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Attitude As Construct In Psychological Theory Psychology Essay

Compare and contrast the conceptualization and use of attitude as a construct in the Cognitive Dissonance Theory to another psychological theory that also includes attitude as a construct (for example, the Theory of Planned Behaviour or the Theory of Reasoned Action). How is attitude the same and different in these two theories? Answer this question in terms of conceptualization, definition, position in the theoretical framework, and in any other manner you see relevant to your paper. Use published work and examples to illustrate your position.

An attitude is a “positive, negative, or mixed reaction to a person, object or idea” (Alvarez & Brehm, 2002, p. 179). Another definition is that an attitude is “a learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favourable or unfavourable manner with respect to a given object” (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). Katz (1960) stated that there were 4 functions of attitudes, these are understanding, need satisfaction, Ego defence and value expression. Therefore, we use attitudes to make sense of our world and also in response to what happens in our daily lives so that we maintain or boost our self-esteem. Also the values we hold, which are strong beliefs about important life goals or issues, shape our attitudes so that in turn the attitudes we hold express our values and help us to establish an identity, for example a political affiliation may be part of ‘who we are’. Attitudes have been described as having a tricomponent structure, which means an attitude is composed of an affective component, a behavioural component and a cognitive component, where some attitudes will have all three components and some will not. An attitude then is not merely a belief which is defined as “subjective probability that an object has a particular characteristic” (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). Instead an attitude is a seen as a summary of evaluative beliefs. Similarly opinions are similar to beliefs and are more specific to one aspect or characteristic of a person or object than attitudes, which are a more general view of that person.

Cognitive dissonance theory states that we are motivated by a desire for cognitive consistency, so that our beliefs, attitudes and behaviours are compatible with each other (Festinger, 1957). Cognitive dissonance then, is when we hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, so that there is an inconsistency between the two ideas which leads to a conflict or inconsistency. Festinger argued that inconsistent cognitions arouse psychological tension that people become motivated to reduce; he compared this drive to the drive to reduce hunger. Therefore, the theory argues that we have a motivational drive to reduce the dissonance by changing our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, or by justifying or rationalizing our attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. (Festinger, 1957). So if there is a discrepancy between our attitudes and behaviours, we must change something to eliminate the dissonance, so the attitude or behavior must change to accommodate the other, where the easiest form of dissonance reduction will be taken.

This theory was examined in a study by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959). In a boring task experiment, they had participants complete a boring experiment, and when they were finished they asked the participant to tell the next participant (who was actually an actor) that the experiment was interesting and engaging. Some of the participants were give $1, some $20 and a control group were given nothing. The participants were then asked to rate the boring task at the end of the study and the participants who were paid $1 rated the task more positively. Festinger and Carlsmith argued that this is evidence for cognitive dissonance as the participants had to reduce the conflict between the task being boring and the fact that they lied for money, by changing their belief that the task was boring. This is an example of reducing cognitive dissonance by justifying attitude discrepant behaviour. There are 2 other main ways which are effort justification and justifying decisions. For effort justification, we will downplay the effort needed to achieve a goal and re-evaluate the goal in a more favourable light so as to increase our chances of achieving the goal. We need to justify difficult decisions, so we tend to exaggerate the positive aspects or reasons for one choice over an alternative, where we will focus on the negative aspects of the alternative. Cognitive Dissonance theory has been updated slightly recently to include the following: that the attitude-discrepant behaviour must produce unwanted negative consequences, that a feeling of personal responsibility for the unpleasant outcomes of behaviour, that it causes physical arousal or discomfort and that there is attribution of the arousal to the attitude-discrepant act.

In all these efforts to reduce dissonance, we see that attitudes can be changed to reduce dissonance, and that the relationship between attitudes is just as important as the relationship between attitudes and behaviour. For example, if your attitude is that drinking when you socialise is harmless and that also another attitude is that you don’t think drinking alcohol is a wise move, then there will be dissonance when you socialise, so that you will reduce the dissonance by either deciding that you will hold to your view that drinking is not a wise move, or decide that your belief that social drinking is harmless is valid and justify this by the techniques previously described. This attitude will then affect your behaviour, but remember that you can also change your behaviour to reduce dissonance so that it is consistent with your attitude.

Wicker’s (1969) review of research examined the relationship between attitudes and behaviour, and his conclusion that attitudes probably do not predict behaviour; social psychologists have sought to improve the predictive power of attitudes. This led to a new approach within this area whose aim was to develop integrated models of behaviour, including additional determinants of behaviour such as social norms or intentions.

The theory of planned behaviour is a product of this approach and argues that attitudes toward a specific behaviour (or a class of behaviours) combine with subjective norms and perceived control to influence a person’s actions (Ajzen, 1991). Therefore, if a person evaluates a specific behaviour as positive, and if they think their significant others wanted them to perform the behaviour, and they feel they can perform the behaviour; they will have a higher intention to perform the behaviour. The theory’s components of attitude and subjective norms have been shown to correlate with behavioural intention, but not always with actual behaviour (Armitage & Conner, 2001). This led to Ajzen introducing the perceived behavioural control measure, which takes into account situations where the person’s control over the behaviour is incomplete, so that it’s not just behavioural intention but also behaviour that can be predicted.

Ajzen defined the attitude toward behaviour element as:

an individual’s positive or negative evaluation of self performance of the particular behaviour. The concept is the degree to which performance of the behaviour is positively or negatively valued. It is determined by the total set of accessible behavioural beliefs linking the behaviour to various outcomes and other attributes.

The theory defines the relationship between beliefs and attitudes as being that a person’s attitude towards behaviour is determined by their accessible beliefs about the behaviour, where the belief is the subjective probability that the behaviour will produce a specific outcome. Therefore, the evaluation of each outcome contributes to the attitude in direct proportion to the person’s subjective possibility that the behaviour produces the outcome in question (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). Attitudes can be affected by a number of factors which for the theory of planned behaviour are useful to consider, Ajzen (1991), argued attitudes give rise to behaviour only when we perceive the behaviour to be within our control. The attitude strength will be increased by having more information as well as being involved with or having direct experience with an object, and as I have said, attitudes which are more accessible will be consistent with behaviour.

Attitudes in this theory are conceptualised as a precursor of behavioural intention, so that there is an attitude-intention-behaviour sequence. The attitudes determine intentions which in turn influence behaviour and behaviour is not seen as influencing attitude in reverse. This is a difference to cognitive dissonance theory which argued that it was the dissonance between the attitude and behaviour which could lead to a change in either the attitude or behaviour. Also if two attitudes or beliefs are in conflict, the dissonance reduction could be seen as similar to how the theory of planned behaviour argues that attitude influences behaviour, as the attitude will be a reflection of the beliefs the person holds, and by providing more positive information for a certain behaviour, the attitude may change. Similarly in cognitive dissonance, when there are more positive reasons for a certain option, the person will reduce their dissonance by downplaying or ignoring the conflicting evidence. The use of attitudes in these theories shows how attitudes can be used in different ways to explain human behaviour.


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