Social judgment theory (SJT; Sherif & Hovland 1961; Sherif et al. 1965) is based on the premise that the effect of a persuasive message on a particular issue depends on the way that the receiver evaluates the position that the message puts forth (O’Keefe 1990). Sherif et al. (1965) claimed that an individual’s attitude toward a particular issue or behavior is not adequately reflected by a single alternative or position among those available. Research in the SJT tradition determines the limits of the position of the receiver “relative to the bounds of possible alternatives defined by the extreme positions on the issue” (Sherif et al. 1965, 3) in terms of the latitudes of acceptance, noncommitment, and rejection.
In SJT, each receiver judges the range of alternatives individually, and then these judgments can be combined “to reflect the consensus, defined by social norms, prevailing among given people” (Sherif et al. 1965, 10). Thus, SJT allows for delineating group patterns that emerge from perceptions of individuals. Additionally, SJT claims that the members of the population in question are affected by these patterns, in that they “develop and adopt a variety of practices, customs, traditions, and definitions that mark off latitudes for acceptable attitudes and behavior and for objectionable attitudes and behavior among members in various matters of consequence to the group . . . These shared practices and definitions with their highly evaluative aspects, are the norms of the group” (Sherif et al. 1965).
The following are some basic concepts of social judgment theory. When an issue has intrinsic importance or significant consequences for the life of the receiver, he or she is said to be highly ego involved. As ego involvement goes up, the trend is for the latitude of rejection to increase while the latitude of noncommitment decreases. An ordered alternatives questionnaire is a continuum of beliefs that form the complete range of alternative positions on an issue. It is bounded by the most extreme and opposite positions possible, with a neutral position in the center, and there are usually between 7 and 11 beliefs listed. Granberg (1983) suggested that some of these statements should be ambiguous in order to facilitate detection of assimilation and contrast effects.
An own categories questionnaire is a subjective procedure whereby respondents sort the statements into categories that are meaningful to them. They are then asked which pile comes closest to their own position, which are acceptable, and which are objectionable. The anchor point is the position on the ordered alternatives that the receiver holds initially; the latitude of acceptance specifies the positions that he or she finds acceptable; the latitude of noncommitment represents the positions that he or she finds neither acceptable nor unacceptable; and the latitude of rejection represents the positions that he or she finds unacceptable. The assimilation effect is the judgmental distortion where one sees the persuasive message as falling closer to the anchor point than it really does. Little or no persuasion occurs because the receiver believes that he or she already holds a similar position on the topic. The contrast effect is the judgmental distortion where one sees the persuasive message as falling further from the anchor point than it really does. No persuasion is likely because the receiver believes that this message represents a view that he or she rejects outright. Persuasion is an attitude change toward or away from the position advocated by the persuader, which is affected by the receiver’s initial judgment within the possible continuum of beliefs.
Measurement And Findings
In order to measure individual and group positions on a particular issue, SJT involves the construction of an ordered alternatives questionnaire or the own categories procedure, which presents the gamut of possible positions on the issue. Respondents are asked to indicate the positions they find acceptable, unacceptable, or neither acceptable nor unacceptable. The size of the latitude of rejection provides a measure of ego involvement. From these individual responses, group responses can be calculated that reflect the audience’s latitudes of acceptance, rejection, and noncommitment.
Persuasive messages for a particular audience should be aimed at the far reaches of their latitude of acceptance, or into their latitude of noncommitment. Messages that fall into the latitude of acceptance are likely to cause an assimilation effect, whereby they are seen as being closer to the audience’s position than they really are. Messages that fall into the latitude of rejection are seen as being further away from the audience’s position than they really are due to a contrast effect. An audience with less involvement is more likely to be persuaded with a discrepant message than is an audience with high involvement in the issue because the latitude of rejection of the former should be smaller (O’Keefe 1990), thus the latitudes of acceptance and noncommitment should be relatively larger.
Although SJT has been employed in a wide variety of contexts within the field of communication such as political communication, health communication, group communication, advertising research, public relations, and legal communication, this review will focus on the first two.
There is a long history of the application of SJT principles to political communication and attempted attitude change. O’Keefe (1990) notes that while political campaigns are quite clear in their persuasive messages to get the voters to engage in the overt behavior of voting for their candidate, they are usually more ambiguous in their messages about campaign issues. That is because candidates hope that voters will assume that the candidate’s view and the voters’ views are closer than they actually are. In this case, then, an assimilation effect is desired. Granberg (1983) provides some fascinating examples of the use of ambiguity in political communication, citing examples ranging from General Douglas MacArthur to Robert Kennedy. He noted that McGovern, Stevenson, and Goldwater tried to be too specific when communicating their stances on political issues, while the Nixon, Carter, and Bush, Sr. campaigns benefited from a lack of clarity. He claimed that, “experience has taught politicians that it is unwise to sharpen the issues too much . . . Our system puts a premium on ambiguity” (Granberg 1983).
Granberg (1983) also provided an overview of findings relevant to political persuasion using SJT. He claimed that people tend to assimilate the stands of a preferred candidate, that the degree of assimilation is related to the importance of that issue, that the tendency to contrast the stands of a nonpreferred politician is not as strong as the tendency to assimilate the stands of a preferred politician, and that while ambiguity facilitates assimilation of a preferred candidate, lack of ambiguity facilitates contrast effects in a nonpreferred candidate.
More recently, researchers have studied the third-person effect (TPE) in political attack ads via the lens of SJT. Paek et al. (2005) investigated whether people estimated the effects of political attack ads to be stronger on others than on themselves. They predicted, consistent with SJT, that lack of credible evidence and social distance between the respondent and the third person would enhance the third-person effect with regard to political ads. They claimed that SJT offers theoretical potential for understanding the underlying mechanisms of the TPE and seeing it as a cognitive fallacy that can be corrected through presentation of credible and relevant information. They found that “credible information on overall message ineffectiveness leads to the reduction of estimated effects on both self and various others and in self–other perceptual gaps when the other is more distant from self.”
One recent study applies SJT to health communication campaigns. Smith et al. (2006) merged the social norms approach (SNA) with SJT. The SNA predicts that campaign messages providing true normative information about widely misperceived health behaviors will reduce the gap between inaccurate perceptions and actual practices, and consequently reduce behaviors originally based on exaggerated norms. At the formative evaluation stage of designing messages informed by SJT, the researcher should measure the boundaries of the latitudes of acceptance, noncommitment, and rejection for true normative information to be conveyed to an audience. This study focused on norms for moderate consumption of alcohol on a college campus, discovering that the three latitudes were significantly different from one another in believability. SJT predicts that a campaign based on a norm falling in the latitude of noncommitment is most likely to be effective.
A series of messages using the true norm, which fell within the latitude of noncommitment, were part of a year-long media-based health persuasion campaign. Subsequent survey data showed significant reductions in the gap in perceived versus actual percentage of alcohol consumption and actual versus perceived number of drinks; moreover, self-reports of consumption of five or fewer drinks increased significantly. Therefore, using SJT as a guiding force in the message testing stage of the campaign was effective. SJT can also explain the effects of failed campaigns using persuasive messages that fell into the audience’s latitude of rejection.
SJT can be assessed in terms of the criteria for a strong scientific theory (Granberg 1983). It synthesizes the known body of facts well and is grounded in findings generated from empirical studies. Not all studies have findings that are readily explained by the tenets of SJT, so it has established disconfirmation. The theory is unique in its focus on assessment of the full gamut of possible positions on a persuasive topic and its delineation of the latitudes of acceptance, noncommitment, and rejection, along with the subsequent possible assimilation and contrast effects from messages aimed at these latitudes. SJT is relatively parsimonious: “It does not contain excess baggage” (Granberg 1983). It has not had the heuristic value of other classic persuasion theories, however. Perhaps a resurgence of SJT principles might occur as researchers such as Smith et al. (2006) pair it with other theories, models, and approaches.
- Granberg, D. (1983). Social judgment theory. In M. Burgoon (ed.), Communication yearbook 6. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 304–329.
- O’Keefe, D. J. (1990). The study of persuasive effects. In D. J. O’Keefe (ed.), Persuasion: Theory and research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 169–180.
- Paek, H. J., Pan, Z. D., Sun, Y., Abisaid, J., & Houden, D. (2005). The third-person perception as social judgment: An exploration of social distance and uncertainty in perceived effects of political attack ads. Communication Research, 32(2), 143–170.
- Sherif, C.W., Sherif, M., & Nebergall, R. E. (1965). Attitudes and attitude change: The social judgment-involvement approach. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.
- Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York, Harper.
- Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Smith, S. W., Atkin, C. K., Martell, D., Allen, R., & Hembroff, L. (2006). A social judgment theory approach to conducting formative research in a social norms campaign. Communication Theory, 16, 141–152.