Attitude accessibility concerns how quickly an attitude is activated from memory. Attitudes that are more accessible from memory are more predictive of behavior, influence what messages are attended to, and how those messages are processed, and are more stable across time. Unfortunately, little is known about how to change the accessibility of attitudes from memory, particularly with regards to how persuasive messages influence accessible attitudes.
Consider the following example. Suppose you see a spider – you might have a very quick “yuck” response. The fast yuck response indicates an accessible attitude toward spiders. You do not have to think about whether you like spiders, rather, the mere presence of a spider results in the activation of your attitude. On the other hand, imagine you are walking down a sidewalk with a friend looking for a place to eat. Your friend points to a Portuguese restaurant and suggests you try it. In this instance, you may have to think about whether you like Portuguese food, because you are not sure what you think of it, before deciding that it is good. The fact that you have to ponder whether you like something suggests that either you have a relatively inaccessible attitude or you have never formed an attitude toward that object.
Attitudes have been studied across a number of different disciplines for the past 100 years. There have been many different ideas concerning the structure of attitudes. Based on work in cognitive psychology, researchers began exploring the structure of attitudes in memory. Associative network models are among the most influential approaches to understanding memory. According to such models, within memory there are various nodes that represent concepts. For example, you probably have a “spider” node in memory. The nodes are connected to other related concepts. So your spider node might be connected to “web,” “eight legs,” “poisonous,” “Spiderman,” “eats insects,” “Wilbur” (the spider in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web), and so on. In addition, energy is hypothesized to spread from an activated node to other related nodes. So if you saw a spider, activation would spread to other related nodes such as “web.” Drawing on this network model of memory, we can think of attitudes as associations between objects and evaluations of those objects. In other words, concepts could have attitudes connected to them within this semantic network. Your “spider” node might have a “yuck” link to it and this link corresponds to a negative attitude toward spiders.
One of the assumptions of network models of memory is that the strengths of the links between concepts in memory can vary. In our example, the link between “spider” and “yuck” is very strong so that “yuck” is activated and comes to mind easily when “spider” is activated. However, the link between “Portuguese food” and “good” is relatively weak so that “good” is not activated when “Portuguese food” is first activated. To the extent that an evaluation is strongly associated with the object, the evaluation will be highly accessible: that is, when the node for the attitude object (spider) is activated, the strength of the association will insure that, due to spreading activation, the node containing the evaluation of the object (yuck) is also activated. When the strength of the connection reaches a certain level, the attitude becomes automatically accessible from memory. In this instance, when you see a spider and the corresponding node in memory is activated, the evaluation of that object is quickly and effortlessly accessed. In this way, attitude judgments can be made rapidly and without extensive reflection.
In contrast, for attitudes that are not accessible, the associations between the object and the evaluation of that object are not strong and the activation of the object will typically not spontaneously activate the evaluation of the object. Or it could be that this object has no evaluation associated with it in memory. This line of thinking suggests a nonattitude to attitude continuum. At the extreme, attitude end of the continuum are situations such as “spider” where the attitude is automatically activated from memory when the object is encountered. In contrast, the nonattitude end of the continuum refers to objects where there is no attitude with an evaluation stored in memory. Of course, most attitudes probably lie somewhere between these two extremes. Most people, when asked, can report their evaluation of a wide range of attitude objects. For any given person, some of these attitudes will be strong and very quickly retrieved, others may be relatively weak and slowly accessed, but for most attitude objects, people are able to report where on a continuum their attitude lies.
The Importance Of Studying Attitude Accessibility
Accessible attitudes predict where people orient their attention. People live in a complex world with myriad different objects constantly competing for attention. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that people should be more likely to notice things that they like or dislike. Noticing something threatening – or rewarding – in the environment would clearly help an organism to survive. Research has found that attitudes do serve an orienting function because they direct attention to attitude-evoking objects, and this is particularly true of accessible attitudes (Roskos-Ewoldsen & Fazio 1992).
Accessible attitudes predict how people process a message. With more accessible attitudes toward the topic of a message we are more likely to critically or centrally process that message. A series of experiments also demonstrated that message recipients with more accessible attitudes toward the source of a message are also more likely to centrally process that message (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al. 2002). Basically, the automatic activation of an attitude toward the topic or source of the message acts as a cue that this is an important message that needs to be carefully processed.
Accessible attitudes predict how biased a person will be when processing a message. Attitudes have long been hypothesized to influence how we perceive objects in the environment. If you like a particular football team, infractions called against that team are more likely to be perceived as arbitrary or capricious. Numerous studies have found that attitudes color how people see the world (Fazio et al. 1994). Attitudes that are more accessible are more likely to result in biased perceptions of objects. In a study of the 1984
US presidential election, people with more accessible attitudes toward the candidates were more likely to judge that their candidate won the presidential or vice-presidential debate. Research has even found that the accessibility of people’s attitudes toward capital punishment will influence their judgments of the quality of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of capital punishment.
Accessible attitudes predict behavior. Attitudes were studied initially because they were thought to predict behavior. However, the relationship between attitude and behavior is more complex than the simple idea that attitudes predict behavior. Studies have demonstrated that attitudes that are highly accessible from memory are more likely to predict behavior than attitudes that are not accessible from memory in a wide range of behaviors including voting, tobacco and alcohol use, product choice, environmental behaviors, feminist behaviors, and game play.
The basic idea is that an attitude can affect behavior only if the attitude has been activated from memory. Typically, social situations are characterized by ambiguity because there are many potential interpretations of the situation. How the situation is perceived plays an integral role in how people respond to that situation. Consequently, any factor biasing the interpretation of a situation should influence how the individual responds to that situation. As discussed earlier, attitudes exert a profound influence on the interpretation of ambiguous information. This biased interpretation allows attitude to affect how a person responds to situational cues. For example, when someone sees a spider the situation is typically perceived as repulsive. Once the interpretation of the situation is colored by attitude, the behavior within the situation is likely to be consistent with the attitude(s) that influenced the interpretation of that situation. When the presence of a spider results in the situation being perceived as repulsive, the person should act accordingly by calling an exterminator, using bug spray, or stepping on the spider.
Finally, accessible attitudes are more persistent and last longer than less accessible attitudes. A common finding is that an attitude that is changed by a persuasive message will revert back to the original attitude across time if nothing is done to reinforce the changed attitude. However, if the changed attitude is more accessible from memory, then it is less likely to revert back to the original attitude.
Making Attitudes More Accessible
Research on persuasion and social influence has traditionally focused on changing the extremity or valence of attitudes. However, given the functionality of accessible attitudes, research on social influence should also focus on how to make attitudes more accessible from memory. Unfortunately, little research has focused on how to make attitudes more accessible. We do know that attitudes based on direct experience with the object are more accessible from memory. Likewise, making repeated attitudinal judgments of an object increases the accessibility of the attitude toward that object. Consistent with this research is the finding that repeated viewing of a commercial resulted in more accessible attitudes. However, research from cognitive and social psychology suggests at least two more ways to increase attitude accessibility: expectations and cognitive elaboration.
When people anticipate future evaluative encounters with an object, they develop more accessible attitudes toward that object. In other words, the expectation that the attitude will be functional increases the accessibility of the attitude from memory. For example, comparative advertising may motivate people to spontaneously form attitudes because of the explicit evaluative comparison of one brand to a successful (and hence, probably liked) brand. Comparative advertisements have been found to increase the accessibility of attitudes toward the new product more than noncomparative advertisements that contained the same information about the new product.
Systematic or elaborative processing of a message’s content has also been hypothesized to result in more accessible attitudes from memory due to the greater amount of cognitive “work” involved in such processing, with the result being better integrated attitudes that are more accessible from memory. In short, elaboration of the message’s content paves more associative pathways for the given attitude and strengthens those pathways linked to the attitude.
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