Attitude Formation

Understanding Methods of Attitude Formation

What are your views about dowry death, sexual harassment Opens in new window, prejudices, and superstitions? You certainly have your own views about all these. But have you ever wondered, from where these attitudes come from? Were you born with these attitudes or did you acquire them from your various experiences. In this entry, we shall understand how we form attitudes.

The term attitude formation refers to the movement we make, from having no attitude towards an object, to having some positive or negative attitude towards that object.

How you acquire an attitude, plays a very important role in how you use it. The social psychologists are of the opinion that, attitudes can be formed by mere exposure, learning, social comparison and heredity.

1.  Mere Exposure

Some attitudes may be formed and shaped by what Zajonc (1968) called mere exposure, which means that simply being exposed to an object increases our feelings, usually positive, towards that object.

The mere exposure effect has been demonstrated with a wide range of stimuli, including foods, photographs, words and advertisement slogans. Generally, this means that familiarity, in fact, may not breed contempt. The familiar faces, ideas, and slogans become comfortable old friends.

In fact, the repeated exposures often work very well in advertising. The Marlboro man, who invented to convince male smokers, that taking a drag on a filtered cigarette would enhance their manhood, lasted through a generation of smokers.

Research also shows, that the effect is most powerful when it occurs randomly over time, and that too many exposures actually will decrease the effect. A constant bombardment does not work very well. Thus, repeated exposures increases the liking, when the stimuli are neutral or positive. If this is so with the positive stimuli, with negative stimuli it seems that continual exposure to an object, that was disliked initially, increases that negative emotion.

The negative feelings of which a person might hardly be aware can lead, with repeated exposure to the object of those feelings, to increased negative emotions, and ultimately to a system of beliefs that supports those emotions. The stimuli, ideas and values, to which we are exposed, shape us in ways that are not always obvious to us.

2.   Attitude Formation by Learning

The early theorists of attitude formation have argued that attitudes are learnt according to the same principles as the other learned responses i.e., the attitudinal responses are automatically strengthened through the processes of classical and instrumental conditioning.

But modern theories of social learning began to suggest, that the influence of reinforcement on behavior is mediated by its formative and incentive functions. Hence, it would seem likely, that the attitudes are acquired or learnt in some way through the individual’s interactions with the others, and with their environment.

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2.1   Classical Conditioning

Through the process of classical conditioning, the individuals come to like or dislike new objects or events merely because they are associated with the objects or events they already like or dislike.

An example is that when people associate a person with something positive—like the receipt of good news—they like them more, even though they did not cause the good news. Similarly, when they associate a person with something negative,—like being with them in a hot, humid room—they like them less. Even the associations, of which the individuals are unaware, can shape their attitudes. For example, if you had to choose between two colleges or two jobs. Each choice has desirable and undesirable features, creating conflict. But once you actually make the choice, you immediately bring your attitude more closely into line, with that commitment.

In other words, after you make the choice, you emphasize the negative features of the choice you have rejected, which is commonly called a ‘sour grapes’ rationalization. You also emphasize the positive features of the choice to which you have committed yourself—a ‘sweet lemon’ rationalization. Thus, pairing a neutral stimulus with an object that evokes an attitude response can cause the neutral object to come to evoke the same attitude response.

Classical conditioning may play a role in establishing some of the emotional components of attitudes and prejudice. For example, a child sees her mother show signs of displeasure each time the mother encounters a member of a particular ethnic group.

At first the child is neutral towards the members of this group and their visible characteristics (e.g., skin, color, dress, accent and other characteristics).

After these cues are paired with the mother’s negative emotional reactions many times, the classical conditioning occurs; the child comes to react negatively to these stimuli, and to the members of this ethnic group. The result is that, the child acquires a negative attitude toward such persons—an attitude that may form the core of a full-blown ethnic prejudice.

Interestingly, the classical conditioning can occur below the level of conscious awareness i.e. even when people are not aware of the stimuli that serve as the basis of this kind of conditioning.

2.2   Instrumental Conditioning

The process of socialization plays an equally important role in the development of attitudes. In the early life, we learn through the reinforcement of our behavior. Those attitudes, which are acceptable to the parents, are learnt by children too. They learn to practice those behaviors which yield positive results, and avoid those which produce negative consequences. This learning process is known as instrumental conditioning.

2.3   Observational Learning

At times it happens that parents have absolutely no intention of transmitting any views to their children, and yet children exhibit the behavior and views just by observing everyone around them. This process is called observational learning, and where the attitude formation is concerned, the observational learning seems to play an important role.

Children often learn to do what their parents do, and not always what they ask them to do. A lot of our learning and attitude formation takes place from our exposure to the mass media—television, magazine, films and so on. The peer pressure also plays an important role in acquiring the attitudes.

3.  Attitude Formation by Social Comparison

Attitudes are acquired not only through social learning, but also by other mechanisms. One such mechanisms is social comparison. At times, we compare our views with others in order to determine whether our views agree with theirs; and when they agree, we conclude that our ideas are accurate. Thus, this method of attitude formation is based on the view that—If others hold the same views, the views must be right.

Because of this process, we often change our attitudes so as to hold views closer to those of others. At times, social comparison contributes to the formation of new attitudes, especially if people we like express these views, admire and respect them. In short, our attitudes are shaped by social information from others, coupled with our own desire to be similar to people we like or respect.

4.   The Genetic Factor in Attitude Formation

In the history of the study of attitudes generally, theorists assumed that attitudes developed exclusively through the learning process. Even though it is true that experience plays a role, modern evidence indicates that there is also an unlearned, genetic component to many attitudes such as those involving political and religious issues.

For example, attitudes toward the death penalty or censorship are much more likely to be influenced by heredity than are attitudes toward teenage drivers or the wisdom of learning Latin. These genetically-influenced attitudes are particularly strong and influential in social life. Not only can people tell more quickly what they prefer on these issues, they are more likely to resist attempt to change them, and they will dislike those individuals more who hold an opposing position on these matters.