Attitude-Behavior Relationship

Intuitively, it makes sense that if we know something about a person’s attitude, we should be able to predict his or her behavior. In Allport’s definition of the attitude given at the beginning of the series, the attitudes exert a directive influence on the individual’s behavior.

Do we, in fact, behave in line with our attitudes? The early researchers assumed that a close link did exist between the attitudes and behavior. But modern social psychologists have consistently found that people do not always act in accordance with their attitudes.

For example, you might disapprove of cheating: yet find yourself taking a peep at a classmate’s answer script, when the opportunity presents itself, or you might favor a certain political candidate, and yet not vote on the day of the election.

Under what conditions are your attitudes most likely to influence or determine your behavior? We shall answer this question in this portion of the series.

One classic study sparked a debate over the nature of the relationship between the attitudes and behavior. In 1934, the sociologist Richard La Pierre travelled around the United States with a Chinese couple for three months. His aim was to examine the intergroup attitudes, and to see whether those attitudes would predict behavior. La Pierre was specifically interested in racial prejudice.

In the U.S in the 1930s, there was widespread prejudice against the Asians, and La Pierre wanted to understand the nature of this negative attitude and whether it predicted discrimination. In the first phase of the study, La Pierre travelled around the U.S visiting restaurants and hotels, to see how many would refuse to serve the Chinese couple.

Only 1 out of 250 hotels and restaurants refused to serve the Chinese couple—apparently showing low levels of discrimination (the behavior supposedly associated with the prejudiced attitudes). This pattern of data, however, was inconsistent with the widespread and frequent reports of racial prejudiced that were apparent around this time.

To assess these attitudes objectively, after the trip, La Pierre sent a letter asking the same restaurant and hotel managers whether they would serve the Chinese couple in their establishment.

Of the 128 replies, 90 percent said they would refuse to serve the Chinese people. It was therefore quite apparent from La Pierre’s findings that, contrary to the common intuition, the attitudes did not predict behavior at all.

There are several factors that determine the relation between the attitude and the consequent behavior.

Determinants of the Attitude-Behavior Relationship

Subsequent research has identified several reasons how La Pierre observed inconsistency between the expressed attitudes and the observed behavior. We spend the remainder of this entry discussing each of these factors.

1.   Specificity

In order for the attitudes to predict behavior, the two have to refer to the same level of specificity. In LaPierre’s study the behavior that was assessed was specific (i.e. would you serve this Chinese couple), but the attitude subsequently assessed was broader (i.e. would you serve Chinese people in general).

It might therefore not be surprising that such general attitudes are not linked to specific behaviors. For example, think about your own attitude towards psychology: if you feel like you are good at psychology in general, does this mean you would predict a high score in all of your psychology exams?

It is more likely that you are better at some specific topic within psychology, than others—for instance, you may be better at social psychology than child psychology, while still having a general opinion that you are good at psychology.

Your general attitude concerning your ability at psychology, would therefore not necessarily predict your performance in a specific aspect of psychology. Thus, in order to observe a relationship between the attitudes and behavior, they both need to be assessed at the same level of specificity.

2.   Time

Quite simply, the longer the time between the attitude measurement and the measurement of behavior, the more likely it is that the attitude will change, and so the two will become mismatched. A study of Fishbein and Coombs (1974) is illustrative: they observed that the correlation between the attitudes and the voting behavior was stronger, one week before voting in an election, compared to one month before voting.

3.   Self-Awareness

People can experience different kinds of self-awareness, and this can influence the strength of the relationship between the attitudes and behavior. Essentially, the people who are privately self-aware behave in line with their own attitude, whereas the people, who are publicly self-aware, behave in line with the attitude they perceive the majority of the other people to hold, especially when there is an audience physically present.

You may, for example, privately hold the belief that people should not throw garbage in the public places. When you are on your own, you might act according to your private attitude, making sure you do not throw trash on the ground. In other words, your private attitude will predict your behavior.

You may, however, act differently when you are with a group of friends, especially, if the norm of the group is that it is not cool to conform to the societal norms, like making sure you do not litter. Here, then, due to the conformity pressure, you might be more publicly self-aware and act in line with the public attitude (i.e., the group norm) and throw litter on the streets, defying your private attitude. Thus, the attitude-behavior consistency is dependent upon the social context: whether your private or public attitudes are more accessible.

4.   Attitude Accessibility

An attitude is accessible to the degree that it springs to mind quickly. And, a highly accessible attitude is likely to stimulate actions that are consistent with it. The accessibility of the attitudes can be measured using response times to answering the questions relating to the attitude object: the speed of these responses predicts later behavior.

Since the attitude accessibility indicates the strength of conviction, the attitudes high in accessibility will be better predictors of behavior, than the attitudes lower in accessibility.

5.   Attitude Strength

Related to the concept of attitude accessibility is attitude strength. As you might expect, the stronger one’s attitudes are, the more likely they are to have an influence on the behavior. While one might expect the strong attitudes also to be accessible (they will be the attitudes people more frequently bring to mind), this is not necessarily the case.

The attitudes can be held either with a strong conviction or be weakly held, irrespective of whether they can be brought easily to the mind (that is to say, while related, the attitude accessibility and the attitude strength are independent concepts). For instance, a case on the news may suddenly bring issues of euthanasia to the fore, sparking public debates not only in the media, but also between groups of friends.

The attitudes related to this issue have therefore become contextually accessible, but people can still vary in the extent to which they either have strong opinions on the subject, or have little interest or particular opinion one way or another.

Three things can affect the attitude strength and attitude-behavior consistency—information, personal involvement and direct experience with the attitude object. Greater attitude strength and behavioral consistency can be achieved by possessing more information about an attitude object.

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The more personally involved someone is, with a particular issue, the more likely it will be that they will act in line with their attitudes. Finally, people who have formed attitudes via direct experience are more likely to have a stronger attitude, and show a greater consistency with behavior.

Above we have discussed five factors that can determine when and whether attitudes will predict behavior. However, it is important to acknowledge that there are other determinants of behavior, and that to fully understand when and why we behave in certain ways, we need to look at how attitudes affect behavior in conjunction with these other factors.