In psychology, there are three key theories that describe attitude formation. This lesson names the three founders of attitude formation while providing an overview of each theory.
Attitude Formation Theories Defined
Attitude formation theories help us understand how a person’s attitude takes shape and why a person might have a particular attitude or how that attitude came to exist. Attitude formation is of particular interest to psychology because attitudes often direct behavior.There is no single dominant theory on attitude formation. Rather, there are three theories that are used most often to describe attitude formation: functionalism, learning, and cognitive dissonance theories. Attitude formation theories suggest that perhaps we do what benefits us (functionalist theory), or maybe our past experiences have taught us how to act (learning theory), or it might just be an attempt to restore harmony to two opposing truths that are held (cognitive dissonance theory). All attempt to answer the question of where attitudes come from.
We will take a look at these theories in this lesson.
What Is Attitude?
Let’s quickly define the word attitude. An attitude is the value a person assigns to something or someone. How do you feel about the current president of the United States? What do you think about classical music? These questions will reveal your level of value towards these things, or, your attitude about the president or classical music.
Attitudes are born out of what we know (cognitive), feel (emotions), and do (behavior) about someone or something. The three foundational theories that describe the process of attitude formation are:Functionalist TheoryDaniel Katz, a functional theorist, suggests that attitudes are formed according to how a particular person or thing meets our needs. To a functionalist, attitudes are shaped based on the personal benefit they offer. For example, one might have a positive attitude about the president because they find his political policies meet their needs. Katz also notes that we form attitudes to support our self-image or existing values.
According to the functionalist, an attitude will change when the needs of the individual change.Learning TheoryIvan Pavlov, a learning theorist, gives the explanation that our attitudes are formed through conditioning. Consider a person who has pleasant childhood memories of their father playing classical music softly in the living room. When the child is young, classical music provokes no response because the child has never heard it. However, over time, the child grows to associate happy childhood memories of playing in the living room while listening to classical music.
Pavlov would suggest that as this person grows older they will likely respond by favoring classical music.This is called classical conditioning: when a previously neutral stimulus provokes a conditioned response. Another type of conditioning is called operant conditioning. This is simply when a stimulus provokes a response.
For example, you feel hot water, so you pull your hand away.Cognitive Dissonance TheoryLeon Festinger, a cognitive dissonance theorist, focuses on how attitudes direct behavior through the tension experienced when two opposing thoughts exist. For example, let’s say that you favor the president.
Later, you learn that the president was involved in a scandal. So, on one hand you favor the president, but on the other hand, you dislike his involvement in the scandal. You experience frustration over these two conflicting views; this is the cognitive dissonance. Those who hold to this theory believe that how you mentally wrestle with those two conflicting truths will determine your attitude towards the president.
Attitude formation theories help us understand how a person’s attitude takes shape and why a person might have a particular attitude or how that attitude came to exist. When it comes to attitude formation, no one theory dominates. Instead, three theories work to explain how an attitude might take shape:1. Functionalism: Daniel Katz explains that our attitudes are determined by the personal benefit they offer.2.
Learning: Ivan Pavlov suggests that we learn what attitude to have by our past experiences and surroundings.3. Cognitive dissonance: Leon Festinger suggests that attitudes form when we are confronted by two opposing truths.Together, these three theories help us understand not only attitude formation but also behavior.