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Chapter: Psychology: Social Psychology

Social Cognition: Attitudes

Social Cognition: Attitudes
As we have now seen, our relations with the people who surround us depend to a large extent on our beliefs.



As we have now seen, our relations with the people who surround us depend to a large extent on our beliefs. These beliefs include our assumptions about how others’ behavior should be interpreted, and our beliefs about how the various attributes in someone’s personality fit together, and also our beliefs about Jews, or African Americans, or the Irish. Moreover, these beliefs are not just “cold” cognitions—dispassionate assertions about the world. Instead, they are often “hot,” in the sense that they have motivational components and can trigger (and be triggered by) various emotions. Psychologists refer to these beliefs as attitudes.


People have attitudes about topics as diverse as the death penalty, abortion, bilingual education, the importance of environmental pro-tection, and need for civility in everyday social interaction (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). The belief that defines each attitude is almost inevitably associated with emotional feelings and a predisposition to act in accordance with the belief and feelings. Thus, people who dif-fer in their attitudes on abortion are certain to have different beliefs about the moral status of this procedure, but also will have different feelings about the family planning clinic they pass every day, and dif-ferent levels of commitment to showing up at a rally protesting their state’s abortion laws (Figure 13.6).



How do attitudes arise? Some of our attitudes are based on our consideration of the facts. We carefully weigh the pros and cons of an argument and make up our minds about whether we should endorse the argument’s conclusion or not. In many other cases, however, the sources of our attitudes are not quite so rational.


Sometimes we acquire our attitudes through one of the forms of learning. In some cases, the learning is akin to classical conditioning. For exam-ple, we might repeatedly see a brand of cigarettes paired with an appealing person or a cool cartoon character and wind up associating the two, leaving us with a positive atti-tude toward that brand of cigarettes (Figure 13.7; Cacioppo, Marshall-Goodell, Tassinary, & Petty, 1992). In other cases, attitudes can be formed via a process akin to operant conditioning, when, for example, parents reward behavior they would like toencourage, such as hard work at school and good table manners. The end result of this

training, in many cases, is a favorable attitude toward certain work habits and certain forms of etiquette. In still other cases, attitudes emerge from a sort of observationallearning. We see a respected peer endorse a particular attitude, or we observe someonebenefit from an attitude. In either case, we may then to endorse the attitude ourselves.





What happens once we form an attitude? In many cases, we are bombarded by messages exhorting us to change the attitude; sometimes these messages are effective and some-times not. Sometimes a TV commercial persuades us to switch our brand of toothpaste, but other times we remain loyal to our usual brand. Sometimes a politician persuades us to change our vote, but other times we hold our ground. Examples like these lead us to ask, When do attitudes change, and when do they stay the same?


To answer this question, we need to make a crucial distinction between two types of persuasion, each based on a different mode of processing information (Petty & Briñol, 2008). In the central route to persuasion, we carefully track the information we receive and elaborate its arguments with considerations of our own. We take this route if the issue matters to us and if we are not diverted by other concerns. In this case, we are keenly sensitive to the credibility and trustworthiness of the message’s source (Aronson, Turner, & Carlsmith, 1963; Hovland and Weiss, 1952; Walster, Aronson, & Abrahams, 1966). We also pay close attention to the content of the persuasive message, and so—sensibly—strong arguments will be more effective in changing our mind than weak ones.


The situation is different, though, if a message comes by way of the peripheral routeto persuasion. Here, we devote far fewer cognitive resources to processing incominginformation. We use this mode of information processing if we do not care much about an issue or if we are distracted. In such circumstances, content and arguments matter little. What counts instead is how and by whom the message is presented (Petty & Briñol, 2008; Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty, Wegener, & Fabrigar, 1997; for a closely related view, see Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989). Thus, we are likely to be persuaded by an attractive and charismatic spokesperson offering familiar catchphrases—even if she makes poor arguments (Figure 13.8).




Another path to attitude change is direct experience with the target of one’s attitude. This path has been particularly relevant in attempts to change prejudice toward the members of a particular group. In one early study of this issue, twenty-two 11- and 12-year-old boys took part in an outdoor program at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma (so named because Jesse James was said to have hidden out there). The boys were divided into two groups, each of which had its own activities, such as baseball and swimming. Within a few days the two groups—the Eagles and the Rattlers—had their own identities, norms, and leaders. The researchers then began to encourage intergroup rivalry through a competitive tournament in which valuable prizes were promised to the winning side. Relations between the two groups became increasingly hostile and even violent, with food fights, taunts, and fist fights (Sherif, 1966; Sherif, Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, 1961).


At this point, the researchers intervened and established goals for the boys that could be achieved only through cooperation between the two groups. In one instance, the researchers disrupted the camp’s water supply, and the boys had to pool their resources in order to fix it. In another instance, the camp truck stalled, and the boys had to team up to get it moving. By working together on goals they all cared about—but could achieve only through collective effort—the boys broke down the divisions that had previously dominated camp life and ended their stay on good terms.


More recent studies have confirmed the implication of this study—namely, that intergroup contact can have a powerful effect on attitudes about the other group, espe-cially if the contact is sustained over a period of time, involves active cooperation in pursuit of a shared goal, and provides equal status for all participants (see, for example, Aronson & Patnoe, 1997; Henry & Hardin, 2006; Pettigrew, 1998; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Tropp & Pettigrew, 2005). We can also take steps to increase outgroup empathy (T. A. Cohen & Insko, 2008) and to encourage the prejudiced person to develop an individualized perception of the other group and so lose the “they’re all alike” attitude (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1999).




Yet another route to attitude change is through our own behavior. At first, this may seem odd, because common sense argues that attitudes cause behavior, and not the other way around. But sometimes our own behaviors can cause us to change our views of the world.


In his classic work on this problem, Leon Festinger argued that people put a high value on being consistent, so that any perceived inconsistency among their beliefs, feelings, and behavior creates a very uncomfortable state of cognitive dissonance (Figure 13.9; J. Cooper, 2007; Festinger, 1957, 1962; Harmon-Jones & Mills, 1999). How do people escape this aversive state? In one study, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) asked participants to perform several extremely boring tasks, such as packing spools into a tray and then unpacking them, or turning one knob after another for a quarter turn. When they were finished, the participants were induced to tell the next partici-pant that the tasks were very interesting. Half the participants were paid reasonably well for this lie (they were given $20); the others were given just $1. Later, when asked

how much they enjoyed the tasks, the well-paid participants said that the tasks were boring and that they understood that they had lied to the other participants. In con-trast, the poorly paid participants claimed that the monotonous tasks were fairly inter-esting, and that what they told the other participants was the truth.


What produces this odd pattern? According to Festinger, the well-paid liars knew why they had mouthed sentiments they did not endorse: $20 was reason enough. The poorly paid liars, however, had experienced cognitive dissonance, thanks to the fact that they had misled other people without good reason for doing so. They had, in other words, received insufficient justification for their action. Taken at face value, this made them look like casual and unprincipled liars, a view that conflicted with how they wanted to see themselves. How could they reconcile their behavior with their self-concept? One solution was to reevaluate the boring tasks. If they could change their mind about the tasks and decide they were not so awful, then there was no lie and hence no dissonance. Judging from the data, this is apparently the solution that the partici-pants selected—bringing their attitudes into line with their behavior.


These findings help make sense of why many organizations have difficult or aversive entrance requirements (Figure 13.10). For example, many American college fraternities have hazing rituals that are unpleasant and in some cases humiliating or worse. Although these rituals may be objectionable, they do serve a function. They lead new fraternity members to place a higher value on their membership than they otherwise would. They know what they have suffered to achieve membership, and it would create dissonance for them to believe that they have suffered for no purpose. They can avoid this dissonance though, if they are convinced that their membership is really valuable. In that case, their suffering was “worth it.”


There is no question about the data patterns associated with cognitive dissonance, but many researchers have disagreed with Festinger over why the pattern emerges. The most important challenge to Festinger’s account is Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory (1967, 1972). According to this conception, there is no need to postulate the emotional distress that allegedly accompanies cognitive dissonance and, according to Festinger, propels atti-tude change. Instead, we can understand the data in terms of the information available to the participants in these experiments. Specifically, the research participants are simply try-ing to make sense of their own behavior in much the same way that an outside observer might. Thus, in the knob-turning study, self-perception theory would hold that a partici-pant in the $1 condition would have known that $1 was insufficient justification for lying and so would have concluded that he did not lie. On this basis, if he said the task was fun and if he was not lying, then the task apparently was fun.


This line of interpretation makes sense of many other results as well. Consider stud-ies of the so-called foot-in-the-door technique originally devised by door-to-door salesmen. In one study, an experimenter asked suburban homeowners to comply with an innocuous request, to put a 3-inch-square sign advocating auto safety in a window of their home. Two weeks later, a different experimenter came to visit the same home-owners and asked them to grant a much bigger request, to place on their front lawn an enormous billboard that proclaimed “Drive Carefully” in huge letters. The results showed that whether people granted the larger request was heavily influenced by whether they had earlier agreed to the smaller request. The homeowners who had com-plied with the small request were much more likely to give in to the greater one (Freedman & Fraser, 1966; although, for limits on this technique, see Burger & Guadagno, 2003; Chartrand, Pinckert, & Burger, 1999).


According to self-perception theory, the homeowners, having agreed to put up the small sign, now thought of themselves as active citizens involved in a public issue. “Why did I put up the sign? No one forced me to do it. I guess, therefore, that this is an issue that I care about.” Thus, they interpreted their actions as revealing a convic-tion that previously they did not know they had, and given that they now thought of themselves as active, convinced, and involved, they were ready to play the part on a larger scale. Fortunately for the neighbors, the billboards were never installed—after all, this was an experiment. But in real life we may not be so easily let off the hook, and the foot-in-the-door approach is a common device for persuading the initially uncommitted.



We’ve now seen that attitudes can be changed in many ways—by certain forms of persuasion (if the source is credible and trustworthy and if the message is appropri-ate), by intergroup contact (in the case of prejudice), and by tendencies toward cog-nitive consistency (especially with regard to acts we have already performed). Given these points, and given all the many powerful forces aimed at changing our attitudes, it might seem that our attitudes would be in continual flux, changing from moment to moment and day to day. But on balance, the overall picture is one of attitude sta-bility rather than attitude change. Attitudes can be altered, but it takes some doing. By and large, we seem to have a tendency to hold on to the attitudes we already have (Figure 13.11).


Why should this be so? One reason for attitude stability is that people rarely make changes in their social or economic environments. Their families, their friends and fellow workers, their social and economic situations—all tend to remain much the same over the years. All of this means that people will be exposed to many of the same influences year in and year out, and this sameness will obviously promote stability—in people’s beliefs, values, and inclinations. Moreover, most of us tend to be surrounded by people with atti-tudes not so different from our own. After all, top-level executives know other top execu-tives, college students know other college students, and trade union members know other union members. As a result, we are likely, day by day, to encounter few challenges to our attitudes, few contrary opinions, and this, too, promotes stability.


Of course, some events may transform attitudes completely—not just our own, but those of everyone around us. One example is the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Without a doubt, this led to an instant and radical change in Americans’ attitudes toward Japan. A more recent example is the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks dramatically increased Americans’ fear of terrorism and raised public support for a number of actions (including two wars that would never have unfolded if Americans had been less concerned about the country’s security). But by their very nature, such events—and the extreme changes in attitudes they produce—are rare.


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