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Attitudes: Formation and Change
  Attitudes: What are they?

There are many ways to define an attitude, and several definitions are currently accepted. Basically, an attitude is a stable and enduring disposition to evaluate an object or entity (a person, place or thing), in a particular way. “I like working on this project” and “I do not like working after office hours” are examples of attitudes because they express a persons general feeling, either favorable or unfavorable toward something.

Typically attitudes have been considered along with two other elements – beliefs and behaviors. Beliefs represent what we have learned or come to know through experience. As such, they are either true or represent what we think is true (for example, that working on a challenging project would bring recognition in the organization or that working after office hours would affect health and personal life). Behaviors (for example, whether one completes the project successfully or leaves the office at 6PM in the evening) represent the actions we take with regard to a particular object or entity.

In the simplest case attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors should be related. A dislike of nuclear power plants would be associated with negative beliefs about them (for example, believing that they are dangerous and often run in an irresponsible manner) and negatively oriented behaviors (signing a petition to stop construction of a nuclear power plant). 

Sometimes these three elements are strongly related (Campbell, 1947), though in other instances the relation between attitudes, beliefs and behaviors is not very strong. (Wiegel et al., 1974). For example, we might dislike studying, (a negative attitude) and rarely study at all (negative behavior) yet truly believe it will lead to success, yet rarely study (for example if we were required to work for forty hours a week to support ourselves or if we were brilliant). We could even dislike studying, be unsure whether it leads to better grades, and yet spend a great deal in studying. Hence we can say that attitude is a complex cognitive process. 

Clearly, the possible relations between attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are complex. We will discuss the various possibilities more throughout the chapter.

Why are attitudes important?

  • Attitudes serve as one way to organize our relationship with our world. They make our interactions more predictable affording us a degree of control.
    For example, the attitude “I like working for this company” is very useful in guiding our behavior towards the company’s work.
  • Attitudes also enable us to reduce the vast amount of information that we possess into manageable units. All the beliefs we have about our company could be summarized as “I like my company”, and thus our attitude represents the combination of many bits of information for us.
  • We can use others attitudes to make judgments about them.
  • It has been found consistently that the more similar our attitudes are to those of others, the more we like them.
  • Finally, people’s attitudes can sometimes be useful in predicting behavior, such as how they will vote in an election or which brand of car they will buy.

Components of Attitudes

Attitudes consist of three basic components: emotional, informational, and behavioral. 

  • The emotional component involves the person’s feelings, or affect- positive, neutral, or negative- about an object. Thus, emotion is given the greatest attention in the organizational behavior literature in relation to job-satisfaction. 

    In addition, the expression of emotions either positive, like a customer service representative; negative, like a bill collector or a police officer; or neutral, like an academic administrator or public servant- is also important to work behavior.
  • The informational component consists of the beliefs and information the individual has about the object. A supervisor may believe that two weeks of training is necessary before a worker can operate a particular piece of equipment. 

    In reality, the average worker may be able to operate the machine after only four days of training. Yet the information the supervisor is using (that two weeks is necessary) is the key to his attitude about training.
  • The behavioral component consists of a person’s tendencies to behave in a particular way toward an object. For example the supervisor in the above paragraph may assign two weeks of machine training to all his new people.

It is important to remember that of the three components of attitudes, only the behavioral component can be directly observed. 

One cannot see another person’s feelings (the emotional component) or beliefs (The informational component). These two components can only be inferred. 

For example, when the supervisor assigns a new employee to two weeks training on the equipment, it is only inferred that the 1) the supervisor has strong feelings about the length of training required and the individual believes that this length of training is necessary.

How are attitudes formed?

Attitudes may be learned from the experiences we have. These include mostly mundane events such as being praised by our parents for expounding “liberal” attitudes, but also major life and world events. 

The basic processes through which we learn attitudes remain the same throughout life, though as we grow older the attitudes we learn may be more complex, and the ones we already hold may become more resistant to change.

The processes through which our experiences create attitudes are all related to “learning” which is a basic human process. We will learn more about learning processes in the chapter 6 of this module. 

As for now just keep in mind that all our attitudes are learned from our experience of the social context around us.
The influence of the family, schooling, and peer groups waxes and wanes as we grow into adolescence and adulthood. 

Thus, the primary sources of our attitudes change as we mature. A final source of attitudes is the culture in which a child grows up. Culturally prevalent prejudices are generally reflected in prejudiced attitudes.

Changing Attitudes

Our lives are filled with attempts to change attitudes, to influence our decisions, or to persuade us to do one thing or another. There are several theories, which try to explain the phenomenon of attitude change. 

Most well known theories among them are a) Cognitive dissonance theory b) Message Learning approach.

Cognitive-Dissonance theory:

This theory was based on the assumption that people wish to think of themselves as rational and strive for consistency. But the theory was concerned with a single person with two or more attitudes about something. 

Thus inconsistencies between people were not the primary focus; rather, dissonance theory sought to explain the dynamics involved in the consistency of attitudes we hold individually. The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that people seek to minimize dissonance and discomfort it causes.

A person’s desire to reduce dissonance is determined by the importance of the elements creating the dissonance, the degree of influence individual he or she has over the elements, and the rewards that may be involved in dissonance.

If the elements creating the dissonance are relatively unimportant, the pressure to correct this imbalance will be low. A corporate manager – Mrs. Smith who has a husband and several children – believes strongly that no company should pollute the air or water. Unfortunately, because of the requirements of her job, Mrs. Smith is placed in the position of having to make decisions that would trade off her company’s profitability against her attitudes on pollution. 

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