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What Are Attitudes? How Are They Formed?

Can they be changed?

Attitudes are something that precede the human’s behaviour and leads our decisions and choices for actions and activities; a nearly permanent assembling and formulation of feelings, beliefs and behavioural tendencies, in the direction of groups, events, symbols, etc... In other words, it is a feeling or evaluation raised in our mind, which could be positive or negative, about an object, issue or person. Without attitudes it would be hard for us to make decisions or react to events (Hogg, 2010). This essay explained what attitudes are, their structure and aim, where they come from and how they can change.

The functions of attitudes (the roles they have for the individual) are distinct. One attitude could have one function, or several and it may vary over time. Throughout the years, there have been proposed four functions of attitudes; Katz (1960) proposed a remarkable analysis of attitudes. The four basic functions are the instrumental function, the ego-defence function, the value-expressive function and the knowledge function. The instrumental function is also known as adjustive or utilitarian function because this attitude serves to provide a reward for the individual. A good example is when in a group, all the people do something and you do that thing as well because expressing that attitude will have a reward value for you. Attitudes can help us feel good about ourselves, but this could distort our interpretation of the world and our ego-defence function may be raised. Our self-protection may be taken to extremes and our perception of people or events may be critically misconstrued and we may be psychologically disabled. Attitudes may also be used to emphasise non-membership and difference from one group as well as membership of another group. A clear example is the independence of teenager from parents, which represent the distinctness of one group, and the importance of the peer group for them, which is the other group. The core idea of knowledge function is that attitudes make our world more comprehensible and they provide a meaning for the things that happen to us. They help us make the world predictable and feel we are functioning effectively (Erwin, 2001).

After functions, another important view of attitudes is the three-component attitude model (or triadic model of attitudes). It consists of a cognitive component, which comprehend beliefs about the object of an attitude, an affective component, that are the positive or negative feelings associated with the object of an attitude, a behavioural component, that is a state of readiness to take actions. This approach also underline that attitudes are almost permanent, this means they persist across time and situations, generalisable and abstract, and limited to socially significant events or objects. Each attitude is made of ideas, feelings, thoughts and behavioural intentions (Hogg, 2010).

Two major topics have been of fundamental interest in the research of attitude: attitude formation and attitude change (Crano, 2008). Attitude formation is the process of learning our attitudes from the influence of other people, our experiences and our emotion (Hogg, 2010). Deeply, there are seven ways by which we can develop our attitude: communication, direct experience, classical conditioning, instrumental conditioning, observational learning, social comparison and heredity. They do not work in isolation, but usually they complement each other. One way to gather information is through different forms of communication, the two most important are the person-to-person communication and communication through mass media. Personal communications are a potent source of attitudes; they are extremely difficult to avoid and we use other people as source of information. Mass media communication has been recognised as the major influence in attitude formation and change, and also on behaviour. However, it has a massive role on some people, while in others has no effects at all. To better understand the role of mass media on people, we may look at an example of teenagers and anorexia. Mass media usually gives a distortion image of the body, due to this, many young girls are affected by this disease. Direct experience is one of the most obvious source of attitudes. One clear example of this origin could be a child who has been bitten by a dog, thus he developed a disliking of dogs in general. The mere exposure effect is one explanation of the direct experience whereby we can develop attitudes. It happens when we experience something several times and it affects our evaluation about it. A good example is when you listen a new song for the first time, you can dislike or like it, but with repetition your opinion could change. Classical conditioning instead, is another way to form attitudes. It emphasises the relevance of repeated association, of some neutral stimuli, with an answer, aroused by some other stimuli, that has affective and emotional value for us. In other words, it concerns the learning of new behaviours with the process of association. Involved in it, there is the subliminal conditioning, which act at the unconscious level, while the first act in the conscious. Krosnick (1992) conducted a study about this. As the participants were shown certain types of photographs, presented extremely speedily to perform them below the level of conscious awareness, evoking negative and positive feelings. This study showed that our attitudes can be influenced without our awareness. The instrumental conditioning highlights the important of rewards in modeling the behaviour. Rewarded behaviours will grow stronger, while behaviours not rewarded will tend to be replaced. A clear example is of a child. If you give a sweet or 30 minutes of video games to a child who did something good he will increase that behaviour and its associated attitudes. We can also acquire attitudes and behaviour by observing those of another person (usually parents, friends, teachers, or also watching television), this is called observational learning or modelling. Moreover, there is an innate drive to evaluate our attitudes and abilities, often comparing us to others, this has been called social comparison. The last way to develop attitudes is heredity. Some researchers have demonstrated that there is predisposition to heredity some particular attitudes (Erwin, 2001).

Do attitudes need to remain stable in the long-term memory? Some researchers have a different view from the other researchers, because they think that attitudes are temporary constructions generated by the individual when are necessary. Some theories have been evaluated about this, one of the most important is the dual processing model. Each model distinguishes two modes of persuasion (Crano, 2008). Persuasive communication is extremely relevant in this subject because it is message is intentional to change an attitude and its related behaviours (Hogg, 2010). These two modes of persuasion are the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM). The ELM is when people receive a persuasive message they think about the arguments it makes, they do not fundamentally think deeply about the arguments because it requires significant cognitive effort. Persuasion here, follows two routes: the central route and the peripheral route. It depends if people spend a great deal or little cognitive effort on the message; a central route is used if the arguments of the message are followed closely while if the arguments are not well attended to, a peripheral route is followed (Hogg, 2010). The two ELM’s routes are antagonist in their impact on persuasion outcomes. As the impact of central route processing increases, the impact of peripheral processes decrease (Bohner, 2002). The HSM deals with the same phenomena using hardly noticeably different concepts, distinguished between systematic processing and heuristic processing. Systematic processing take place when people consider available arguments, while heuristic processing occurs when people use cognitive heuristic and do not indulge in careful reasoning. People also have a sufficiency threshold which means heuristics will be used as long as they satisfy our need to be confident in the attitude that we assume (Hogg, 2010). HSM and ELM share certain sore assumptions, but HSM is different in the definition of its low-effort mode, its specificity concerning the interaction of processing modes, and its more detailed motivational underpinnings (Crano, 2008). Moreover, two major processes have been discovered regarding persuasive communication: learning and acceptance. They can be broken in five different sequences that are necessary for attitude change: attention to the message, comprehension of the message, acceptance of the message, memory of the message, acting as a result. All of them are necessary to the occurrence of the attitude change (Erwin, 2001).

In conclusion, as we can see, attitudes are extremely important for our personality and they can be formed in many ways, from communication to heredity. They can also be changed in many ways, but in particular through persuasion. We should consider them to better understand our behaviour, but they are also significant for understanding other people and have a better view of the outside world. 

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