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Attitude: Its Nature, Development and Change


In 1874 three ladies applied for admission to the Madras Medical College. The college officials were in favour of having lady doctors in the country, but were concerned about their training phase. The principal, an English gentleman, maintained: the laws of purity and modesty imperatively demand that in their strictly professional instruction and practical training, the sexes should be separated -- mixed classes being an outrage upon common decency.

The principal was echoing an attitude -- an attitude towards coeducation. That was a long time ago. Views on common decency, coeducation and women in general have since then been gradually changing. And we had the International Women's Year in 1975 -- a full century later! The behavioral implications of social attitudes and their consequences in society can, thus, be far-reaching. It is for this reason that attitudes are among the central concepts of social psychology.

Meaning of attitudes

Most simply put, attitudes are likes and dislikes. Social psychologists have given various definitions of the concept. Most of them view attitudes as inclinations or predispositions. Having reviewed the literature on the topic, Gordon W Allport defined an attitude to be a mental and neural state of readiness, organised through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence upon the individual's response to all objects and situations with which it is related. Later on, Milton Rokeach defined it as a relatively enduring organisation of beliefs around an object or situation predisposing a person to respond in some preferential manner.

Our response to an object is often in line with what we believe about and how we feel toward that object. Attitudes are, thus, said to have a knowledge/belief (cognitive) component, an emotional or affective component and a conative or behavioral component.

Having an idea or belief about the object is the minimum condition for having an attitude with regard to it. When the object of which you have an idea becomes associated with pleasant or unpleasant events or with your aspirations and goals, you attach a corresponding affect or an emotional tinge to that object. This affected belief energises and directs your response with regard to the object. An attitude may thus be understood as an idea or belief charged with emotion predisposing an individual to act in a particular way to persons, things, situations, issues, etc.

Attitudes and Behaviour

Attitudes signify what people think of, how they feel about and how they tend or intend to behave toward an attitude object. How about the actual behaviour of people? Could we predict a person's overt behaviour from our knowledge of his/her attitudes?

Consider the case of a boy who, amidst parental opposition, got married to a girl of another caste. What will be the behaviour of his father, who deprecates and disapproves of intercaste marriages? Would he cast his son out of home? May be, he would. Or, notwithstanding his inner discomfiture, he might ostensibly congratulate the couple. It is not an impossibility, either, that the father honestly gloats over his son's bravado! The general disposition regarding intercaste marriage, therefore, does not seem to be the only determining factor of whether a person would reject, tolerate, condone, or cherish such an act -- when faced with a concrete situation.

Overt behaviour of people is determined not only by what they would like to do but also by what they think they should do, by what they are used to doing, and by the consequences which they anticipate. That is, social norms, peer expectations, established habits, expected consequences, and situational factors also influence one's behaviour. Attitudes are facilitative causes, but their strength may not always be sufficient to overcome the forces produced by other variables such as, for example, social pressure: A boy may be fond of cricket and yet not go to witness a match in town, because it coincides with his father's death anniversary. When there are no conflicts, however, between attitudes and other factors, attitudes are reasonably good predictors of behaviour.

Further, real-life stimulus situations are complex and a person is likely to have different attitudes to the different elements which constitute a given situation. The father in our example was facing not just an intercaste marriage, but a situation which comprised his son, a smart and courageous young man, a winsome girl, a modest girl, a wellbred lady, and a social surrounding. He has attitudes not only toward a kind of marriage but also toward smart men, courageous men, his own son, pretty girls, modest girls, ladies, saree-wearing girls, etc. Depending on which one or combination of these attitudes was salient at the moment, the corresponding behaviour would follow. That behaviour would then be a result of an attitude, but not necessarily of the attitude toward intercaste marriage!

Functions of attitudes

To live in harmony with the world, humans have to in some contexts control the environment and in other contexts they need to accommodate to the control of the environment. In order for man to be able to do so, he first requires knowledge of the world he lives in. But the world contains millions of objects and events -- enough to drive any person to his wits' end if he were to study each of them individually. A hit-or-miss approach of ever freshly responding to individual stimuli as and when they present themselves would keep us incompetent to the end of time. As a feasible alternative, therefore, man has recourse to a parsimonious understanding: he classifies the stimuli, gives them category names and simplifies his dealing with them. Thus, he reduces the multiplicity by conveniently grouping the objects and phenomena and develops general or category-specific orientations to knowing them and dealing with them. Attitudes, thus, serve as a personal strategy or an informal and empirical theory, based on direct experiences and communications from others, to help reduce the anxiety in acquiring a working knowledge of the world.

We also strive to maximise success and minimise failures in our interaction with the world. Therefore, we develop favourable attitudes toward those objects which we perceive will facilitate success and unfavourable attitudes toward those which we perceive will hinder success or lead to failure. Besides developing such positive and negative affects toward correspondingly valenced objects, we also adopt the attitudes of peers, authority figures, etc. to conform and feel accepted. Thus, attitudes help us lead an adjusted social life.

Also to protect ourselves from unpleasant truths about our own selves, we develop some attitudes, which predispose us to defensive behaviours such as projection and rationalisation.

A person may also derive emotional gratification by expressing oneself in terms of attitudes appropriate to one's basic, personal values and self concept. That is, some attitudes provide an opportunity for expressing or materialising one's basic values and give one immense pleasure of actualising oneself. For instance, if you had strong humanitarian values, you would develop positive attitudes toward the poor and the destitute. Aided by these attitudes, you would support their cause and thereby bring your values into fruition.

In sum, attitudes help people to understand the world around them, to lead an adjusted life in the world, to protect their self-esteem, and to express their fundamental values. An attitude may perform one or more or even all of these functions. For example, you might develop a hostile attitude toward a particular "clique" of fellow students for ego-defensive reasons. Quite soon this attitude guides your selection of student acquaintances and friends and thus becomes instrumental in fulfilling your need to belong to a peer group. It can also lead you to assert your views and derive satisfaction from being able to take an open stand on issues. It can also facilitate your further dealings with the group by disposing you to act in a clear-cut and well-defined fashion rather than feel fresh and lost every time you encounter the group or any of its members.

Attitude Formation

We learn our attitudes from direct experience with attitude objects as well as from other people. Early in life parents are the source of our attitudes. As we grow up, the sources multiply. Veter and Green (1932) studied the genesis of anti-religious attitudes among the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism. Their study is an illustration of the sources of attitude learning after childhood.

These investigators found that many of the members had accumulated atheistic influences from readings of history and science. For some members their atheistic attitude was a by-product of their general philosophy of materialism. Traumatic experiences, like the death of a well-loved father, had driven some to atheism. Some others revealed that they had just adopted the view from friends.

There is a considerable overlap of factors which influence the development of the three different components of an attitude. But, direct experience with the object and related material seems to contribute more to the development of the cognitive and affective components, and other people contribute more to the behavioral component -- especially when powers of sanction rest with them.

Regardless of the source of one's attitudes, the function or role of an attitude is directly or indirectly concerned with suitably responding to one's phenomenological world, that is, the world as perceived by the individual. If the perceived changes in the environment demand a new "strategy", the individual will develop or adopt such adaptive orientations (attitudes) as will facilitate the person's personal way of coping with the environmental exigencies. At least on principle, therefore, attitudes are not immutable.

If attitudes are devices developed in response to needs and if needs are not static, then attitudes should not be static, either. In reality, however, attitudes resist change. One reason for this resistance may be advanced as follows: the scientific, technological and socio-economic progress around us is so fast that not all of us manage on our own to perceive or take cognizance of the changing needs, which are to be fulfilled in order to keep pace with the progress. It is often only a few individuals or groups who recognise the urgency of the needs and adapt themselves effectively. Some of them become leaders and agents of change among those who "lag behind". It is in this context that most of you will be facing the problem of attitude change.

Attitude change: Approaches

Attempts to change attitudes are as old as social life on earth. The head of a traditional family, the village headman, the religious priest, the social worker, the gang leader, the propagandist, etc. are all examples of people who influence the attitudes of others. With altruistic or selfish interests in mind, these people employ ways and means that are more intuitive than scientific. A systematic understanding of attitudes, however, can provide more serviceable guidelines to all those whose jobs require them to effect attitudinal changes in people.

Numerous studies have been done on the subject-matter of attitude change and over a dozen (Insko lists fourteen) theories have been advanced to interpret and accommodate the facts related to the dynamics of attitude change. Here we shall only take a look at a few salient points of the theories.

The psychological structure of man is said to be composed of integrated sets of cognitions regarding himself and the world. Any new information that enters his head -- if out of tune with the existing structure -- produces a disequilibrium, which gives rise to psychological discomfort. Such discomfort urges the person to alter the existing structure in him.

Banking on the tendency of the attitudinal components to be consistent, your approach to change attitudes could well be to engineer any one of the three components. You may, for example, choose to change the cognitive component by introducing new, reliable and cogent information about the attitude object in question. The other two components will then tend to align themselves to the altered cognitive component, resulting in a new attitude. By the same logic, you may influence the affect part by associating the attitude object with pleasant or unpleasant experiences. Traumatic experiences are extreme cases of the affective component being influenced. If you wanted to start with behaviour itself, you could coax people into behaving in a way that is at variance with their present attitude and the resulting cognitive dissonance will motivate them to change their attitude in line with their new behaviour.

The individual might also reject the new information and maintain the old cognitive structure intact, if the information is perceived to be useless or the change required to accommodate it appears too cumbersome.

Another approach to attitude change may arise from an analysis of the functions which a particular attitude fulfils for a person. (Recall the four functions we discussed above.) If the attitude you are trying to influence has been serving a knowledge function, i.e., if it has been helping the person to structure and understand his universe, then your attempt to change it will be successful if you give him information that serves the function even better. In the same way, you must show that the advocated attitude is instrumental in leading a better adjusted life in his situation, if the attitude you want to change in the person has been fulfilling an adjustive function. If the attitude in question were an offshoot of the subject's basic values, attempts to change just the attitude would be of little use; the person's basic values have to be tackled. Influencing attitudes that fulfil a person's ego-defensive function is a pretty difficult affair; you may have to study the person's self-concept and help him/her take a relook at himself/herself.

Effective Communication

No matter what approach is adopted for changing attitudes, communication of some kind (informational, persuasive or coercive) is always at the root of it all. While it is true that not all communication or information leads to attitude change, any attitude change requires and is related to some information about the attitude object and about the consequences of the advocated attitude. Therefore, effective communication is a must for any attempt to succeed in changing others' attitudes.

Communication involves a source (who says), a message (what), a channel (in what medium), and an audience (to whom). The process of change as a result of communication has the following elements: attention, comprehension, yielding, retention, and action*. Various characteristics of the source, the channel, the message, and the audience interact in complex ways and influence the dependent variables mentioned above (the elements in the change process). Such interaction effects have been demonstrated in studies, but as of today we do not have one comprehensive model to include all interactions. All the same, it would be useful for us to be aware of even some of the variables which characterise effective communication, if we were to attempt to influence and change people's attitudes and behaviour.

People have a tendency to be selective in what they want to listen to; they prefer the information which supports their attitudes and avoid what is unsupportive. So, how would you first of all get them to listen to your message? Mark Antony's style could help!

As for the channels, mass media like the TV get a lot of attention, but do not seem to effect change. What should you do? The idea of a two-step flow of influence may be utilised: The media message be tailored for and addressed to opinion leaders, who would in turn influence the rest of the target population.

Repetition of messages, active participation by the target person or group, creating new reference groups, providing a supportive environment, etc. help attitude change and facilitate sustenance of the change.

Group discussion and getting the persons to make a public commitment to behave in a particular way have proved to be more efficacious in bringing about attitude change than one-way persuasive communication. Subtle pressure towards uniformity in a group, coupled with the fear of being rejected from the group and the need to be accepted in it, is also a powerful way of influencing an individual's attitude.

Whatever approach you adopt to change attitudes, a practical assumption you can go by is that attitude change occurs because of some conflict, inconsistency or dissatisfaction with the status quo. Armed with this assumption, you may set out to create the appropriate conflict or dissatisfaction in the target population, offer the necessary support to resolve the conflict and ensure adequate reinforcement to sustain the emergent change.

An exercise: Suppose you are personally convinced of the usefulness of an MIS and you want to introduce it in your organisation. How would you go about doing it? How would you tackle the force of resistance? Prepare a detailed action plan.


1. INSKO, C.A., Theories of attitude change. New York: Appleton - Century- Crofts, 1967.

2. Kiesler, C.A., Collins, B.E., and Miller, N., Attitude change. New York: Wiley, 1969.

3. Zimbardo, P. & Effesen, E.B. Influencing attitudes and changing behaviour. Philippines : Addison - Wesley, 1970.

* McGuire, W.J., A Syllogistic analysis of cognitive relationships. In M.J. Rosenberg & C.I. Hovland (eds.), Attitude organisation and change. Yale University Press, 1960, 65-111.

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