Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 8: Guiding actions with attitudes (pp. 290–303)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. How Attitudes Guide Behavior (pp. 291–295)
    1. Attitudes guide behavior without much thought
    2. Attitudes guide behavior through considered intentions
  2. When Do Attitudes Influence Action? (pp. 296–303)
    1. Attitude accessibility: Attitudes must come to mind
    2. Attitude accessibility in clinical settings
    3. Attitude compatibility: The right attitude must come to mind
    4. Implicit and explicit attitudes as guides for behavior
    5. When attitudes are not enough
How Attitudes Guide Behavior

Attitudes can influence behaviors in two different ways: (1) they can trigger consistent behaviors directly, with little intervening thought; and (2) they can influence behaviors after extensive and deliberate consideration or processing, through the formulation of intentions.

Attitudes guide behavior without much thought

When people have well-established attitudes about certain attitude objects, they also have evaluative summaries of that attitude object (e.g., how much they like it or dislike it), which make it easier to decide what to do, and are therefore very likely to guide behavior directly.

Attitudes can bias or even change people's perceptions of attitude objects, because they focus attention on some particular characteristics of an object (and away from others) that are consistent with those attitudes (e.g., a favorable attitude makes positive qualities salient; a negative attitude makes negative attributes salient). People often don't see that attitude objects have changed because of their attitudes.

This bias process increases the likelihood that people's behavior will be consistent with their attitude in a straightforward way: people respond to object qualities most salient to them, and behave in attitude-consistent ways.

Attitudes guide behavior through considered intentions

When people deliberately try to make their behavior consistent with their attitude, they put a lot of effort and consideration into forming intentions to act in a particular way in order to achieve a goal. This process takes place through four steps:

Step 1: Forming of intentions. Intentions are the single most important predictor of actual behavior once they are in place; according to the theory of reasoned action, attitudes and social norms are an important source of intentions, which can then guide behavior. Getting people to form intentions powerfully increases the chance that behaviors will be performed.

Step 2: Activation of behavioral information. Intentions help attitudes translate into behavior by bringing to mind everything one knows about performing that behavior. The kind of information that is brought to mind is determined by the level at which one thinks: forming specific intentions brings specific behavioral options to mind that help to achieve the behavioral goal; broad intentions allow flexibility to adopt alternative plans.

Step 3: Planning. The optimal way of carrying out the intended behavior is selected.

Step 4: The intended behavior is carried out if an opportunity presents itself. People also monitor their behavior against their intentions, to ensure that the gap between the present and the desired state is being reduced.

Research activity: How attitudes can change behavior

Positive and negative emotions play a role in the regulation of intentions and behavior. Positive emotions can motivate intentions, whereas negative emotions can prompt revisions of plans.

Whether or not the motivation and opportunity to engage in thinking are present determines whether attitudes will affect behavior in a direct way, or with considerable thought. When consideration is not possible, or choices are not important, behavior will follow on directly from how an attitude object is viewed (e.g., in routine behavior or habits); when the stakes are high and considerable thought is possible, attitudes will influence behavior through their impact on intentions.

When Do Attitudes Influence Action?

If attitudes are to guide actions, they must be readily accessible and appropriate to the intended behavior. Attitudes can be made accessible through deliberate thought, self-awareness, or frequent use, or if they are particularly relevant to a particular behavior; and they are more likely to guide behavior if people believe they have control over their behavior.

Attitude accessibility: Attitudes must come to mind

Attitudes about certain objects, events, or people must come to mind at the right time.

Sometimes, inner convictions play a role with regard to when attitudes become accessible: low self-monitors have more accessible attitudes than high self-monitors.

There are a number of ways to make attitudes accessible:

  1. Deliberately making attitudes accessible: Attitudes are brought to mind by deliberate effort, by thinking about a relevant attitude for a few minutes before taking action. Being reminded of the relevance of an attitude to the behavior can increase the impact of that attitude on behavior. Similarly, if people think about something other than the relevant attitude, the consistency or link between attitude and behavior will decrease. So when the attitude is not the uppermost thing on the person's mind, the impact of the attitude on behavior is reduced.
  2. Making attitudes accessible through self-awareness: Making people self-aware increases the chance that important attitudes will come to mind, because they are reminded of the extent to which they are acting in accordance with their inner convictions.
  3. Making attitudes accessible automatically: The more often an attitude is brought to mind, the stronger the link between attitude object and attitude, and the more likely it is that the attitude will come to mind whenever that attitude object is encountered. These attitudes are built up through constant activation, deliberation, discussion, and action. So attitudes that come to mind more frequently lead to more consistent behavior. This is also true for attitudes formed on the basis of considerable issue-relevant thinking, those built up through cognitive processing, and attitudes that are personally relevant.
Attitude accessibility in clinical settings

Research on the link between attitudes and behavior has practical implications for dealing with bad habits.

People can gain attitudinal control over impulses with tremendous effort by repeatedly activating attitudes in high-risk situations.

A change in context is one of the best predictors of successful change in habits; and when behavior is less influenced by the environment, it comes more under the control of attitudes and intentions.

Good habits can be learned and strengthened by repeatedly activating attitudes. When behavior is controlled by attitudes and intentions, it is important to make that link often, so the desired behavior is triggered by the environment once again (it becomes a habit).

Attitude compatibility: The right attitude must come to mind

Attitudes must come to mind at exactly the right time to have the greatest effect on behavior towards an attitude object.

Only an appropriate and relevant attitude can be expected to influence behavior.

To influence specific behavior, specific attitudes must come to mind (e.g., women's attitudes about birth control in general do not predict their behavior as well as their specific attitudes towards taking the pill).

Attitude–behavior consistency can only be expected when the attitude object (what you are asked your opinion about) and the target of behavior (what you act towards) are the same.

Implicit and explicit attitudes as guides for behavior

People's implicit attitudes reflect their automatic evaluations of objects, and can diverge from their explicit attitudes (those overtly expressed). Implicit attitudes reflect more automatic, less controllable evaluations; explicit attitudes reflect conscious thoughts and considered reactions to objects.

For important attitudes, implicit and explicit attitudes are consistent, so they work together to guide both spontaneous and controlled behavior.

When implicit and explicit attitudes differ, either one might influence behavior more at any given time.

So the right attitude has to come to mind to guide behavior.

Case study: The Implicit Association Test

When attitudes are not enough

Perceptions of personal control have a big influence on behavior: people do not act on attitudes if they believe they cannot perform the required behavior. When people think they can control their behavior, attitudes are effective in guiding action. This is because perceptions of control produce intentions that then guide attitude-consistent behavior.

Because of the nature of social interaction, we don't always have the objective control over our actions to carry out our attitudes and intentions, even when we think we do (e.g., we might want to be environmentally friendly by separating our trash, but if our family doesn't also do this, it will not work).

So attitudes are most likely to influence actions when the attitude comes to mind, when it is appropriate, and when attitude-consistent behavior is not constrained in any way.

So what does this mean?

Established attitudes can guide behavior in two ways: superficially/directly, and in a more considered/deliberate way. Attitudes can bias people's perceptions of attitude objects, because they focus attention on the consistent characteristics of an object. This bias process increases the likelihood that people's behavior will be consistent with their attitude in a straightforward way: people respond to the object qualities most salient to them, and behave in attitude-consistent ways. Attitudes can also influence behavior in more considered ways by prompting intentions, which activate behavioral information, so people can plan and carry out the intended behavior. If attitudes are to guide behavior, they have to come to mind at the right time.

Attitudes can be made accessible through deliberate thought, self-awareness, or frequent use, or automatically through triggers from the environment. Attitudes must also be appropriate or relevant to the task at hand, and attitude-consistent behavior should not be constrained in any way; that is, people should have full control over their behavior.

Back to chapter 8 introduction

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 8 introduction
  2. Changing attitudes with actions
  3. Guiding actions with attitudes
  4. Chapter overview (PDF)
  5. Fill-in-the-blanks
  6. Multiple-choice questions