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Have you ever wondered how your attitudes are formed and how they affect your behavior? In this lesson, we’ll take a look at some of the internal and external factors that form our attitudes and how our behavior can be affected or changed by various influences.

Components of Attitudes

Let’s think about attitudes, or long-held beliefs that guide our social interactions.Each attitude has three components:

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  1. cognitive
  2. behavioral
  3. emotional

Let’s say that Amy thinks people who wear glasses are educated. This is the cognitive component, or actual belief, which can be expressed in words.Amy listens to people more closely because they wear glasses.

This is an example of the behavioral component, where she acts on her belief.Amy trusts the things people say more if they wear glasses. This is the emotional component: how beliefs make us feel in social situations. While this might seem irrational from the outside, such beliefs are common and allow us to interact smoothly with the social world around us.

How Attitudes Are Formed

Now, let’s get to know more about Amy by examining how her attitudes are formed.There are three different ways that attitudes are learned:

  1. observational learning
  2. classical conditioning
  3. operant conditioning

One way that we form attitudes is through observational learning by watching our role models. Say Amy’s favorite professor wears glasses. He’s smart and received his MBA from Harvard. Therefore, unconsciously or consciously, Amy believes that people who wear glasses are well-educated.Classical conditioning happens when our reflexes are trained to respond to stimuli, in ways similar to how Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to drool when they heard the meal-time bell.

When the fire alarm in Amy’s building rings, her heart races and she feels a sense of urgency. She responds by getting up and filing out of the building with the rest of her coworkers.Operant conditioning is when we modify our behavior based on consequences like punishment and reward.

For example, Amy believes that red lights are merely a suggestion, but after paying an expensive ticket for running a stoplight, she now waits for the light to turn green.

How Attitude Affects Behavior

The red traffic light example illustrates how social laws can affect Amy’s behavior even if she has conflicting beliefs. However, research has shown that such behavioral modification lasts only as long as the negative feedback is in place. So, if it’s a stop sign on a quiet street where no one is watching instead of a traffic light, Amy might decide not to stop.Attitudes that readily come to mind guide behavior when there are few outside influences. Her ‘attitude’ has not changed, but her behavior has been modified.

How Behavior Affects Attitude

OK, now let’s put Amy on a dating game show to see how behavior affects attitude. She gets to choose between three possible dates.Meet contestant A. Blaine is a successful, intelligent businessman who could fulfill the expected gender role of the family man and provider. According to social norms and expectations, Blaine would be the right choice for Amy.

Meet contestant B. Larry knows all the angles. He knows about the foot-in-the-door method of persuasion where people are more likely to agree to a difficult request, like a dinner date, if they first agree to an easy one, like a quick drink after work with other coworkers.Meet contestant C. Hank isn’t the kind of guy who Amy’s parents envisioned for her, which makes him strangely attractive. Reactance theory proposes that we’ll rebel against restrictions that limit our behavioral freedom.

How Attitudes Are Measured

If Amy was asked to fill out a questionnaire listing the strength of her attitudes on a scale from 1-5 (1 if she strongly disagreed and 5 if she strongly agreed), the results could be measured using the Likert scale developed by American psychologist Rensis Likert.The Likert scale would quantify Amy’s conscious beliefs. If asked, she would probably express a favorable attitude towards contestant A, since Blaine is the type of guy her friends and family would get along with.Other methods of measuring attitudes employ devices, such as an EMG (electromyograph), which monitors facial muscle activity, or an EEG (electroencephalograph), which tracks brain activity.Such tests measure physiological responses and can provide insight into Amy’s unconscious attitudes, and may reveal that Amy smiles more when she’s talking with contestant C.

How Attitudes Are Changed

What if Amy decided to go on a date with contestant C? Hank is sweet and thoughtful. Amy might be surprised to learn that he’s incredibly smart even though he doesn’t wear glasses!Cognitive dissonance theory was proposed by Leon Festinger to describe the process that occurs when beliefs conflict: tension and emotional discomfort arises, leading to either a shift in belief or rationalization.

Amy modifies her attitude towards people with glasses after she meets Hank because she realizes that glasses aren’t necessarily an indicator of a person’s education.


We’ve examined how the way we think about people and things guides our actions and feelings. Outside factors, such as social norms and the expectations of our peers, heavily influence our attitudes. Persuasion and conflicting ideas can cause us to rethink our beliefs and eventually lead to a change in attitude.

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