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Social psychological theories of attitude

Attitudes and Stereotypes are formed on the basis of a physical characteristic or a physical fact. There are three components to an attitude, a cognitive component, this is the thoughts and beliefs about the group or individual, the way in which we perceive them. An affective component, these are the feelings towards that group or individual, for example hate or anger. Lastly the behavioural component is the actions or the behaviour directed at a group or individual based on the cognitive and affective components.

An attitude or stereotype can form from an experience that we have had in the past, this is called a Social Schema. Social Schemas are mental representations that can be about you, other people and specific and common social situations. We use Social Schemas during impression formation before we have even met someone, they are our expectations of a group or individual.

Attitudes and Stereotypes can be formed from information that we are given about a group or individual, the way in which this information is presented to us can effect our lasting impression of that group or individual. When we use the information presented to us first as our lasting impression it is called the Primacy Effect and when we use the information presented to us last to form our lasting impression it is called the Recency Effect. The Asch study of 1946 saw Asch try to determine if the order that information was given about a person affected the impression formed of that person. He wrote two lists of adjectives, one had the positive characteristics at the beginning and the second had the positive characteristics at the end of the list. Asch concluded that the people who were given the list that had the positive characteristics at the beginning were more likely to have a positive view of the person then the people given the second list. This demonstrates the Primacy Effect, if we are describing someone and give the positives first we are more likely to give a positive picture of the person. Recency Effect is more likely to occur when there is a time delay between two sets of information. Luchins (1957) did a study to demonstrate this. He gave participants two paragraphs about a man called Jim, one of the paragraphs was positive describing Jim as extrovert and the other was negative describing him as introvert. One group were asked to read the positive paragraph first, have a fifteen minute break where they were to read a magazine and then read the negative paragraph. The second group were to do the same but read the negative paragraph first, have the break and then read the positive paragraph. Luchins found that if the participants were distracted during the break they were more influenced by the second paragraph that they read.

Within both of these studies participants were given descriptive words and paragraphs to describe someone. In an earlier study by Asch in 1946 he discovered that we look for central traits in someone’s personality, the Central Traits dominate the impression that we are forming of a person while the Peripheral Traits have very little influence on impression formations. This means that our impression formation can be effected by what words are used to describe someone as well as the order that it is given to us. He found that using words like ‘warm’ or ‘cold’ to describe someone impacted the rating of that person, these were central traits but using words like ‘polite’ and ‘blunt’ had no impact on the rating, these were peripheral traits.

To have a prejudice is to have an extreme attitude or belief, Tajfel devised Social Identity Theory it states that individuals naturally strived for a positive image and that we enhance our social identity by putting others into in/out groups. He devised a three component model, firstly people categorise themselves into groups to help them to better understand their social environment. Secondly there is Social Identification where the person adopts the behaviour associated with that group and thirdly there is Social Comparison where the individual compares there group to others, to maintain there self-esteem they must compare well to other groups.

Tajfel (1970) carried out a study to support his Social Identity Theory, he randomly put children aged between 11 and 14 into one of two groups and they were led to believe it was on the basis of what famous artist they favoured. No one in the groups had any interaction. They were asked to allocate rewards out to the two groups based on models they had produced. The findings concluded that the children demonstrated group favouritism, they were more likely to give the reward to their in-group. Tajfel concluded that people do act favourably to the in-group even when membership of the group is anonymous. Tajfel’s study has been supported by Taylor and Jaggi (1974) who carried out a study on Muslims and Hindus, they found that when they asked a Hindu why another Hindu acted in a desirable way they would conclude that it was because that Hindu was a good person but when asked about why a Muslim acted in a desirable way they would conclude that it was because of an outside influence. This study has shown that the participants have acted in an ethnocentric way and have favoured people from their religion over people from another religion. Both Tajfel’s and Taylor and Jaggi’s studies show how people act favourably to an in-group, however they do not explain how negative attitudes can develop within groups. The method of the study does have good internal construct, however he uses children in the study and they may react differently to adults. As he used children it may also has some ethical issues, the participants were deceived as they were unaware of the study that was taking place which in turn means they were not given the right to withdraw. Tajfel’s theory that we act prejudice because we strive for a positive image is over simplified, it doesn’t take into consideration that we belong to many groups and which of those groups are most important to us, it lacks ego-validity. However it does give us some insight to why some prejudice form so the study has good face validity.

Sherif (1936) did a study to support his Realist Conflict Theory, he wanted to investigate why prejudice develop within groups, he used a field study to demonstrate this. Sherif (1936) randomly put boys aged between 11 and 12 into groups, one of the groups was called Rattlers and the other Eagles. At first the groups were not aware of each other and lived in cabins a distance apart they built up strong inter-group relationships. Then Sherif (1936) set up activities between the two groups to make a competition of resources, for example the boys would have a game of tug-of-war and the winners would get the best food at a party afterwards. This resulted in Sherif (1936) stating that the boys had become ‘wicked, disturbed and vicious’, there was name calling and they even raided each others cabins. Sherif (1936) then tried to reduce the level of prejudice and conflict between the groups by giving them a common goal, he set up activities like raft building to accomplish this and the animosity soon sub-sided when they were asked to work together. Minard’s (1952) study of the minors supports Sherifs findings in reducing prejudice by giving people a common goal. Minard (1952) found that the segregation and discrimination that existed between black and white miners above ground disappeared when they were working below the ground and all workers had interdependence. However Tyerman and Spencer (1983) challenged the theory that competition was sufficient enough for group conflict, they studied a group of boy scouts that had strong friendship bonds, these boys took part in similar activities as those in Sherif’s study when on an annual camp and their friendships remained throughout the competition. The competition remained friendly and there was no increase in in-group favouritism. Ethics are called into question in the methodology of Sherifs study, there was an element of deception as the boys started this study not knowing what was about to happen, this means that they were probably not given the right to withdraw and because they were not aware of what was happening they could not give informed consent. The biggest ethical issue in this study is that it used young boys, the experiment would have caused the participants some distress which calls into question whether or not they were given the protection they needed. Sherif succeeded in giving us some explanation of why prejudice arises within groups and it has good ecological validity, we can apply this research to real life situations where there is competition for resources. However, prejudice can’t be explained solely by the competition of resources and can have other contributing factors.

Adorno (1950) looked at whether there was a particular personality linked to a prejudice and negative attitude. Adorno’s started his research on the anti Semitic nature of Europe in the 1930’s and 1940’s, this is when he first developed his questionnaire. Adorno’s (1950) questionnaire is called the F-Scale, F standing for fascist, it was devised to measure if someone had an authoritarian personality, Adorno (1950) believed that a high scoring result on the questionnaire would mean that a person had the type of personality that was likely to develop prejudice. He also concluded that people with authoritarian personalities avoided introspective and self examination and were unlikely to change their views. Adorno’s (1950) methodology may be flawed as it suffers from acquiescent response set, any agreement with a question leads to a high score so it is hard to distinguish whether a high score means that an individual has an authoritarian personality or whether they have an acquiescent nature. Adorno’s theory has generated a lot of research into the concept of the authoritarian personality which is still happening today. Altmeyer (1996) devised a similar questionnaire and he found that people who scored high were more likely to have prejudice views against homosexuals and people with Aids. Adorno’s theory of the Authoritarian personality does explain how certain individuals may be more likely to develop prejudice but it doesn’t explain how prejudice develops in groups, a large group could all show prejudice to another group but every individual within that group would have a different personality.

Social Identity Theory and Realistic Conflict Theory help to explain why prejudice develops within groups. Both theories show us how we as humans want to be part of a group and how as part of our ‘ego-defence’ we strive to make our ‘in-group’ seem the best, to achieve this we will develop a positive prejudice about our own in-group. Sometimes we will develop negative prejudice to make the ‘in-group’ superior. The Authoritarian Personality theory does go some way to explaining why certain individuals may be more inclined to develop prejudice because of the type of personality they have, though I think our personalities are much more complex and are difficult to categorise in one questionnaire. All these theories contribute to explaining why attitudes, stereotypes and prejudice form.

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