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Similarities Between Ajzens And Festingers Work On Attitude 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.

The broadest similarity that can be drawn between Ajzen’s (1975, 1991) and Festinger’s (1957) work on attitude, is that they are both interested in the link between behaviour and attitude. The theory of planned behaviour (TPB) (Ajzen, 1991) (and formerly the theory of reasoned action (Ajzen, 1975) was designed to predict behaviour more accurately than the poor correlations attitude and behaviour were exhibiting in research. Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory (CDT) demonstrated that behaviour could influence attitude when there is an inconsistency between them. He termed this “dissonance”. Broadly speaking, the TPB uses attitude as a predictive tool, while CDT is more interested in attitude as cognitive outcome. More specific differences in the theories’ treatment of attitude as a concept can be observed in definition, conceptualisation and position in their respective theoretical frameworks.

Defining Attitude

Ajzen and Fishbein (1975) helpfully define attitude as “a learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favourable or unfavourable manner with respect to a given object” (p.6). Festinger’s (1957) writing on CDT doesn’t offer as formal a definition. CDT instead refers to cognitions about behaviour and knowledge. It can be understood that attitudes fall under CDT’s “cognitions” umbrella; “any knowledge, opinion or belief about the environment, about oneself or about one’s behaviour”. According to CDT persistent dissonance arises from persistent cognitions being challenged by new knowledge or behaviour. These persistent cognitions can equate with attitudes. These definitions seem to agree on the relatively stable and enduring nature of attitudes.

CDT and the TPB can also agree that attitude incorporates an evaluative component. The TPB “favourable or unfavourable manner” definition allows for an evaluative judgement as well as an affective judgement. The theory of reasoned action didn’t distinguish between these two types of judgement. The TPB recognised the qualitative difference between the perceived benefits and practicalities of a behaviour (evaluative judgements) and the feelings a behaviour might arouse (affective judgements). For example, an attitude to training with your hurling team may be comprised of evaluative judgements (increasing fitness, improving chances of winning a starting position on the team) and affective judgements (enjoying the physical exertion, the satisfaction at performing well). While CDT research agrees that attitude involves evaluative judgement, it doesn’t construct attitude as enduringly as the TPB might. As will be further discussed, fleeting cognition rather than just accumulated experience can influence attitude.

Conceptualisation and Attitude Formation

Both CDT and the TPB contribute to our understanding of how attitudes are formed. CDT details how attitude-discrepant behaviour can lead to the formation of a new attitude or the modification of an old one. The TPB understands attitudes as an aggregation of beliefs.

The TPB defines beliefs as the “subjective probability that an object has a particular characteristic” (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). A myriad of beliefs can be combined to form an attitude to a behaviour. It is the salience of the belief that the TPB uniquely identified as an important antecedent to attitude. Researcher-generated belief measurement may not touch on the issues that matter to participants. Salient beliefs can only be identified by contact with the participants. This allowed for stronger correlations between beliefs and attitude to the behavior in studies on topics such as obesity (Schifter & Ajzen, 1985) and alcohol consumption (Conner, Warren, Close & Sparks, 1999). By measuring these salient beliefs and creating a summative belief index, the TPB allows us to understand attitude formation with quantitative accuracy.

While the CDT may have been conceived as a way to understand attitude-discrepant behaviour, it also helps us understand how some attitudes are created. Its scope in explaining attitude formation is more context-dependent than the TPB. Dissonance is required to examine attitude under the CDT lens. In Brehm’s (1956) study, dissonance illustrates how an attitude can change after making a decision. Participants were required to rate the desirability of several household appliances, and were then given a choice to take one of two appliances as a gift. For one group the items were 1- 1.5 points apart on the 8 point scale (high dissonance) and the low dissonance group had items that were a full 3 points apart. When asked to re-evaluate the items, participants in the high dissonance group showed a significant increase in liking for the chosen items. This is a key difference in conceptualisation of attitude by CDT. Cognition can be an immediate antecedent to a new attitude, whether it be the desirability of household appliances or how boring a task was (Festinger, 1957). Attitude formation doesn’t always require an aggregation of learned beliefs.

Position in Theoretical Framework

As mentioned in the introduction, the TPB employs attitude as a predictive tool to assess the likelihood of behavioural intent. CDT treats attitude as an outcome following cognition or counter-attitudinal behaviour. The best way to represent attitude’s different positions in the respective theoretical frameworks is by a common example.

Smoking is a behaviour that both theories can be applied to. A study on smoking cessation using the TPB (Norman, Conner & Bell, 1997) employs attitude as a predictor of smoking cessation. The study measured specific attitudes relating to smoking cessation such as participants’ intention to stop smoking in the next six months. These scores were used along with subjective norm and perceived behavioural control to predict smoking cessation with some accuracy (the TPB accounted for 50% of the variance in behavioural intentions).

CDT can be applied to examine how people make sense of the attitude-discrepant behaviour of smoking. People are generally aware that smoking is bad for them, yet continue to smoke. Festinger (1957) suggested that people may be capable of “changing” their knowledge or rationalising away the dissonance by saying to themselves “I enjoy smoking so much that it is worth it” or “The health risks are not as serious as some would make out”. However, CDT is more useful in examining smoking cessation than merely pointing out some common rationalisation strategies. As Aronson (1997) pointed out “Prior to 1957, the general wisdom among psychologists was that, if you want people to change their behavior, you must first get them to change their attitudes”. CDT predicts that if behaviour is changed first, old attitudes are likely to fall in line with this new behaviour. The smoking ban imposed in Ireland is an example of CDT driven attitude change. Rather than attempting to influence public opinion first, a ban was imposed and there is some evidence that attitudes fell in line with the new imposed behaviour (Carr, 2009).

Cognitive dissonance theory and the theory of planned behaviour may employ the attitude construct in differently in terms of its position in their theoretical frameworks and its antecendents, but both can agree on the importance of its relationship with behaviour.


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