Attitudes: foundations and debates Flagship Series Department of Social Psychology George Gaskell

Attitudes: foundations and debates
George Gaskell
Flagship Series
Department of Social Psychology
Attitudes are alive and well
• The importance of data on attitudes and opinions in
many disciplines and in social research can hardly be
• The political opinion poll is the “ideal type”. Expressed
preferences as a proxy for choices and action
• Hence the reliance on attitude measurement in many
domains – social and political research, marketing,
organisational research, communications etc.
• I’m currently involved in the design, analysis and
reporting of surveys on the ‘Life Sciences’ and ‘Food
risks’ in which the data collection amounts to €1.6m
• Yet in social psychology there is a continuing debate
about the status of the concept.
Some of the heated debates in social
• Social representations cf Moscovici and Duveen and
• Attitudes as epi-phenomena: the discourse tradition (
Potter and Billig).
• Neuro-cognitive psychological approaches – brain
mechanisms and MRI scans.
• ‘Fundamental’ research to establish reliable and valid
techniques for measurement, (Krosnick).
• Concerns about response variability due to context
effects and question wording, (Gaskell) and attitudes as
on-line constructions (Zaller)
• A return to affect (Schwarz)
Early theories
• Thomas and Znaniecki: attitudes as the
individual counterpart to social values
• This Durkheimian tradition was
reinterpreted by Asch who saw attitudes
as social sentiments – deep seated and an
essential part of the fabric of a group.
Allport and the individualisation of the social
• Allport, G. (1954) the attitude: ‘a mental or
neural state of readiness, organised through
experience, exerting a directive or dynamic
influence on the individuals responses to all
objects and situations with which it is related’
• This definition represents the hard core
assumption : attitudes are the mental triggers of
action. A uni-directional causal path from
attitudes to behaviours: the ‘projectile model’.
Competing philosophical positions
• Historically most researchers treat the attitude
as a hypothetical construct
• But different conceptions as to the nature of the
• An implicit response to a given object – an
evaluation of some aspect of an unproblematic
reality that is out there – the Cartesian position.
• Attitudes are part of the construction of reality, a
template through which reality is created – the
Gestalt/constructivist approach
3 component model of attitudes
Rosenberg – Yale School
what you know
what you feel
what you do
Attitudes can be measured
• Take 50 or so statements about a social object
• Thurstone’s technique: judges allocate the statements
on an interval scale from positive to negative
• Item analysis leads to selection of circa 12 items that
amount to a ruler to determine where a person is located
on the attitudinal dimension
• Likert’s technique: judges rate statements on scale strongly agree (+2) thru neither agree nor disagree (0) to
strongly disagree (-2). Can be from 5 to 11 scale points
• Item analysis leads to selection of questions which
individually correlate with the total of all items
• Leading to a cumulative scale – respondents indicate
level of agreement/disagreement to all items.
• Helped along by developments in statistical sampling
Theory and measurement drive
programmes of research
• Quantitative index of the affective component
• Measurement equals ‘science’
• Parallel developments of the cognitive
component not pursued
• Justification from consistency theory – the three
components in a dynamic equilibrium cf
Festinger’s cognitive dissonance – if behaviour
is at variance with cognition and affect then
A troubling anomaly:
‘what we say and what we do’
• Concerns about the unquestioned link between
attitudes and behaviour. - La Pierre.
• Wicker (1969) “taken as a whole (a metaanalysis), these studies show that attitudes are
more likely to be only slightly or unrelated to
• Essentially, the projectile model abandoned (or
should have been) as the projectile’s progress is
affected by laws, norms and social pressures –
the social context
• This should have been obvious from research
into group processes cf Kurt Lewin in the 1950s
Fishbein – the basis of modern
theorising on the attitude
• A 2 component model
• Attitude becomes the affect (+ve or –ve)
attached to an object.
• Cognition is beliefs about the object
• And behavioural intention (note not behaviour,
since the road to hell is paved with good
intentions) is a function of the attitude and social
normative beliefs.
• Extended into a model of planned behaviour and
the basis for health beliefs model
Problems with the attitude construct
• One from of representing the world – a ranking
in terms of preference; but there are other ways
of representing the world that are of interest.
• On important matters ‘few think alone’; where is
the social in the social psych of the attitude?
Fishbein’s social normative beliefs contrasts the
sovereign individual and the social world
• What about widespread beliefs – how do we
account for these?
• What are the origins of attitudes? Possibly
values – taking us back to the early days of
social psychology. This is my current
preoccupation, but that is another lecture.