Social-judgment theorists (Sherif & Hovland 1961) assume that attitudes concerning important topics are bipolar. People have an internal reference scale. The initial attitude on an issue with high ego-involvement influences the reaction to a communication representing a different view. The discrepancy of a communication from one’s own position is decisive for the amount of change achieved by a source because message discrepancy affects the perception of the quality of a message. More discrepant messages are perceived as being more unfair, more illogical, more boring, etc. In order to explain whether a person will change toward or away from a position advocated by a source, Sherif and Hovland (1961) segmented an attitude on a pro and contra issue into three parts (assimilation-contrast theory): latitude of acceptance, latitude of non-commitment (zone of indifference), and latitude of rejection.
Within the latitude of acceptance (on an attitude scale the position most acceptable to a person on a given topic plus other positions which are considered acceptable), a source’s opinion is distorted perceptually as being more similar to one’s own opinion than it really is (“assimilation effect”). Attitude change is unlikely because the source’s point of view is perceived as being similar to one’s own. The reinforcement of one’s already existing attitude will be the most likely effect.
Within the latitude of rejection (the positions one finds objectionable), a source’s opinion is perceived as further removed from one’s own stand than it really is (“contrast effect”). The changing of attitudes in the direction of the source’s position is extremely unlikely because the discrepant communication will be perceived as being more discrepant than it is. One’s opinion is most likely to remain unchanged or even to change in a contrasting way (“boomerang effect”). While accepting and rejecting certain positions concerning an issue, the zone of indifference (latitude of non-commitment) allows an individual to remain neutral (moderate) regarding certain positions. With opinions neither accepted nor rejected, perceptual distortions are least likely to happen. In this zone of indifference, attitudes are most likely to be changed in the direction advocated.
In a series of studies that addressed nontrivial topics (e.g., US presidential elections in 1956 and 1960, labor-management issues, or the Arab Unity issue; see Sherif & Sherif 1969, 357ff.), it was established that the size of the three latitudes varies according to the position an individual upholds. A study by Hovland et al. (1957) tried to answer the question of how a person’s initial position on a certain issue influences reactions to a communication representing different views. The theme addressed was the question of lifting an alcohol ban, which was controversial in Oklahoma (then a “dry” state) at the time of the study. The subjects’ positions ranged from “dry” via “moderate wet” to “wet.” The subjects were confronted with messages that strongly or weakly contradicted their own views. It was found that where discrepancy was great, the credibility of the communicator was doubted. And with increasing distance, the communication was perceived as propagandistic and unfair. Moreover, communications with more deviant opinions were perceived as more distant from one’s own views than they actually were (“contrast effect”). Communications with less deviant opinions were perceived as more similar than they actually were (“assimilation effect”). It was also found that moderate subjects changed more in the direction advocated. If the source’s position is highly discrepant, one is less likely to be influenced and develops doubts about the credibility of a communicator. Bochner and Insko (1966) could demonstrate that greater credibility gives the chance to advocate more discrepant opinions successfully. Opinions of sources with low credibility are more likely to be rejected.
The (relative) size of the latitude of non-commitment is an indicator of the extent of egoinvolvement: the smaller the indifference zone, the greater the ego-involvement. A large latitude of non-commitment is typical of an individual who is not deeply involved. The size of the latitude of non-commitment also proves to be an index of susceptibility to change (Sherif & Sherif 1969, 482, 491). The greater the importance of a topic (involvement), the greater the resistance to attitude change. The width of the latitude of acceptance, according to Hovland et al. (1957), is dependent on the importance of the issue: the more important an issue, the smaller the latitude of acceptance. When compared with a moderate person, an individual with high involvement had a narrower latitude of acceptance and a greater latitude of rejection. The latitude of acceptance of intensively involved persons is significantly smaller than the latitude of rejection and the latitude of non-commitment (Sherif & Sherif 1969, 297). On the other hand, nonpartisan individuals with low involvement have a latitude of acceptance and a latitude of rejection of nearly the same size, and a relatively large latitude of non-commitment.
Concerning the discrepancy between communication content and recipient attitude, linear assumptions (that the greater the distance, the smaller the attitude change) are too simplistic. With unimportant themes and with credible communicators, greater discrepancy can cause more change; greater importance, in other words, implies a greater resistance to change. The following hypotheses can be made:
1 No effect of persuasive communication intended by the communicator is expectable in the rejection zone, but rather a boomerang effect, especially since distorted perception is very likely because of the contrast effect.
2 Attitudes are most likely to be changed in the non-commitment zone.
3 In the acceptance zone, attitude change – even gradual – is unlikely because, within this zone, communications are perceived as similar to one’s own position.
- Bochner, S., & Insko, C. A. (1966). Communicator discrepancy, source credibility, and opinion change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(6), 614 – 621.
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- Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social judgement: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Sherif, M., & Sherif, C. W. (1969). Social psychology. Evanston, IL: Harper and Row.