Theories of Attitude Formation

Theories of Attitude Formation

A great number of theories have been proposed to explain attitude formation and change. These theories may broadly be classified into three categories: cognitive consistency theories, functional theories, and social judgement theories. However, there is frequent discontinuity between various groupings because related approaches have focused on different sets of phenomena. Nevertheless, such classification is valid from practical point of view.

1. Cognitive Consistency Theories
Attitudes do not exist in isolation; indeed, a complex structure results which appears to have at its heart a consistent tendency to maintain balance and resist change from influences of various types. In general, these theories are concerned with inconsistencies that arise between related beliefs, bits of knowledge, and/or evaluations about an object or an issue. Though various consistency theories differ in several respects, including the form of inconsistency about which they are concerned, all of them have in common the idea that the psychological tension created by this unpleasant state leads to attempts at reducing the inconsistency. There are four important theories under this group.

i. Balance Theory

The basic model of balance theory has been provided by fielder. The theory is concerned with consistency in the judgement of people and/or issues that are linked by some form of relationship. There are three elements in the attitude formation: the person, other person, and impersonal entity. Two generic types of relationships are considered to exist between the elements: linking or sentiment relations and unit relations. The linking relations encompass all forms of sentiment of effect, while unit relationships express the fact that two elements are perceived as belonging together. Both linking and unit relations can be positive and negative. In a three element system, balance exists if all three relations are positive or if two relations are negative and one is positive. Imbalance exists if all three relations are negative or if two relations are positive and one is negative. People tend to perceive others and objects linked to them so that the system is balanced. Thus, if a perceiver likes a source who favours a certain position on an issue, the balancing process induces the perceiver to favour that position too. The balanced states are stable and imbalanced states are unstable. When imbalanced states occur, the psychological tension created motivates the person to restore balance cognitively by changing the relation. Thus, a person’s attitudes towards an object depend on his attitudes towards a source who is linked with the object.
The basic model of Heider has been criticised on some grounds. For example, the theory does not consider the degree of linking or unit relationship nor the relevance to the perceiver of the elements and relations. Consequently, there are no degrees of balance or imbalance, and it is not possible to make quantitative predictions about the degree of attitude change.
In an extension of balance model, Abelson has suggested four methods in which a person can resolve imbalance in cognitive structure : denial, bolstering, differentiation, and transcendence. Denial involves denying a relationship when imbalance occurs. Bolstering involves adding element in the structure, that is, adding another issue in the mam issue. Differentiation involves splitting one of the elements into two elements that are related in opposite ways to other elements in the system and negatively related to each other. Transcendence involves combining elements into larger, more superordinate units from a balance structure. These processes occur in hierarchy so that a person’s attempts to resolve imbalance in the ordering are discussed. The ordering is based on the assumption that the person will attempt the least effortful resolution first. This theory helps in understanding the role of persuasive communication and interpersonal attractiveness in changing the attitudes.

ii. Congruity Theory
Osgood and Tannenbaum have proposed the congruity theory of attitudes which is similar to the balance theory. The focus of the theory is on changes in the evaluation of a source and a concept, that are linked by an associative or dissociative assertion.Congruity exists when a source and concept that are positively associated have exactly the same evaluations and when a source and concept that are negatively associated have exactly the oppositive evaluations attached to them. Congruity is a stable state and incongruity is unstable one. As such, incongruity leads to attitude change, and the theory states how much attitudes towards the source and towards the concept change in order to resolve the incongruity.

iii. Affective Cognitive Consistency Theory
This theory, propounded by Rosenberg, is concerned with the consistency between a person’s overall attitude or effect towards an object or issue and his beliefs about its relationship to his more general value. Rosenberg has related attitudes to one aspect of cognitive structure-means-end-relationship between the object or Issue and the achievement of desired and undesired value of goals. The theory Is also called structural because It Is concerned mainly with what happens within the Individual when an attitude changes. It proposes that the relationship between the affective and the cognitive components of the attitude change when an attitude Is altered.
The theory postulates that a person’s effect towards or evaluation of the attitude object tends to be consistent with this congnltlve structural component When there is inconsistency beyond a certain level of tolerance, the Individual is motivated to reduce the inconsistency and thereby to change one or both components to make them more consistent The theory, thus, suggests that changes in the affective component produce changes in the cognitive component in order to bring about consistency between the two. The theory also suggests that persuasive communication can be used to change the attitudes. The persuasive communication conveys Information about how the attitude object or issue furthers the attainment of certain desirable ends or conveys persuasive material that results Into a re-evaluation of the goals themselves.

iv. Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Festinger, has had by far the greatest impact on the study of attitudes. At first sight, this theory may appear similar to the affective-cognitive theory. The difference between the two is that this theory (dissonance) tends to tie in the third component of the attitudes (behavioural tendency) with cognitions about the attitude object. Rather than dealing with only one belief, this theory deals with relationship a person’s ideas have with one other. It states that there are three types of relationships between all cognitions:
(a) Consonance
(b) Dissonance
(c) Irrelevance

(a) Cognitions are consonant when one follows from the other either on the basis of logic or experience.
(b) Dissonance arises when cognitions have conflicting relations with one another, i.e. one cognition is the opposite of another.
(c) Cognitions are irrelevant when events resulting from them have no relations among one another

The Cognitive Dissonance Theory is based on the assumption that any kind of dissonance or inconsistency is uncomfortable. So dissonance acts like a drive or force which gives rise to pressures that reduce or eliminate the dissonance. Thus when a person has to choose among two’alternatives (e.g., offer of two jobs at the same time), he has to accept one and reject the other. After he takes the decision and proceeds to work accordingly, he feels the dissonance because just then the positive features of the rejected alternative haunt his mind. As he proceeds further with working on the chosen alternative, the feeling of dissonance leads him to lay stress on the negative features of the rejected alternative and the positive features of the selected alternative. The justification process is the result of dissonance. After all, each person is eager to establish his rationality. For instance, it is common knowledge that most chain-smokers invent arguments against the proposition ‘cigarette smoking is injurious to health’.

2. Functional Theory
Functional theory considers how attitudes and efforts are related to the motivational structure of the individual. The theory focuses on the meaning of the influence situation in terms of both the kind of motive that is aroused and the individual’s method of coping and achieving his goals. An understanding of the functions served by attitudes is important for attitude change procedures since a particular method may produce change in individuals whose attitudes serve one particular function, but may produce no change in an opposite direction in individuals for whom the attitudes serve a different function.
The most prominent person who visualized functional theory is Katz and he suggests four functions of attitudes: utilitarian or instrumental function, ego defensive, value orientation, and knowledge, as discussed earlier. It can be seen that there is some similarity in parts of this theory to cognitive dissonance theory. When an attitude serves an adjustive function, one of the two conditions must prevail before it can be changed:

i. the attitude and the activities related to it no longer provide the satisfaction they once did; or

ii. the individual’s level of aspiration has been raised.

Shifts in the satisfaction which come from behaviours bring with them changes in the attitudes. When new behaviours inconsistent with attitudes bring satisfaction, these attitudes then must be adjusted. However, Katz s functional theory has not stimulated much research except for the work on changing ego-defensive attitudes.
Kelman has given another approach about the functional approach of attitudes. His theory is directed towards the types of social relationships that occur in social influence situations. Kelman has distinguished three processes of attitude formation and change—compliance, identification, and internalisation. These processes derive functional meaning primarily from their emphasis on the motivational significance of the individual’s relationship to the influencing agent, or from the differing types of social integration that they represent. Compliance occurs when an attitude is formed or changed in order to gain a favourable reaction from other person or group. Identification occurs when a person forms or changes his attitude because this adoption helps him establish or maintain a positive self-defining relationship with the influencing agent. Internalisation involves adopting an attitude because it is congruent with one’s overall value system. The individual perceives the content of the induced attitude as enhancing his own values. This approach makes an important contribution towards an understanding of the conditions that influence the maintenance and stability of attitude change.

3. Social Judgement Theory
The social judgement theory, formulated originally by Sherif and Hoveland, attempts to explain how existing attitudes produce distortions of attitudinally related objects and how these judgements mediate attitude change. Accordingly, a person’s own stand on an issue, that is initial attitude, serves as an anchor for the judgement of attitudinally related stimuli. The person’s initial attitude on an issue provides a point of reference against which he evaluates other opinions. These views can be considered in terms of attitudinal continuum and can be considered as comprising latitudes. The latitude of acceptance, which is the range of opinions the individual finds acceptable, encompasses the opinion that best characterises his own stand. The attitude of rejection, which is the range of opinions the individual finds objectionable, encompasses the opinion he finds most objectionable. The attitude of non-commitment is the range of opinion that the person finds neither acceptable nor unacceptable.