From attitudes to intentions

At a basic level, attitudes can be defined as an evaluation of an object (e.g. stimulus, social group, and mental construct) reflected in cognitive, affective, and behavioural responses to it. To illustrate briefly the scope of attitudes, we refer to one, admittedly pragmatic definition (Thurstone, 1928, p. 531): ‘The concept ‘attitude’ will be used here to denote the sum of a man’s inclinations and feelings, prejudice or bias, preconceived notions, ideas, fears, threats, and convictions about any specific topic. Thus, a man’s attitude about pacifism means here all that he feels or thinks about peace and war. It is admittedly a subjective and personal affair’. This early and extensive definition suggests that attitudes are linked to goals and intentional development. Thus, attitudes consist of favourable or unfavourable evaluations of objects or persons (i.e. predispositions to respond), exhibited in one’s belief or intended behaviour. They might be linked to feelings of pride, fear, or moral emotions. They may be stable for some time, but they are not restricted to unchangeable or rigid states.

Since the early years of attitude research (Thurstone, 1928; Wegener & Petty, 2013), attitudes have been used to explain specific behaviour. Research on attitudes provided evidence that they can influence the accessibility of palliative thoughts or action resources; for example, they can impede or enhance the construction of specific attributes. Because human acts are to a certain degree motivated by attitudes or preferences, we focus in a first step on some of the underlying processes at work when individuals acquire skills and change their attitudes (e.g. towards objects, persons, or specific end goals). Social-psychological research, in particular, has stressed the motivating role of attitudes (Ajzen, 2001; Maio & Haddock, 2015; Stone, 2012) and concentrated on the question of how attitudes or preferences mediate planning competencies and contribute to concrete actions.

Attitude-behaviour relations: Moderating processes

Closer inspection has been devoted to the problem of the extent to which specific attitudes actually can evoke specific behaviour. An intriguing, but still preliminary and unsatisfactorily answered question applies to the mutual relationship between attitudes, intentions, and actions (Ajzen, 2001; Maio & Haddock, 2015). Some attitudes more or less explicitly contain an intentional orientation towards specific activities and can be uncovered by asking persons directly. Such answers, for example, would be ‘one should engage in societal or political issues’ or ‘one should not miss the new smartphone’. Given that attitudes are personally important and that there is no inner conflict or external barriers, one could expect that individuals would try to realize their intentions. In concrete situations, however, many factors can, in principle, be responsible that attitudes are not linked to intentions. For example, when shopping, one’s preference for cauliflower might not be decisive, if competing components such as freshness, ecological cultivation, country of origin, or price gain in importance.

The more positive the preference for an attitude object is, the more likely it is that an option will be chosen; however, perceived difficulties or the effort required to achieve it might reduce the probability of the basic intention being realized. As becomes evident from these examples, in real life situations, one can be distracted by several occurrences, which in turn could be seen as reasons or excuses that preliminary intentions are not fulfilled. Although there is empirical evidence supporting the hypothesis that attitudes can predict behaviour in real

TABLE 3.2 Moderating factors in the attitude-behaviour relation

Moderating factors


Attitude embeddedness

Number of free associations individuals produce in relation to an attitude object). Highly embedded attitudes are more strongly related to behavioural intentions than are less embedded ones (Prislin & Ouelette, 1996).

Accessibility of alternative options

Alternative behavioural options that become salient in a specific situation can reduce the probability of acting in a specific way according to one’s attitude.

Prior experience

According to learn theory, frequent performance of a behaviour and its accompanying experience lead to the formation of a habit.

Attitude domain

Attitude-behaviour correspondence in specific domains (e.g. political attitude and voting for a specific party) may be stronger than in others.

Attitude-behaviour correspondence

Attitudes will be more likely to predict behaviour when the attitude is specifically relevant to the observed behaviour. When the measured attitude is general and the behaviour is very specific, one should not expect close correspondence between the two (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975).

Social influence

Attitudes do not predict behaviour perfectly because both are subjected to social influences (e.g. group influence, conformity)

Importance of attitudes

Interindividual differences in personality’

Strong or potent attitudes will be more likely to predict behaviour.

Tendency towards self-monitoring, self-consciousness; personal preference for consistency. The desire for consistency (e.g. to be consistent and to be perceived as consistent; Guadagno & Cialdini, 2010) is correlated with consistency in behaviour.

situations, one needs to provide reasons why they do not in many cases. Several studies describe moderating factors of attitude-behaviour consistency, and these are summarized in Table 3.2 (for an overview, see Ajzen, 2001; Haddock & Maio, 2015; Maio & Haddock, 2015).

These examples illustrate different, but not mutually exclusive, origins and moderating factors involved in attitude formation. These include learned history (e.g. previous experiences, domain-specific expertise), social factors, and the degree of attitude-behaviour correspondence according to general versus specific dimensions. From these examples, it is understandable why attitudes do not automatically lead to specific behaviours, or may be ineffective due to other factors that reduce their impact on behaviour.

Changeability of attitudes and preferences

In addition to moderating effects, a second, relevant aspect of the attitudebehaviour consistency is how attitudes can change. Which factors mediate the formation of attitudes formed or do they remain stable for a certain time? Several aspects of attitude strength (Bizer & Krosnick, 2001; Dohmen, Doll, & Feger, 1989; Eaton et al., 2009) have been discussed which are insofar central for ISD, if we ask whether or not we can improve action skills through changing our attitudes. The following list contains moderating factors which are introduced and discussed by Visser and colleagues in more detail (Visser, Bizer, & Krosnick 2006). Strong attitudes make plausible that some attitudes remain stable over long spans of time, whereas lower degrees indicate malleable attitudes that fluctuate greatly over time.

  • Importance: Attitude importance refers to subjective significance that individuals attach to attitude objects or to an attitude.
  • Accessibility: Accessibility refers to the strength of the object-evaluation link in memory and how quickly an attitude can be retrieved from memory.
  • Knowledge: Knowledge about an attitude object refers to the result oflearning and experience (the information that is stored in memory).
  • Elaboration: Some attitudes are formed as a result of highly elaborative thought processes, while others are more superficial.
  • Extremity: Extremity refers to the degree and valence of the attitudes (attitudes can and are valued as very negative to very positive).
  • Certainty: Attitude certainty denotes the amount of confidence individuals attach to an attitude, e.g. how sure they are that their attitudes are correct.
  • Ambivalence: Ambivalence refers to the degree to which a person has both favourable and unfavourable reactions to an object (internal conflicting feelings).
  • Structural consistency: Structural consistency consists of three aspects (evaluative, cognitive, affective aspects) and refers to a person’s overall evaluation of an object, the evaluative implications of their beliefs about the object’s qualities, and the evaluative valence of their emotional reactions to the object. Evaluative-affective, evaluative-cognitive, and affective-cognitive consistency are the three possible manifestations of consistency.

I have presented these factors because they are important prerequisites involved whenever we consider certain action strategies at all, when we plan our future or pursue specific goals. They gain in importance if one considers the mechanisms and strategies individuals use when they immunize against manipulations, which aim at changing their attitudes. With regard to attitudes towards old age, similar activators and moderators have been reported (for an overview, see Hess, 2006).

In these moderating factors, a heterogeneity of attitude patterns can exist between persons. Correlations between probabilities (e.g. how likely possible effects of drinking alcohol are) and evaluations of these effects can vary from person to person (Sjoberg, 1982). People with a positive attitude towards an attitude object have different beliefs and values concerning that object than people with negative attitudes towards the same object. To improve our understanding for situations that lead to attitude change, we have to study characteristics of the person (his or her interests, habits, anxieties) in the social context carefully; that is, which factors (e.g. persuasion strategies, communicator skills) contribute to individuals changing their attitudes. For instance, Tannenbaum, Macaulay, and Norris (1966) investigated the vulnerability of individuals to persuasive manipulations (an attack on health-related practices). Having a personally valued source (e.g. an authority or person we like) make a negative assertion against a personally preferred concept results in incongruity or pressure or need to change. Tannenbaum and colleagues’ study showed that refuting the attack (invalidating an assertion), derogating the credibility of a source, or bolstering the concept reduced the amount of persuasion significantly. In social contexts, trust, credibility, and persuasive strategies of interacting partners are important factors in attitude change. In similar automatic processes that possibly ‘sneak in’ when we think about others using simplified stereotypes (see processes of prejudice formation), studies have indicated that both relevant and irrelevant aspects of communicator credibility serve as important predictors of attitude change (Aronson & Golden, 1962).

Because these results are characteristic of many people and still valid today, how to predict individuals’ behaviour in their surroundings remains an important question. Several developmentalists (e.g. Rogoff et al., 2011; Vygotsky, 1978) have emphasized the social and cultural origins of development and the idea that human action is first made possible through social life, involving other people (e.g. families, communities, peer groups). Concepts such as zone of proximal development (i.e. the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can’t do; Vygotsky, 1978) and scaffolding (when an expert helps somebody who is less adult or less expert; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) emphasize the supportive role and the responsibility of significant others in shaping developmental paths. Since individuals usually attribute attitudes, values, or responsibility to themselves and to others in everyday life, and on the basis of social supportive dynamics, ISD emerges as an interpersonal and socio-cultural collaborative process. From this theoretical point of view, one would probably expect influence from ‘concrete’ social collaboration, but not from ‘abstract’ mental representations.

Clarifying the structure of attitude strength and the factors influencing it has important practical implications too. For instance, the development of a positive lifestyle and health-related behaviour depend to a large degree on attitudes. Given that preventable behaviours such as inactivity, poor diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption often require a shift to a more positive attitude towards healthy behaviour, the strength-related attributes illustrate perhaps not only subtle mechanisms that are at work when humans act, but perhaps show, together with the moderating factors of the attitude-behaviour relation, possible links or processes that we should be able to influence if we wish to shape the direction of development through intentions.

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