Attitude Theory

Olaf H Werder. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. Sage Publications, 2009.

Attitude has been a difficult concept to define adequately, primarily because it has been defined by so many, but also because of the word’s differing lay uses and connotations. Since the early 1900s, a number of theories have been developed to provide a framework for the attitude-behavior relationship that would provide explanatory and predictive information. Research on attitudes has been consequently popular in many disciplines. A key historic root for the fascination with the term is found in psychology’s interest in individual differences and the need for scientists to find a concept that could name and explain a consistency in individual behavior across a variety of situations.

More specifically, throughout the history of social psychology, the concept of attitude has played a major role in explaining human action, viewing attitudes as behavioral disposition. In fact, Gordon Allport, one of the founding figures of personality psychology, claimed 60 years ago that attitude probably is the most distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary American social psychology. One of the earliest definitions of attitude was proposed in 1918 by William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, who defined it as a mental and neural state of readiness, organized through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence on the individual’s response to all objects and situations with which it is related. A more recent definition by Philip Zimbardo and Michael Leippe proclaims attitude as an evaluative disposition toward some object, based on cognitions, affective reactions, behavioral intentions, and past behaviors, that can influence cognitions, affective responses, and future intentions and behaviors. In short, attitudes are learned predispositions to respond—they serve to provide direction to subsequent actions.

The key issue for theories and explanatory models is the notion of the origin of attitudes. In other words, why do people have attitudes? By and large, research has proposed four main reasons. First, attitudes help organize and simplify a complex environment and thus facilitate understanding of the world around us. Second, attitudes protect our self-esteem by helping us to avoid unpleasant truths because they direct us to comingle with those who share our own worldviews. Third, attitudes make our environment more predictable as they trigger an existing repertory of reactions toward a set of attitude objects. This saves us from having to decide each time what the proper reaction or behavior should be. Finally, attitudes allow us to express some aspects of our individual personality or fundamental values.

Early studies seemed to confirm the validity of unidimensional effects of attitudes on behavior. Findings, however, such as the one by the social scientist Richard LaPiere’s classic study, raised doubts about this assumption as it provided some evidence that people’s verbal reports of their attitudes might not be very good predictors of their actual behavior. By the late 1950s, a multicomponent view was adopted, and attitudes were viewed as a complex system comprising a person’s beliefs about an object, feelings toward the object, and action tendencies with respect to the object.

Modern cognitive psychology maintains that attitudes are the result of four components: (1) affective responses, (2) cognitive responses, (3) experiences of past behavior, and (4) behavioral intentions. The latter two are sometimes combined into a single component called behavior. The first component consists of a person’s emotional response to a situation, object, or person (e.g., pleasure, anxiety). The second one is conceptualized as a person’s factual knowledge of a situation, object, or person. The third component is related to how often a person had engaged in a certain behavior or been exposed to a certain situation or person in the past; that is, what kind of experience the person had collected about a situation, object, or person. The fourth component involves a person’s plans to behave in a certain way when faced with a particular situation, even if these ideas are never acted on. These four components of attitude produce an organizing framework of the attitude construct known as cognitive schemata, which guide the information processes related to attention, interpretation, and recreation of a stimulus.

Given that attitudes are composed from various forms of judgments, unlike personality, attitudes are expected to change as a function of experience. While the concept of attitudes played a central role in the development of attitude measurement and scaling techniques before World War II, postwar research was dedicated primarily to theoretical and empirical issues in attitude change as a result of army-sponsored research to study the persuasive effects of propaganda during the war. As a result of the celebrated work at Yale University in the 1950s and 1960s by Carl Hovland, who found that attitudes can be changed through persuasion, a host of theories of attitude formation and attitude change emerged.

The most common classification of attitude theories into (a) behavioristic/learning theories, (b) consistency theories, (c) social judgment theory, and (d) functional theories will be used as an organizing framework here.

Behavioristic/Learning Theories

These theories were developed during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when learning theories reflected behavioral psychology. A major commonality of these theories was their emphasis on the stimulus characteristics of the communication situation. Leonard Doob, for instance, saw attitudes as an implicit, mediating process, an intervening variable between an objective stimulus and an overt response. As such, laws of attitude formation can be looked on in a parallel fashion to laws of classical conditioning. Furthermore, attitudes are learned through reinforcement or congruity. If an action has been highly regarded in the past, attitude toward it will likely be strengthened. Carl Hovland and his associates in the Yale Communication Research Program were a major driving force behind the emphasis on learning theories of attitude change. They proposed that opinions tend to persist unless an individual undergoes some new learning experience. The Yale researchers emphasized the role of incentives for change to occur. Incentives were broadly defined as ranging from direct financial or physical benefits to more abstract forms such as knowledge gain, social acceptance by respected others, or self-approval from the feeling that one is right.

Following the radical behaviorism ideas of B. F. Skinner, Daryl Bem developed a self-perception theory that attributed attitude change to an observation of one’s own behaviors and conclusions about what attitudes must have caused them. The theory’s main assumptions reflect the viewpoint that attitudes are learned as a result of previous experience with the environment since a person depends on outside cues to tell him or her how to feel internally.

Finally, Arthur Staat’s work on attitude formation has the most immediate connection to behaviorist thinking, especially the ideas of classical conditioning. According to his arguments, emotional responses in an individual are created by events in the environment. As new stimuli are consistently paired with old stimuli (events), the new stimuli develop the power to create an emotional response in the individual. For instance, since words and objects are often paired with particular events, those words and objects evoke affective responses.

Consistency Theories

The basic assumption of cognitive theories is the need of the individual for consistency. There must be consistency between one’s various attitudes, one’s various behaviors, and one’s attitudes and behaviors. A lack of consistency causes discomfort, so an individual attempts to ease the tension by adjusting attitudes or behaviors in order to maintain homeostasis, that is, achieve balance or consistency again.

One of the earliest consistency theories was the balance theory, developed by the Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider, whose work has been related to the Gestalt school. This theory looks at the relationship among three things: the perceiver, another person, and an object. Relationships are either positive or negative, based on the cognitive perceptions of the perceiver; these result in four balanced and four unbalanced configurations. Since unbalanced states are recognized as being unstable, perceivers attempt to restore balance by changing their attitudes toward either the object or the other person. There have been a variety of extensions to Heider’s balance theory.

One important extension was the theory of cognitive consistency, developed by Robert Abelson and colleagues. Cognitive consistency suggests that people will try to maintain consistency among their beliefs and make changes (i.e., accept or reject ideas) when this does not occur. In other words, if a liked object helps attain other liked objects, attitudes are consistent. However, if a liked object hinders attainment of other liked objects, there is inconsistency. When inconsistency exceeds a certain level of tolerance, attitudes will change to achieve consistency. For example, if a person who adheres to certain social values and also wants to vote for a particular candidate is presented with the fact that people who usually vote for this candidate have opposite social values, the person will either reject this proposition or change his or her attitudes about voting for the candidate or about holding on to the social values. As such, the theory suggests four additional modes of restoring balance besides changing one’s attitudes: (1) denial, (2) bolstering, (3) differentiation, and (4) transcendence.

In 1957, Leon Festinger developed his cognitive dissonance theory. This theory focuses on consequences of incompatibility between two related cognitions. Since dissonance occurs when elements are logically or psychologically inconsistent, it motivates the individual to reduce the dissonance and return to consonance by avoiding situations or information that may increase dissonance.

One of the major criticisms of consistency theories is that there are too many of them. Today, interest in consistency theories has diminished significantly as a result of the progress made in social psychology to better understand the processes that consistency theorists investigated, namely, the interactions between attitudes, beliefs, actions, and behavioral intentions.

Social Judgment Theory

Social judgment theory, developed by Muzafer Sherif and colleagues, is different from other consistency theories for two reasons: First, it argues that a receiver interprets or judges how much a message agrees or disagrees with his or her own attitude. In other words, it is an attempt to apply the principles of judgment to the study of attitude change. Second, the theory maintains that a message receiver’s involvement in the topic of the persuasive message, that is, how important a topic is to a listener, is an important factor in attitude change.

Social judgment theory has been called by some more of an approach to studying attitudes, not a complete theory. Overall, it is based on the use of analogy, whereby an individual’s initial attitude serves as an anchor for the judgment of related attitude communications. An advocated position is evaluated against this point of reference and is placed on an attitudinal continuum from acceptance via noncommitment to rejection. The amount of attitude change or whether change occurs at all depends on the discrepancy within the self—only after a communicated opinion falls within the limits of the range of acceptance will it affect attitude change. Thus, the greater the difference between the initial opinion and the communicated opinion, the greater the attitude change will be. This theory further argues that the level of ego involvement in a topic depends on whether the issue arouses an intense attitude; that is, individuals who are highly involved in an issue are more likely to evaluate all possible positions, therefore increasing the anchoring property of their initial attitudes and broadening their range of rejection of a communicated opinion. Thus, a persuader facing a highly involved receiver may be able to advocate safely only a small change.

Since most other approaches deal only marginally with previous attitudes, social judgment theory has obtained an important place in the research literature. Recently, however, researchers have questioned the basic principles of social judgment theory and how the theory’s principles relate to one another.

Functional Theories

Functional theories of attitude entered the literature in the 1950s when researchers developed the idea that attitudes served varying psychological needs and thus had variable motivational bases. A common and central theme of these early efforts was the listing of the specific personality functions that attitudes served for individuals. The idea is that people strive for goals and will adjust their attitudes to meet those goals. By and large, these theories are expanded argumentations of the original question about why individuals hold attitudes, discussed above. The most basic assumption of functional theories is that the key factors for attitude change are the relationships between events and information in the environment, on one hand, and the individual’s values pattern and motives, on the other. It is the match or mismatch of those two forces that leads either to assimilation of the incoming information (i.e., attitude change) or to rejection of it.

The American psychologist Daniel Katz discussed four functions that attitudes perform for the personality: instrumental/utilitarian (the maximization of rewards and minimization of penalty from the environment), ego defensive (a protection from uncomplimentary truths about the self), value expressive (the expression of pleasure derived from basic values), and knowledge function (a need to understand and predict the environment). He argued that in order for attitude change to occur, there must be an inconsistency between the need being met by the attitude and the attitude itself. Changing an attitude, then, requires knowledge of what function an attitude performs for a person since the function that attitudes perform provides a frame of reference for comprehending and categorizing objects, persons, and events.

A related theory—Herbert Kelman’s functional analysis—looked at social relationships that occur in social influence situations. He looked at three processes of opinion change: compliance, identification, and internalization. Those processes are closely related to the three roles or relational reasons of attitude change: power, attractiveness, and credibility of the source. Compliance results in only a surface-level attitude change in order to receive a favorable reaction from another powerful person or group. This attitude is usually expressed only when the other person is present. For instance, members of a group headed by a strong leader usually openly agree with that leader’s choices regardless of whether they hold the same attitude toward a topic. The attitude change resulting from identification occurs both publicly and privately but does not become part of the person’s value system. The change is dependent on the relationship with the source but not with the source’s presence. An example would be the asserted identification with an attractive celebrity that can wane quickly once more important events overshadow this relationship. Attitudes that are internalized become part of an individual’s value system. This usually occurs when a believable sender of a message convinces a receiver of the legitimacy of an idea to the extent that it becomes the receiver’s idea henceforth.

Inoculation theory, developed by social psychologist William McGuire in 1961, is primarily concerned with the function of resistance to change; that is, it aims to explain how to keep original attitudes and beliefs consistent in the face of persuasion attempts. The main argument of the theory is that most attitudes are established in an environment that does not expose the individual to counterarguments and attack on the new attitude.

Therefore, the individual has little chance to develop resistance to possible future attacks. The theory argues that to prevent attitude change from occurring, it is necessary to strengthen preexisting attitudes. There are two key components to successful inoculation. The first is threat, which provides motivation to protect one’s attitudes. The second component is known as refutational preemption, which is the cognitive part of the process. It is the ability to activate one’s own argument for future defense and strengthen existing attitudes through counterarguing. This theory is loosely related to conflict theories, in which new information also presents a challenge to existing attitudes, and individuals are forced to seek alternative actions.

Many assessments of attitude theories argue that functional theories are in the mainstream of attitude research, and their theoretical approaches remain conceptually relevant to investigators because of their breadth and unique focus on the functional bases for attitudes. Functional theories are uniquely qualified to provide a link between the behavioral theories proposed during the 1950s (consistency theories, behavioral/learning theories, and social judgment theories) and the processing and cognitive themes of more recent theorizing (e.g., theory of reasoned action, social learning theory, transtheoretical model).


Attitude research is a major area in which theory building has been characteristic of the research. These theories, especially the functional theories discussed last, have provided guidance for many applied areas in communication. As an example, these theories have been invaluable for research on media effects and strategic communication as they led to the development of recommendations for the design of persuasive messages delivered by media and commercial advertisers.