The central question addressed by the concept of attitude–behavior consistency is whether people act in accord with their attitudes. In other words, does knowing a person’s attitude allow one to predict that person’s behavior? Our naïve theories lead us to believe that this is true: we assume that attitudes guide behavior. Although it may initially seem self-evident, the story is more complex than our intuition would suggest, and this area has been the focus of an enormous volume of research going back nearly a century. Researchers are interested in this relationship because they have a desire to use attitudes to predict how people will behave. Such predictability may be important, for example, if a car manufacturer wants to predict the strength of the market for cars using alternative fuels for the coming year.
Historically, attitudes were thought to be an important topic to study because early researchers assumed that attitudes are strongly related to behavior. Thus, it was thought that attitudes would provide a good proxy to behavior: asking people how they felt about things was easier than observing them engaging in activities. However, a classic study conducted by LaPierre in the 1930s was an early demonstration that attitudes may not always coincide with actions. In this study (LaPierre 1934), a survey was sent to hotel and restaurant proprietors asking them their attitudes toward serving customers of Asian origin. During this period in the history of the US, prejudice against Asians was strong. Thus it was unsurprising that a majority of respondents indicated that they would deny service to Asians. However, these establishments had earlier been visited by an Asian couple who were working with the researcher. In their tour of 250 hotels and restaurants, they were served by all but one proprietor. Clearly, the stated attitudes of the proprietors were not reflected in their actions when confronted with customers seeking food and lodging. Other work questioning the assumption that attitudes guide behavior began to accumulate. An influential paper published by Alan Wicker in 1969, which reviewed 42 studies examining the correlation of attitudes to behaviors, found only a weak relationship.
Wicker’s paper set off a controversy over the importance of attitude research. Proponents of Wicker’s position wondered whether there was any point in continuing to study attitudes if they did not predict behavior, which was consistent with a general climate of criticism of academic social science prevalent at the time (Elms 1975). Other researchers suggested that Wicker’s conclusions may have been extreme. Overall this controversy fostered a somewhat contentious climate that nonetheless produced an abundance of creative ideas about the relationship of attitudes to behavior.
The Problem Of Specificity
One response to the concern that attitudes were not predictive of behavior was the observation that behaviors and attitudes are often measured at different levels of specificity. In the typical attitude survey, the attitude question is a very general assessment of an attitude object, such as “global warming,” whereas the behavioral measurement is an observation of a very specific single opportunity to engage in an action, such as signing a petition in favor of legislation to reduce carbon emissions. Among other researchers, Fishbein and Ajzen (1974) pointed out that, psychometrically, attempting to correlate one very specific construct with another construct that is very vague is problematic and would tend to reduce the observed correlations. The solution proposed by Fishbein and Ajzen was twofold. First they suggest measuring behavior more generally, that is, creating an aggregate measure of behavior in much the same way as an attitude scale is constructed. This aggregate measure of behavior can become a reliable measure of a general propensity to behave just as a multi-item attitude scale is a more reliable measure of attitude than a single attitude item.
The second solution to the problem of specificity of measurement is to assess attitudes more precisely. According to Fishbein and Ajzen, the solution was to measure the attitude toward performing the behavior at a particular point in time. For example, instead of asking a potential voter whether they had a favorable attitude toward a particular candidate, it was preferable to ask whether they had a favorable attitude toward voting for that candidate on Election Day next Tuesday. Asking the attitude question with that level of specificity improved the ability to predict behavior. Fishbein and Ajzen later went on to refine their ideas into models known as the theory of reasoned action and the theory of planned behavior.
Moderators Of The Attitude-Behavior Relationship
While Fishbein and Ajzen were focused on the specificity of the measurement of the attitude and the behavior, other researchers focused on understanding under what conditions attitudes predicted behaviors. These moderating conditions have clustered around individual differences in personality, variables that affect the strength of the attitude, and characteristics of the situation.
One group of researchers was particularly interested in the types of people for whom attitudes serve as behavioral guides. These researchers, led by Mark Snyder at the University of Minnesota, observed that attitudes serve as an inner code of conduct for some people, whom they termed low self-monitors. These people know how they feel about an issue and are unswerving in behaving consistently with that attitude. In contrast, high self-monitors tend to behave consistently with the social demands of the situation. Not surprisingly, the correlation between attitudes and behaviors is higher for low selfmonitors than for high self-monitors.
Cacioppo and Petty (1982) identified a construct they termed need for cognition that ordered individuals along a continuum representing the extent to which they enjoy thinking about things. People who score high in need for cognition have a tendency to enjoy puzzling over complex problems and seek out complex intellectual challenges. In contrast, those low in need for cognition tend to prefer simple, black and white explanations. As might be expected, attitudes appear to be more predictive of behavior for people who are higher in need for cognition than for those who are lower.
Attitude Strength And Accessibility
There are many ways to think about what makes an attitude strong. Among the aspects of attitudes that have been studied in the context of attitude strength are confidence, extremity, importance, self-relevance, knowledge, and direct experience. Whatever index is used to identify strong attitudes, the findings are generally consistent: strongly held attitudes are more predictive of behavior than attitudes that are held more weakly. For example, many people have attitudes about whether Mac or personal computers (PCs) are preferable. Those for whom a well-functioning computer is important for accomplishing their day-to-day tasks have had extensive experience working with both types of computers, and who have extensively researched the features of the different computer models and their operating systems, will be more likely to purchase the computer they have the most favorable attitude toward, because their attitude toward the computer would be more strongly held.
Another way to think about strong attitudes is to consider how quickly an attitude judgment comes to mind upon encountering an attitude object. Russell Fazio and his colleagues were primarily concerned with attitude accessibility, or how easily attitudes are activated from memory. According to this research, when attitudes are highly accessible, they are quickly activated in memory and thus are more likely to be acted upon than less accessible attitudes. The pathway described in this model is that accessible attitudes are activated immediately upon encountering an attitude object. This activation then guides interpretation of relevant information, such that the information about the attitude object is perceived to bolster the existing attitude. These perceptions of the attitude object, in conjunction with a consideration of social norms, define the situation for the perceiver and thus lead to behavior that is consistent with the attitude. These processes are generally thought to occur relatively spontaneously and without much effort for attitudes that are highly accessible. Overall, findings with respect to attitude accessibility have supported the idea that accessible attitudes are more predictive of behavior than less accessible attitudes.
Characteristics Of The Situation
Finally, an additional moderator of the attitude–behavior relationship is the strength of the situation in which the behavior might occur. Just as attitudes can be described as being strong or weak, situations also vary in strength. A strong situation is one in which the range of acceptable behaviors is very narrow, whereas a weak situation has a wider range of potential behaviors. For example, in a college class the range of behaviors is quite limited: college students are expected to sit quietly and listen to the lecture, take notes, and perhaps politely ask a question for clarification. Thus a college lecture class represents a strong situation. In contrast, the expected behavior at a large fraternity party is quite vast: individuals may be expected to drink heavily or not much; they may dance wildly to the music or stand still; they may talk excitedly with many other party-goers or quietly converse with one person. Thus a fraternity party could be characterized as a weak situation because of the range of expected behaviors. Research indicates that attitudes are more predictive of behaviors when the situation is weak than when the situation is strong: Strong situations constrain behavior to the extent that all people behave similarly regardless of their attitudes, whereas in a weak situation, where the prescribed behavior is not clear, attitudes are far more likely to guide one’s choice of action.
The Effect Of Behavior On Attitudes
Thus far, this article has examined the attitude–behavior relationship from the perspective of how attitudes influence behavior. However, the attitude–behavior relation can also occur in the reverse direction: behavior can affect attitudes. The decades of research investigating cognitive dissonance and self-perception theory demonstrated that engaging in counter attitudinal behavior is likely to change one’s attitudes to be consistent with the behavior.
This is most likely when the outcomes of one’s actions are negative, when the behavior is public, and when there is no other easy explanation for having engaged in the behavior. For example, going to see a horror film with friends might change your attitude toward horror films. A recent study demonstrated that it is one’s strong attitudes that are most likely to guide behavior, whereas the attitudes that are subject to change through behavior are more likely to have been weak attitudes.
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