In this lesson, we define and distinguish between implicit and explicit attitudes. We also identify various methods used to measure attitudes and the pros and cons of each.
Attitudes: Explicit vs. Implicit
Part of what makes each one of us unique is our combination of opinions and attitudes about the world around us.
Every day, our attitudes about ideas, events, objects or people help determine the way we live and the choices we make. In another lesson, we discuss the fact that attitudes have affective, behavioral and cognitive components. We also discuss the fact that attitudes can stem from each of these components. Once an attitude is formed, though, how is it manifested? Unless someone tells us, how do we know someone’s attitude toward something?Interestingly, an attitude can actually exist at two different levels. Explicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the conscious level, are deliberately formed and are easy to self-report.
On the other hand, implicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the unconscious level, are involuntarily formed and are typically unknown to us.Imagine you’re out with some friends and meet someone new. This new acquaintance is wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, and they happen to be your favorite team. You decide you already like this person and start a friendly conversation.
From an attitude perspective, you consciously noticed the jersey and determined that this was obviously someone with which you would get along. Your attitude is at the conscious level, was deliberately formed and you are able to tell someone else about your attitude.Now, imagine the same scene. You are out with your friends.
You vaguely notice some of the strangers around you but don’t meet anyone. You talk with your friends but feel extremely uncomfortable. Maybe your friend even notices and asks what’s wrong, but you have no idea. In this scenario, it would be possible that one of the strangers near you reminds you of someone from your past that you greatly disliked. Your attitude towards this person is what is making you feel uncomfortable.
However, the attitude is at the unconscious level, was involuntarily formed, and you have no idea it’s there, so you couldn’t tell anyone about it.It is possible and quite common for an explicit attitude and an implicit attitude to contradict each other. Prejudice is a frequently used example. Imagine Greg, a middle-class white man who genuinely believes that all races are equal and despises any kind of racial bias.
This is Greg’s explicit attitude. He is aware of his strong opinion and can easily share this with others. Yet, he is unaware that any time he is around Hispanics, he acts rather nervous. If Greg grew up in a small town with strong negative stereotypes about Hispanic people, it’s possible that some of these negative ideas influenced him without his knowledge. He may subconsciously believe that Hispanics are dangerous.
This is Greg’s contradicting implicit attitude. It was involuntarily created, and he is not aware of it.
Measuring Explicit Attitudes
So, again, how do we know someone’s attitude toward a particular subject? In the real world, how do we determine Greg’s attitude about Hispanics? The answer to this question is a source of some debate, but a variety of methods have been created to measure attitudes both explicit and implicit.Because explicit attitudes are known to the subject and can be observed by an outsider, self-reporting and observation are the two most common methods to determine explicit attitudes. The biggest advantage for both methods is the ease of collecting the data.
However, neither measure is infallible. For example, although self-reporting seems to be mostly accurate, we must assume that each subject is highly self-aware and honest, which may not always be the case.
Measuring Implicit Attitudes
Measuring implicit attitudes is much more difficult than measuring explicit attitudes. After all, the implicit attitude is unknown to the subject. One popular method of determining implicit attitudes is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in which subjects quickly categorize words or pictures, and the results are used to determine automatic associations between concepts and attributes.
Imagine Greg was taking an IAT. He would have to categorize a long list of words and/or pictures very quickly. The amount of time for each word and/or picture would be so brief that he would not have time to think; the categorization would be from his automatic reactions. If he categorized Hispanic people or communities under negative attributes (bad, dangerous, etc.) before he had a chance to think about it, this would suggest a negative implicit attitude towards Hispanics.
The use of the IAT is a subject of controversy, because many question its internal validity, particularly when it comes to measuring racial prejudice. Skeptics say the test merely demonstrates the tendency for all of us to prefer our in-group and have the most positive associations with people who are similar to us. In other words, the IAT validates a part of human nature instead measuring individual racial prejudice.
In summary, an attitude can exist at two different levels. Explicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the conscious level, are deliberately formed and are easy to self-report. Because explicit attitudes are known to the subject and can be observed by an outsider, self-reporting and observation are the two most common methods to determine explicit behaviors.
The biggest advantage for both methods is the ease of collecting the data. However, we must assume that each subject is highly self-aware and honest, which may not always be the case.Implicit attitudes are attitudes that are at the unconscious level, are involuntarily formed and are typically unknown to us.
One popular method of determining implicit attitudes is the Implicit Association Test (IAT), in which subjects quickly categorize words or pictures, and the results are used to determine automatic associations between concepts and attributes. Use of the IAT is a subject of controversy, and skeptics say the test merely demonstrates the tendency for humans to prefer people who are similar to us rather than measuring individual racial prejudice.
At the conclusion of this lesson, you’ll be able to:
- Describe the differences in explicit and implicit attitudes
- Explain how to test explicit and implicit attitudes, including the shortcomings of each method
- Summarize the purpose of the Implicit Association Test and provide an alternate explanation for the results of this test