The functional approach to attitudes specifies that people hold attitudes because those attitudes serve a purpose. Functions address the psychological motivations why individuals hold their attitudes. Initial theorizing about attitude functions assumed that an attitude served a primary function. Shavitt (1990) demonstrated that although certain attitude objects (e.g., air conditioners) lend themselves to one primary function, other attitude objects (e.g., American flag) are more likely to be served by multiple attitude functions. Understanding why an attitude forms offers an insight into the process of attitude change. Although several functions have been identified, the conceptualizations scholars offer are similar to the functions established by Smith et al. (1956), Katz (1960), and Herek (1987).
Smith et al. (1956) defined three attitude functions. The object appraisal function is conceptualized as attitudes that form as immediate evaluations of attitude objects. The purpose of this evaluation is to quickly categorize an object, so it may be acted upon as part of the categorical group to which it belongs. The social adjustment function reflects the ability of attitudes to promote or maintain relationships with desired others or to highlight differences with disliked others. Externalization, the third function, occurs when an attitude is held because the attitude-holder experiences an intrapersonal conflict, and the attitude is held in order to address this conflict.
Katz (1960) described four functions. The value-expressive function operates when the benefit to the attitude-holder comes from the expression of a core value the holder associates with the self-concept. The ego-defensive function is similar to Smith et al.’s (1956) externalization function. The instrumental function recognizes that people hold attitudes because those attitudes maximize rewards and minimize costs for the holder. Positive attitudes are held for objects that bring pleasure to the holder; negative attitudes are created when objects are associated with unpleasant attributes. The knowledge function reflects attitudes that are held so the individual is able to organize objects and reduce uncertainty. Eagly & Chaiken (1993) note this function parallels schematic conceptualizations of attitudes in which objects are placed into existing categories that parallel the attributes of the new stimuli. Although Eagly & Chaiken (1993) report that a combination of Katz’s (1960) knowledge and instrumental functions is similar to Smith et al.’s (1956) object appraisal function, the idea of categorizing the object indicates a deeper processing of the stimulus. Instead, the knowledge function parallels what Herek (1987) identified as the experiential-schematic function.
Herek (1987) identified two experiential functions where attitudes are formed based on previous interaction(s) with an attitude object. The experiential-schematic function forms when an object, whose attributes parallel pre-existing schemas for other objects, is placed into an existing cognitive category. An experiential-specific function is created when objects cannot be placed into pre-existing schemata; these attitudes are isolated from other attitudes as long as there are no generalizations made between the attributes of the object and other schema. La France and Boster (2001) demonstrated that these functions are usefully conceptualized as one experiential function continuum where individuals whose attitudes function experientially do so more or less schematically.
Smith et al. (1956) inferred certain functions existed through extensive interviews. Since then, several approaches for measuring functions have emerged. One such approach is the individual-difference approach, which assumes that functions can be assessed indirectly by measuring personality constructs. Perhaps the most extensive application of this approach is Snyder’s use of self-monitoring to assess the social adjustment function (manifest in high self-monitors) and the valueexpressive function (manifest in low self-monitors).
A more direct approach to measuring functions has been open-ended responses that are coded for functionally relevant information (Shavitt 1990). Attitude function scales have been developed (Herek 1987), and some scholars have modeled the process of function formation (Lapinski & Boster 2001). As scholars created measures of functions, a variety of attitude objects have been used in functional research.
Scholars guided by the functional approach to attitude change have consistently found evidence for the matching effect (see Maio & Olson 2000). Evidence of the matching effect demonstrates that changes in cognition occur when messages are perceived to contain attitude-function-relevant information versus attitude-function-irrelevant information. One explanation for this effect is that it is a result of biased message processing. Individuals attend to favor information that contains messages consistent with their attitude function. Consistent with this explanation, Lavine & Snyder (1996) found perceptions of message quality were higher for individuals who were presented with a functionally relevant message compared to research participants who read a functionally irrelevant message. In the most direct test of the biased processing explanation, Julka & Marsh (2005) found arousing functionally relevant messages were more persuasive than merely salient functionally relevant messages.
- Eagly, A., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College.
- Herek, G. M. (1987). Can functions be measured? A new perspective on the functional approach to attitudes. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(4), 285 –303.
- Julka, D. L., & Marsh, K. L. (2005). An attitude functions approach to increasing organ-donation participation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(4), 821– 849.
- Katz, D. (1960). The functional approach to the study of attitudes. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(2), 163 –204.
- La France, B. H., & Boster, F. J. (2001). To match or mismatch? That is only one important question. Communication Monographs, 68(3), 211–234.
- Lapinski, M. K., & Boster, F. J. (2001). Modeling the ego-defensive function of attitudes. Communication Monographs, 68(3), 314 –324.
- Lavine, H., & Snyder, M. (1996). Cognitive processing and the functional matching effect in persuasion: The mediating role of subjective perceptions of message quality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32(6), 580 – 604.
- Maio, G. R., & Olson, J. M. (eds.) (2000). Why we evaluate: Functions of attitudes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Shavitt, S. (1990). The role of attitude objects in attitude functions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26(2), 124 – 48.
- Smith, M. B., Bruner, J. S., & White, R. W. (1956). Opinions and personality. New York: John Wiley.