Attitude in Psychology

Definition, Formation, Changes

Attitude Definition:

In psychology, an attitude refers to a set of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors toward a particular object, person, thing, or event. 

Attitudes are often the result of experience or upbringing. They can have a powerful influence over behavior and affect how people act in various situations. While attitudes are enduring, they can also change.

This article explores what attitudes mean in psychology and how they are formed. It also covers how attitudes impact behaviors and factors contributing to attitude change.

how attitudes are formed

Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell 

Overview of Attitude

To understand the meaning of attitudes, it can be helpful to look at a few different examples:

  • Your opinion on the death penalty
  • Your opinion about which political party does a better job of running the country
  • Whether prayer be allowed in schools
  • Whether violence on television be regulated

Chances are that you probably have fairly strong opinions on these and similar questions. You've developed attitudes about such issues, and these attitudes influence your beliefs as well as your behavior. Attitudes are an important topic of study within the field of social psychology. But what exactly is an attitude? How does it develop? 

How Psychologists Define Attitudes

Psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way. This can include evaluations of people, issues, objects, or events. Such evaluations are often positive or negative, but they can also be uncertain at times.

For example, you might have mixed feelings about a particular person or issue. Researchers also suggest that there are several different characteristics that make up attitudes. The components of attitudes are sometimes referred to as CAB or the ABC's of attitude.

3 Components of Attitude

  • Cognitive Component: Your thoughts and beliefs about the subject
  • Affective Component: How the object, person, issue, or event makes you feel
  • Behavioral Component: How attitude influences your behavior

Attitudes can also be explicit and implicit. Explicit attitudes are those that we are consciously aware of and that clearly influence our behaviors and beliefs. Implicit attitudes are unconscious but still have an effect on our beliefs and behaviors.

Attitude Formation

Several factors can influence how and why attitudes form, including:

Experience

Attitudes form directly as a result of experience. They may emerge due to direct personal experience, or they may result from observation.

Social Factors

Social roles and social norms can have a strong influence on attitudes. Social roles relate to how people are expected to behave in a particular role or context. Social norms involve society's rules for what behaviors are considered appropriate.

Learning

Attitudes can be learned in a variety of ways. Consider how advertisers use classical conditioning to influence your attitude toward a particular product. In a television commercial, you see young, beautiful people having fun on a tropical beach while enjoying a sports drink. This attractive and appealing imagery causes you to develop a positive association with this particular beverage.

Conditioning

Operant conditioning can also be used to influence how attitudes develop. Imagine a young man who has just started smoking. Whenever he lights up a cigarette, people complain, chastise him, and ask him to leave their vicinity. This negative feedback from those around him eventually causes him to develop an unfavorable opinion of smoking and he decides to give up the habit.

Observation

Finally, people also learn attitudes by observing people around them. When someone you admire greatly espouses a particular attitude, you are more likely to develop the same beliefs. For example, children spend a great deal of time observing the attitudes of their parents and usually begin to demonstrate similar outlooks.

Recap

Attitudes can form through direct experience, social influence, formal education, conditioning processes, and observation.

Attitudes and Behavior

We tend to assume that people behave according to their attitudes. However, social psychologists have found that attitudes and actual behavior are not always perfectly aligned.

After all, plenty of people support a particular candidate or political party yet fail to vote. People also are more likely to behave according to their attitudes under certain conditions.

Factors Influencing Attitude Strength

  • Are an expert on the subject
  • Expect a favorable outcome
  • Experience something personally
  • Stand to win or lose something due to the issue
  • Are repeatedly expressed attitudes

Changing to Match Behavior

In some cases, people may alter their attitudes to better align them with their behavior. Cognitive dissonance is a phenomenon in which a person experiences psychological distress due to conflicting thoughts or beliefs. In order to reduce this tension, people may change their attitudes to reflect their other beliefs or actual behaviors.

Using Cognitive Dissonance

Imagine the following situation: You've always placed a high value on financial security, but you start dating someone very financially unstable. You have two options to reduce the tension caused by conflicting beliefs and behavior.

You can end the relationship and seek a more financially secure partner, or you can de-emphasize the importance of fiscal stability.

In order to minimize the dissonance between your conflicting attitude and behavior, you either have to change the attitude or change your actions.

Why Attitudes Change

While attitudes can have a powerful effect on behavior, they are not set in stone. The same influences that lead to attitude formation can also create attitude change.

Learning Theory

Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning can be used to bring about attitude change. Classical conditioning can be used to create positive emotional reactions to an object, person, or event by associating positive feelings with the target object.

Operant conditioning can be used to strengthen desirable attitudes and weaken undesirable ones. People can also change their attitudes after observing the behavior of others.

Elaboration Likelihood Theory

This theory of persuasion suggests that people can alter their attitudes in two ways. First, they can be motivated to listen and think about the message, thus leading to an attitude shift.

Or, they might be influenced by the characteristics of the speaker, leading to a temporary or surface shift in attitude. Messages that are thought-provoking and that appeal to logic are more likely to lead to permanent changes in attitudes.

Dissonance Theory

As mentioned earlier, people can also change their attitudes when they have conflicting beliefs about a topic. In order to reduce the tension created by these incompatible beliefs, people often shift their attitudes.

Recap

Attitudes are not set in stone and may change when people learn new information, when they are persuaded by influential people, or when they experience discomfort due to holding conflicting beliefs.

A Word From Verywell

Attitudes play a pivotal role in shaping human behavior, from the choices people make about living their lives to the health behaviors they engage in daily. Understanding where these attitudes come from and how they sometimes change can help you look for ways to improve your attitudes, whether it means adopting a more positive outlook on life or changing your opinion based on new information.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. International Journal of Advanced Research in Management and Social Sciences. 3 D Model of Attitude.

  2. Chaiklin, H. Attitudes, Behavior, and Social Practice. The Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare: Vol. 38 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. 

  3. Perlovsky L. A challenge to human evolution—cognitive dissonance. Frontiers in Psychology. 2013;4. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00179.

  4. American Psychological Association. Teaching tip sheet: Attitudes and behavior change

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.