when a new subject is introduced in a module, the attitude held by a professor one looks up to can influence the extent to which students like or dislike the new subject.

Learning is not the only means of attitude formation. Social Comparison theory suggests that an individual may form an attitude or reinforce one by comparing one’s attitudes with those of another [1]. When one’s attitudes corroborate with those held by significant others, they are accepted as being accurate responses to the attitude-object, and thus, are reinforced. On the other hand, if a discrepancy is observed, people may choose to change their attitude to attain similarity [3]. Also, when someone trusted shares an attitude, an individual may form a fresh attitude based simply on this information (for example, when a friend tells us about this new product, we may choose to believe her, and then pass on the recommendation if we are asked for it). Research studies have shown that attitudes seem to be heritable [1]. This may be due to the heritability of temperament and other dispositional characteristics, and due to the ever-present opportunity to learn the attitudes of family members.

Influence on behavior

One would intuitively assume that attitudes play an important role in choosing how to behave in a given situation [4]. We constantly come across examples of how attitudes can shape behaviors. But this is not always the case; and most people will admit to having acted contrary to their own attitudes at some point or the other [3, 4]. Thus, it is important to understand the different factors that mediate the relationship between attitudes and behaviors. Some of these factors are associated with the attitudes themselves [4].

  • The origin of the attitude plays an important role in predicting if the attitude will lead to action [1]. Typically, attitudes formed out of personal experience are more likely to govern behavior as compared to those formed out of hearsay. Thus, an individual is more likely to buy goods from a particular bakery if their personal experience with the products has been good, as compared to when they have simply heard of the bakery from someone else.
  • The Specificity of the attitude, or the extent to which it is associated with a particular person, event or object can predict behavior, so that the more specific the attitude, the more likely it is to resolve into behavior [1].
  • Strength of an attitude is another important factor. A stronger attitude is more likely to affect behavior. This is possibly because a stronger attitude contains more information about the attitude-object; it is deemed more important and affects the individual directly by being associated with core values and principles [3].
  • A strong attitude is also one that has higher Accessibility. Accessibility is the likelihood that a particular attitude can be retrieved and brought into conscious thought. An attitude that is more accessible is more likely to be considered when deciding on a behavioral response to a situation [1, 3].

Besides these, a number of Situational Factors also affect the extent to which attitudes govern behavior [1]. Social Norms that exist in a situation require particular responses to situations, and also dictate punishment for behaviors that do not fit these norms [4]. This sets constraints on the possible range of behaviors, and people often choose to conform to norms rather than exhibit attitude – congruent behaviors [3]. But when an individual is in a rush, they act more instinctively; and thus, may ignore cues to the prevalent norms. Thus, they are more likely to exhibit attitude – congruent behaviors. Also, people consciously choose situations that are congruent to their attitudes, and so provide themselves with opportunities to exhibit congruent behaviors [3].

The individual’s personality also plays an important role [4]. People who are high on self-monitoring are more conscious of the situational demands and constraints, and so are more likely to display expected behaviors regardless of their attitudes. On the other hand, people low on self-monitoring are more likely to exhibit attitude – congruent behaviors as they are less concerned with how they are perceived by others [1].

Research has yielded evidence for a theoretical approach to understanding the relationship between attitudes and behaviors. The Theory of Planned Behavior suggests that an individual’s intentions help predict the nature of their actions [1]. Thus, the final behavior exhibited may be predicted by the interaction of the person’s attitudes, their understanding of the subjective norms of the situation, and the extent to which they perceive they can control the situation. The Attitude-to-Behavior Process Model suggests that an individual will when the response has to be given rapidly, people use their attitude and their previous knowledge of what behavioral responses are possible to decide on a behavior that is most likely to be effective and is as close to our attitudes as possible [1, 3].


[1] Baron, Robert A. “Attitudes”. In Social Psychology, (12th ed.). Mumbai: Pearson Education, 2009. Pp. 146 – 183.

[2] Baumeister, Roy F. & Bushman Brad J. “Attitudes, Beliefs and Consistency”. In Social Psychology & Human Nature (2nd ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 197 – 223.

[3] DeLamater, John D. & Myers, Daniel J. “Attitudes”. In Social Psychology (7th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011. Pp. 144 – 165.

[4] Kassin, Saul M., Fein, Steven & Markus, Hazel Rose. “Attitudes” In Social psychology (8th ed.). Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2010. Pp. 203 – 250.