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Formation and function of attitudes

Free essay example:

Nicola Giles 0502120

ED612 Beliefs, Attitudes and Behaviours.

Critically discuss the formation and function of attitudes.

For several decades now there has been literature on attitudes, there is a continuous undercurrent of controversy over both the theoretical and operational term “attitude”. According to Staington Rogers (1995) there are many fundamental questions that psychologists have tried to answer over the last 70 years. This assignment is going to look at two of the major questions, where do attitudes come from? And how they are moulded and formed?  

The assignment will look at beliefs about attitudes and definitions from theorists that have been vital in discussing attitudes over the past 70 years. Looking closely and critically at how we express our attitudes and all the different component models that make up different theories to attitudes. Questioning attitude formation and the different approaches to acquiring our attitudes, where they come from and their functions in us as human beings. The concept of attitudes can be termed in a number of ways, so looking at the links of terminology may help in understanding of where and why we have attitudes.

Daryl Bem points out in his book ‘Beliefs, attitudes and Human affairs’ that how we believe and what we believe can be difficult to extract from our thinking.  Beliefs are something we believe to be true or right, Bem suggests there are ‘primitive beliefs’ which are gained by our own experience e.g. an orange is a sphere shape, we feel the oranges

shape, its a fact, therefore oranges are sphere shape so this is what we believe. There are also ‘Zero order beliefs’, these are beliefs taken for granted maybe because a parent has

told you and parents always tell the truth (so you believe) e.g. dogs are nasty, daddy said so, therefore dogs must be nasty. Then there are ‘first order beliefs’ where there could be

an alternative belief e.g. dogs can be nice, not all dogs are nasty (which is a fact). Lastly there are ‘higher order beliefs’ where there may be lots of alternative answers e.g. believing smoking causes cancer, or that if you smoke you will die young, yes there is evidence to support this but you can also get cancer other ways and also there are some very old people still alive who have smoked all their lives (Bem, 1970).

Not much more than a hundred years ago the term ‘attitude’ was used mostly with reference to a person’s stance or posture. To describe someone as adopting ‘a defiant attitude’ or ‘a threatening attitude was to refer to his physical being. Although this can still be the case today attitude increasingly connotes the psychological rather than the physical orientation of a person (Jahoda & Warren, 1970, p7).

All people express attitudes to certain objects or certain situations in life everyday (give or have an opinion) these can be ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ e.g. I love chocolate (positive) or

I hate brussel sprouts (negative).  Our beliefs about these objects or situations usually have a reason e.g. Chocolate tastes nice and it gives me a boost of energy or brussel sprouts taste horrible and they give me an upset stomach. These beliefs or attitudes may

then lead to actions e.g. eat chocolate regularly and never eat brussel sprouts (Evans, 2008, pp1).

Social psychologists have made substantial progress in the understanding of attitudes, and the relationships between other social psychological characteristics at least since the 1930’s when G. W. Allport, defined an attitude as “a mental and neural state of readiness, organised through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence upon the individuals response to all objects and situations with which it is related” (Allport, 1935, p810). Another influential definition was given by D. Krech and R.S. Crutchfield “An attitude can be defined as an enduring organisation of motivational, emotional, perceptual and cognitive process with respect to some aspect of the individual’s world (Krech & Crutchfield, 1948, p152).

According to Newcomb (1964) the essential component of the concept of attitude are two, firstly the notion of an attitude has been found useful because it produces a conceptual bridge between persisting psychological states of the individual,  and persisting objects of orientation (including whole classes of objects) in that individuals world. Secondly the important conceptual tool must be defined as to come to grips with the facts of inta individual psychological organisation, and also with the facts of persistence in spite of change. Newcomb then defined an attitude as ‘the individuals attitude is the organisation of psychological processes, as inferred from his behaviour with respect to some aspect of the world which he distinguishes from other aspects. It

represents the residue of his previous experience with which he approaches any situation’ (Newcomb, 1964).

Attitudes are generally understood to be made up of a number of components; there is in the case of Thurstone, the one component attitude model, the affect for or against a psychological object. This is a very simple theory and is questioned over and over in its simplicity (Hogg and Vaughn, 2002, p 146).

Arguably there is the two component model favoured in Allport’s theory, this is an idea that there is something inside everyone that influences our choices about what is good (positive) and what is bad (negative), then there is the mental readiness to act and evaluate the response (Hogg and Vaughn, 2002, p 146).

However according to Rosenberg and Hovland (1960) attitudes are ‘predispositions to respond to some class of stimuli with certain classes of response’. Three components are then present, these classes of response are ‘affective’: what a person feels about the attitude object, how favourably or unfavourably it is evaluated, ‘cognitive’: what a person believes the attitude object is like, objectively and ‘behavioural’: (sometimes called conative) how a person actually responds, or intends to respond, to the attitude based on the other two responses (Gross, 1996, p434).

The affective component of attitudes may represent themselves through our feelings or emotions and sometimes evokes certain responses like fear, sympathy or maybe hate (Benson, 1998, p 152) e.g. may hate people on welfare/dole.

Cognitive components of attitudes are our thoughts, beliefs, and our ideas about something. When a human being is the object of an attitude, the cognitive component is

frequently a stereotype (Benson, 1998, p 152) e.g. “welfare/dole recipients are lazy scroungers”.

Behavioural or conative component is the tendency or disposition to act in a certain way toward something, (Benson, 1998, p 152)  e.g. Might want to keep welfare/dole recipients out of the private neighbourhood that they live in, the emphasis is on  the tendency  to act, what they actually do might be quite different.

The three component model of affect, cognition and behaviour sees an attitude as an intervening/mediating variable between observable stimuli and responses, illustrating the influence that behaviourism was having even in psychology at the start of the 60s (Gross, 1996). The three multi component model is not without its problems, in particular the suggestion and assumption that the components are highly correlated; the debate about the attitude-behaviour relationship raises its head, affective and cognitive together on one hand and behaviour on the other (Gross, 1996).

According to Zimbardo & Leippe (1991) attitudes are most likely acquired or learned in some way through our interaction with others and from our environments, because

attitudes are acquired they can be changed fairly predictably (Simonson & Maushak, 1991).

Research by Schiller (1952) shows that chimpanzees appear to have a strong fear (negative attitude) of snakes and this is with them from birth, is it innate? Or is it something they have acquired through interaction with snakes or even other chimps? Similarly amongst people there appears to be a worldwide dislike of bodily waste and this would seem to have some evolutionary significance perhaps avoidance of disease or dislike of smell, and then it is not unreasonable to speculate that distaste might also be innate. While it may seem highly unlikely that specific attitudes in humans would be innate, it may be the case that predispositions towards certain attitudes may have an innate component (for example identical twins, even when brought up apart, often show similar tastes in a variety of things) (Psychology at Salford, 2000). Schiller’s conclusions to his research found that no evidence exists that fear or attitudes are innate and concluded that must mature “the innate constituents of complex responses are not perceptual organisations but motor patterns” (Schiller, 1952,  cited in Kimble, Wethetheiner, Boneau & White, 1996).    

Attitudes are learned rather than innate (Hogg & Vaughn, 2002). The learning of attitudes is a normal socialisation process according to Fishbein and Ajen (1975). This process

may occur through direct experiences, through interacting with others or be a product of cognitive processes.

Observational learning or imitation is the third way that learning takes place, theorists like Bandura have suggested that a great deal of our learning occurs not through direct

reinforcement or conditioning, but rather through the observation and imitation of others, especially parents, teachers and peers. Bandura is widely cited in psychology for his Bobo doll experiment where he did an experiment based on children being exposed to aggressive and non aggressive role models, this was done by exposing children to adults playing aggressively with a doll in front of them. The findings supported his theory of social learning and imitation. People who encounter an attitude object usually have a positive or negative experience, which then at least partly shapes their attitude towards that object e.g. having a negative attitude towards cats in general after being scrammed as a child. Children who imitate the expressed attitudes of their parents, teachers or friends are more likely to receive positive rewards or reinforcement for that imitation. Conversely attitudes not expressed will not be imitated and thus children will grow up with a similar attitude pattern to their parents (Bandura, 1997).

Zajonc (1968) proposed that if you exposed yourself to an object or event a number of times it will affect your evaluation of it e.g. listening to a new song on the radio for the first time you may consider it slow and not to your liking, but repetition is likely to

strengthen your response in one direction or another, carry on not liking it or it grows on you and you like it (Hogg & Vaughn, 2002).

Classical conditioning takes place if an attitude object is repeatedly paired or associated with a stimulus capable of evoking positive or negative feelings, then the attitude object itself may come to evoke similar feelings. Classical conditioning can be particularly

powerful and insidious form of learning. Consider the example of a mother who is playing with her small child in the garden. The mother doesn’t like snails and when she sees her small child playing with a snail she lets out a scream and violently pulls her child away from the snail. The scream and the violent pulling frighten the child (negative feelings) and because the last thing the child remembers before this was the snail, then the child comes to associate the fear with the snail, a snail phobia may even develop.

Operant conditionings are behaviours that are reinforced and are more likely to occur again. If that behaviour is the expression (verbal or behavioural) of an attitude, and if praise, attention or some other form of reinforcement follows, then the expression of that attitude is more likely to be repeated and the attitude internalised. B. F. Skinner is regarded as the main theorist of operant conditioning, but his work is based on Edward Thorndike’s ‘law of effect’. Skinner came up with the term operant conditioning, it means changing behaviour by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response. Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behaviour, neutral operants( responses from the environment that neither increase nor

decrease the probability of a behaviour being repeated), reinforcers (responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behaviour being repeated, these can be positive or negative) and punishers responses from the environment that decrease the

likelihood of a behaviour being repeated, punishment weakens behaviour (Benson, 2007). Examples in everyday situations of ‘positive reinforcement’ strengthening behaviour are, if a teenager gets £5 each time he or she completes homework (i.e a reward) he or she is

more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future, thus strengthening the behaviour of completing homework. Also ‘negative reinforcement’ strengthening behaviour (removal of an adverse stimulus), if the teenager does not complete his or her homework they have to give their teacher £5, the teenager will complete the homework to avoid paying the £5 thus strengthening the behaviour by completing the homework.

Other social psychologists think of attitude formation in terms of cognitive development these include theories such as balance and cognitive dissonance. The balance theory was formed by Heider (1946) it focused on the P-O-X of the individual’s cognitive field. There were three elements P one person, O another person and X an object or event. The object of Heider’s inquiry was to discover how relations between P-O & X, in this case a balanced state exists if all three relations are positive in all respects, or if two are negative and one positive. Altogether there are eight possible combinations of relationships between the two people and the object or event, four of which are balanced (positive) and four of which are unbalanced (negative)(Attitudes, 1970, p 263).

Festinger’s dissonance theory probably has the largest data collected on it. The statement of dissonance is that it holds two elements of knowledge ‘considering these two alone, the observe of one element would follow from the other’. It further holds that dissonance will motivate the person to try to reduce dissonance and achieve consonance and in addition to trying to reduce it, the person will actively avoid situations and information which would likely increase dissonance’(Zajonc, 1960, p 280-96). What this all means is

that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes, beliefs and opinions in harmony to avoid disharmony (dissonance).

Looking at the major sources for learning and obtaining attitudes there are two very influential models, Parents and the Media. Parents are an important attitude model so are many people around you a lot of the time like teachers and your peers. However for the child the parent has a powerful influence involving classical conditioning and observational learning. Connell (1972) reported that the correlation between the specific attitudes of parents and their children towards a given object or issue is generally positive (parents don’t want to pass on fears and the child will ultimately make their own opinions when they are older) (Hogg & Vaughn 2002, p173).

The mass media, particularly television are major influences on attitudes. Again the child seems more likely to gain their attitude from the television with more impact than adults probably because attitudes are not strongly held by the child yet. A study by Chaffee (1977) showed that American children under 7 get most of their political information

from the television (this is probably happening right now to the children of America in the election of Barack Obahma) (Hogg &Vaughn, 2002, p 173). Commercials and adverts also have a big influence too, at Christmas time major toy companies advertise a lot more so that when the child is influenced by a toy and wants it this puts pressure on parents to buy it as a gift for Christmas.

Attitudes have many related concepts with other terms that are often used with the intention of conveying more specific psychological meaning. Terms such as ‘Belief’ operationally one has an attitude toward and a belief in or about a stimulus object (Krech and Crutchfield, 1948), ‘Bias’ literally meaning to that which is bent or oblique e.g. a father may be biased towards his own child when he over values the child’s competitive behaviour, ‘Doctrine’ meaning that which is taught, Coutu (1949) referred to it as “what we are taught and expected to believe”, ‘Judgement’ the process of the result or the process of classifying stimulus objects into categories, ‘Opinion’ points of view.

The Value concept in psychology is quite broad, the fact that there is so much terminology linked to attitudes shows how much attitudes have substance in today’s world (Copper & McGaugh, p 240-4).  

Attitudes also have strong connections to ‘prejudices’ and the social context can be classified into two categories. Firstly there is cognitive prejudice that refers to what people believe is true. Stereotyping is a cognitive shortcut used to understand others (Evans, 2008, pp2).  Secondly there is motivational prejudice, where individuals engage

in categorising people or objects so that they can feel good about themselves and gain benefits e.g. join the popular group. Talfel’s (1970)  theory was that of social identity, where part of an individuals identity comes from group memberships, this in turn can influence and raise a persons self esteem (Evans, 2008, pp2).

According to Hogg and Vaughn (1995): ‘attitudes are basic and pervasive in human life…. Without concept of attitude, we would have difficulty constructing and reacting to events, trying to make decisions and making sense of our relationships with people in everyday life….’  This means that attitudes provide us with ready made reactions to and interpretations of objects and events (Gross, 1996, p 436).

However not all attitudes will serve the same function, this was a concern of Katz (1960), he addressed peoples motives as conscious and others as unconscious. Katz approach implied that some attitudes would be resistant to change especially those that serve an ego defensive function (avoiding and denying self knowledge) e.g. being prejudice. Other

classifications to Katz theory include ‘object appraisal’ which means being adaptive to the attitude when approaching everyday problems. ‘Social adjustment’ where it would be useful to have an attitude that promotes or demotes a social relationship or environment. ‘Externalisation’ involving responding to an external event in terms of some unresolved internal conflict, thus distorting it.

It is very difficult to measure attitudes because of its psychological being (inside a persons mind). Researchers need to ask individuals questions and this strategy usually takes place with either a questionnaire or scales. There are a number of well developed paper tests that are extensively used and they are, ‘Thurstone’s method of equal-appearing intervals’, Likert’s method of summated ratings’,  ‘Guttman’s scalogram’ and Osgoods semantic differential. Whenever attitude researchers ask questions thou there is always the possibility that the participants will be reluctant to tell the truth and reveal

their true feelings. One of the latest techniques in measuring attitudes comes from Fishbein and Ajen (1974) called the expectancy-value model in which each contributing belief underlying an attitude is weighed by the strengths of its relationship to the object. Fishbein’s technique has helped in consumer research, politics, classroom attendance and many other behavioural setting in the past 30 years to measure what they think outcomes will be (Hogg & Vaughn, 2002, p177-185)..

In conclusion attitudes are a hypothetical construct and have been defined in many ways. The three component model of attitude structure sees attitudes as comprising an affective, cognitive and behavioural component, but most definitions are undimensional, stressing the affective or evaluative component. All the theories dealing with attitudes generally agree that attitudes are lasting, emphasising that attitudes are relatively enduring of beliefs towards objects and events. Attitudes have much more in common with beliefs

and other concepts however these need to be distinguished a bit more. Measuring attitudes is both important and difficult for today’s society because attitudes serve a vital

cognitive function giving everyone a ready made set of responses and view on objects and events which life would be boring without. A quote by Charles Swindon to conclude on is “Attitude is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances than what people do or say. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference”(Swindon, 2008).  


Allport, G. W. Attitudes, Handbook of Social Psychology. Clark University Press, Worcester, 1935.

Bem, D.J. Beliefs, Attitudes and Human Affairs. Brooks/Cole, California, 1991.

Benson, C. Introducing Psychology. Icon Books Ltd, Cambridge, 1998.

Cooper J.B. & McGaugh J.L. Integrating principles of Social Psychology. Schenkman, USA.

Jahoda, M. & Warren, N. Attitudes, Selected Readings. Penguin Books Ltd, England, 1970.

Kimble, G.A., Wertheimer, M., Boneau, A. & White, C. Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology.Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, America, 1996.

Newcomb, T.M. A Dictionary of the Social Sciences. Gould and Kolb, London, 1964.

Zajonic, R.B. Balance, Congruity and Dissonance,Public Opinion. Princeton, U.S.A., 1960.

Evans, D. Beliefs, Attitudes and Behaviour, (power point lecture 1).Trinity College, Carmarthen, 2008.

Evans, D. Beliefs, Attitudes and behaviour, (power point lecture 2). Trinity College, Carmarthen, 2008.

Bandura, A. Social learning Theory (A. Bandura).

http://tip.psychology.org/bandura.htlm 1997

Mcleod, S. A. Simply Psychology (online) UK.

Http://www.simplypsychology.pwp.blueyounder.co.uk 2007

Swindon, C.


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