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  • Free Psychology Essay | Can attitude ever be relied upon as a predictor of behaviour? Discuss.

Free Psychology Essay

Free Psychology Essay

Can attitude ever be relied upon as a predictor of behaviour? Discuss.

The definition of attitude is a complex process which entails the use of many different perspectives, which perhaps sets the precedence for this essay.  The definitional arguments are noted by Reber (1995), due to the underlying significance of such terminology. It suggests that a definition is not justified for attitude without incorporating an aspect of explanation. An attitude is a hypothetical construct (in that we are unable to measure and relying upon subjective reporting) which can be recognised by individuals as biasing or influencing their behaviour in some manner (Cardwell, 2000) Behaviour is a simpler concept in explanatory terms, generally referring to organism responses. Behaviourists have argued with what constitutes behaviour and that which does not since the emergence of behaviourism. Importance was directed at observable behaviour (Cardwell, 2000) and not that of internal behaviour such as cognition (if such processes are to be regarded as behaviour).

But why study attitudes and their predictive qualities on behaviour? Quite simply put, to change them. Health campaigns try to change general attitudes towards individuals such that they can prolong or increase their quality of life. Emotional and behavioural problems can be managed through deliberate manipulation of attitudes by therapists. Major corporations may try to change attitudes towards particular brands, so that their own brand becomes the more favourable. The study of attitudes may also help us understand some of the atrocities of history, such as the Nazi regime in the Second World War. This is why so much research has been completed in the area of attitudes and behaviour, often with conflicting results.

Much of the research on attitudes has concentrated its efforts in the internal concepts often disregarding the notion of social influence (Cooper et al., 2004). Whilst taking this common research issue and applying it to real world attitude constructs, a definition which incorporates this is of more value, such as that of Warren and Jahoda (1973 cited in Gross, 2010, p.366):

                ‘Attitudes have social reference in their origins and development in their objects, while at the same time they have psychological reference in that they inhere in the individual and are intimately enmeshed in his behaviour and his psychological make-up.’ 

The aforementioned definition incorporates not only the internal states and feelings, it looks at the way the social world constructs innate beliefs. It is from this that we can suggest that perhaps attitudes cannot be reliable predictors of behaviour due the inherent nature of their creation; the internal and the external. As such, they may change from moment to moment. From this we look at the arguments which support or challenge this view.

Attitudes are important for our existence, as without them we would not be able to decipher the world around us. Our lives would be filled with ambiguity and resultant stressors (Hogg and Vaughn, 1995). Yet, do our displayed attitudes towards that around us, be it hypothetical or a solid construct, actually reflect what we feel inside and thus our behaviour? Or is it our behaviour which we give most forethought to and adjust our overt attitudes accordingly?

In our quest for understanding the predetermined attributes to our behaviour, a basic evaluation for attitudes comes from the three-component model by Rosenberg and Hovland, (1960 cited in Gross, 2010, p.367). Measurable stimuli present to the individual as independent variables. This is then transferred to attitudes toward our affect (mood, feeling), cognition (thoughts and beliefs) and behaviour (physical or verbal). This model would suggest that our attitudes are highly correlated with our behaviour, through the linear model in which it presents. However, research has often shown otherwise, highlighting the possibility that our attitudes may not reliably predict our behaviour. In the 1930’s, Standford University Psychologist Richard LaPiere, had started showing an interest in the links between attitudes and behaviour. There was a tendency for psychologists of the time to heavily support the idea that attitudes were commonly displayed in behaviour (Baron and Byrne, 2000). In 1934, LaPiere spent two years travelling the United States with a young Chinese couple during a period of extreme racism towards minority groups (Wetherell, 2006). During their travels they dined at 184 restaurants and stayed in 66 public residential areas. Throughout their trip, only once did they experience negativity in the refusal of service. However, after the trip, LaPiere wrote to the entire body of establishments at which they had eaten or stayed, and ask dif they would offer service to Chinese individuals. 92% of the 128 businesses which replied, stated that they would not. What was also interesting was that this view was also found among restaurants that they did not visit. It appeared as an overwhelming majority negative attitude towards Chinese individuals. LaPiere did try to justify the findings in terms of possible confounding variables, such as the pleasant nature of the couple and their ability to smile polity at appropriate times and their unaccented English. This aside, LaPiere noted a tremendous gap in what people think and what they actually do; a huge variance between their attitude and their behaviour.

Critically, we are able to argue that perhaps LaPier’s results may have been more reflective of reality had he addressed the letters to managers in the early weeks prior to entering the establishment. This would have reduced the possibilities of management, staff or regulation changes. Although an alternative, it also creates an issue. Would it act as a primer, reinforcing attitudes and beliefs before the Chinese appeared at the establishments? This is known as evaluative priming and links attitudes to associated concepts in memory (Fazio, 1995). The concepts states that when presented with an object associated with an attitude, prior to a situation where this attitude would have an effect on the situation, the individual is more likely to respond positively or negatively dependent on the situation in which they were presented with the object. This therefore denotes that attitudes (which result in observant behaviour) are dependent more on situational or cultural factors as opposed to inherent attitudes.

This is supported by research into racial prejudice. Fazio (1995), asked white participants to indicate positive or negative meaning to objects shown on a screen, yet prior to showing the image, either a white or a black face was presented to them. In this instance, showing the individuals a black face resulted in a much faster response time when the meanings were negative. Furthermore, Ajzen and Fishbein (1977), argue that LaPiere’s research tried to predict specific behaviours, from general attitudes and vice-versa. That is, in the time of his experiment, general attitudes towards Chinese individuals may have been of similar nature. However, something in the social situation caused the discrepancies between the attitude and behaviour. Thus far, the research tends to point more towards the social constructs around individuals rather than their attitudes which affect their behaviour.

Upon looking at the research of LaPiere, we see that his work did not display attitudinal measures towards one explicit object. His work did not pinpoint direct correlations; it was more of an anecdotal approach.

Wicker (1971, p.142), set out measures for attitude research which would allow for conclusions to be made about their associations with behaviour; the qualities the research must have to quantify and valid research.

                ‘(1) at least one attitudinal measure and one overt behavioural measure toward the same object must be obtained for each subject, (2) the attitude and the behaviour must be measured on separate occasions, and (3) the overt behavioural response must not merely be the subject’s retrospective verbal report of his own behaviour’

The basic laboratory design of attitude research involves measuring people’s attitudes towards an ‘object’, known as a pre-test. Secondly, they are exposed to persuasive communication, and then finally their ‘resultant’ attitude is measured. If there is a difference between the original attitude and that which is conveyed in the post-test, then the persuasive element is deemed to have ‘worked’.

Wicker carried out meta-analyses on numerous studies into attitude to see which fit the criteria for valid research. One such example is the work of Corey (1937 cited in Wetherell, 2006, p.129). He was able to use hidden deception to distinguish and quantify cheating amongst students. He independently measured the student’s levels of cheating and then measured their attitudes to cheating with a questionnaire. Analysis showed virtually no association with student’s attitudes and their behaviour. From the meta-analysis of Wicker, it showed the trend was that attitudes were unlikely to be correlated to behaviours.

There were however, still individuals who found the criteria for attitude research somewhat disorganised and therefore spent time refining what constituted ‘valid’ studies. Myers (1993 cited in Wetherell, 2006, p129) suggested that behavioural predictions could only be made in specific situations.

(1) When the influences on how people express attitudes are minimized. (2) When influences on the attitude-related behaviour are minimized. (3) When the attitude is specific to the behaviour. (4) When the attitude is more salient. 

Myers 1st criterion, reinforces the notion of the social effect on attitudes. Attitude cannot be formed without social influences, because we live in an interactive social world. This would also suggest that individuals with the same overt attitudes may have come to hold such values through a much different process. From this we can further suggest that because of the ways in which the attitudes were obtained, there may be different behavioural consequences. Furthermore, questionnaires are not true reflections of attitudes. They tend to use likert scales which ask individuals to base their attitudes within small scales, perhaps too simplistic for the complex field of attitude. Questionnaires also create demand characteristics; the individual may answer in a socially desirable manner, again creating arguments towards the fact that measurable attitudes cannot be a reliable predictor of behaviour (Wetherell, 2006). Myers 2nd criterion is similar to the social influences on attitudes in that the individual needs the correct situation to be able to fulfil attitudinal behaviour. Wetherell (2006, p.131) exemplifies:

                ‘…however much a young teenage smoker would like to buy a packet of cigarettes, when she is in a shop with her disapproving parents she will probably resist.’ 

However much an individual holds beliefs or attitudes towards particular affairs, he may have to wait until he is within an acceptable domain to pursue. An individual may not admit they have a love of hunting, due to the general consensus of immorality and the legal implications, but may be involved in hunting when they are in the confides of a pro-hunting social set. Myer’s 3rd criterion would require attitude researchers to be very specific in the questioning, avoiding generalised demographic or broad questions. Azjen and Fishbein (1977) found that when this criterion was satisfied, results were more accurate in their predictions of behaviour. Myer’s final criterion refers to attitudes being brought to mind; made salient. General behaviour follows scripts or schemas to which we adhere our behaviour, often causing us to act differently to our inherent attitudes. General politeness questions, such as ‘How are you today’ are often met with answers such as ‘Fine, yourself?’, when in fact the individual is not ‘fine’. They may even be far from it. Synder and Swann, (1976) suggest that for these scripted patterns to be overcome, individuals need to consider their attitudes before they ‘behave’. This relates to the work of LaPiere and the idea that had he asked the establishment managers their attitudes before the event, their behaviour may have correlated more with their behaviour.

Conclusively, the general consensus thus far is that attitudes don’t predict behaviour. This ‘attitude-behaviour problem’ has threatened to undermine the entire early body of evidence on attitude research. The research looked at attitudes as being individual constructs from which are behaviours are determined. This would suggest that attitudes are constant entities which remain stable over time. The social interaction individuals experience would suggest otherwise. Society changes over time and with it, attitudes often follow suit (Gross, 2010). For a study highly reflective of attitudes and behaviour, individuals own thoughts and feelings would need to be recorded, their discourse analysed and their behaviour observed. This would need to be a longitudinal process including numerous participants, such to the point that the extraction of perfect attitude research would be a long and tedious process. Besides, recording ‘real’ thoughts and feelings is nigh impossible. Everybody comes into contact with different ‘direct experience’, such that we could never able to find a common denominator in attitude. This again, emphasizes the concept, that behaviour cannot reliably be predicted from attitude. It is, in essence, an almost impossible task. The influenced of small entities of society such as the media are themselves, ever-changing and vast, creating a world of hidden depth and complexity. Although psychologists have created criterion for valid research, this criterion can never consider the immense confounding variables, demand characteristics and idiosyncrasy of human experience. This idiosyncrasy of human experience causes individuals to create their own version of events, live within their own mental existence and as such they battle within the ongoing debates of society (Potter, 1996 cited in Gross, 2010, p.371). Response to the initial question, ‘Can attitude ever be relied upon as a predictor of behaviour?’ appears, through deep analytical assumptions, that we cannot.


Ajzen, I., and Fishbein, M., 1977. Attitude-behaviour relations: A theoretical analysis and review of empirical research. Psychological Bulletin , 84, pp.888-918.

Baron, R. A., and Byrne, D., 2000. Social Psychology. Needham Heights: Pearson Education.

Cardwell, M., 2000. The Complete A-Z Psychology Handbook (2nd ed). London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Cooper, J., Kelly, K. A., and Weaver, K., 2004. Attitudes. norms and social groups. In M. B. Brewer, and M. Hewstone, Social Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Fazio, R. H., 1995. Attitudes as object-evaluation associations: Determinants, consequences, and correlates of attitude accessibility. In R. E. Petty, and J. A. Krosnick, Attitude Strength: Antecedents and Consequences. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Gross, R., 2010. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (6th ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Hogg, M. A., and Vaughn, G. M., 1995. Social Psychology: An Introduction. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice-Hall/Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Reber, A. S., 1995. Dictionary of Psychology (2nd ed.). London: Penguin Group.

Synder, M., and Swan, W. J., 1976. When actions reflect attitudes: the politics of impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, pp.1034-42.

Wetherell, M., 2006. Identities, Groups and Social Issues. London: Sage.

Wicker, A. W., 1971. Attitudes versus actions: the relationship of overt and behavioural responses to attitude objects’. In K. Thomas, Attitudes and Behaviour. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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