Why attitudes are unreliable predictors of behaviour Essay

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This essay discusses the nature of attitudes and their reliability when used to predict behaviour. Using various sources, an in depth look is taken at the problems defining attitude. The theories regarding the formation of attitudes are discussed, as well as the inherent problems in accurately measuring and reporting attitudes. The reliability of attitude to predict behaviour is questioned and found to be tenuous at best.

In this essay I will firstly define attitudes and their components, looking at certain definitional problems with the term attitude, arising from the fact that describing an attitude will always involve interpretation. It follows that an attitude is an essentially subjective phenomenon, and hence any attempt to define an attitude as a theoretical predictor of behavior will be unreliable. I will follow this with an analysis of how an attitude is formed, discussing several theories regarding this.I will then look at some of the methodological problems of attitude research in its various forms, concentrating on the particular technique of questionnaire, and how these forms of research are inadequate for use in the prediction of behaviour.Finally I will conclude that while attitudes can be a cause of behaviour, they are not reliable as a predictor of behaviour.

Attitudes are integral to the human personality and commonly used in daily social interactions in order to understand and evaluate an individual’s world. They influence our perceptions of others and also how we perceive ourselves. Read what is challenging behavior in health and social careThe initial problem with researching attitude is that, as a concept, the term attitude itself has no distinct and uncontested meaning. Augoustinos and Walker (1995) believe attitudes are ‘real and tangible, something which influences the way that attitude owner behaves’. Perhaps they are tangible, in the sense that attitudes are displayed through specific human behaviours, and so can be observed eg. A lazy attitude may be shown through someone sitting on a couch watching television all day.

This does not mean that ‘attitude’ in itself exists.Similar to many social psychological concepts, there is the problem of definition, possibly because they illustrate covert behaviours, and so, many have different interpretations of what constructs and attitude. Some theorists define attitude as a ‘predisposition to respond’ (Kahle 1984) in a certain way, such as Allport in 1935 and Cambell in 1950. Other theorists define an attitude as ‘…

a predisposition to experience, be motivated by and to act toward, a class of objects in a predictable manner’ (Smith, Bruner and White 1956 in Reich and Adcock 1976).One of the most readily accepted and easily understood definitions is offered by Judd, Ryan and Parke (1991). They believe that attitudes can be viewed as ‘evaluations of various objects that are stored in memory’. The main thing that the majority of researchers seem to agree on is that each attitude includes and affective (feeling), cognitive (thinking) and conative (behavioural or active) component. An attitude is thus experienced by the individual as thoughts and feelings, and articulated as beliefs and values.

Many definitions of attitude depend strongly on which theoretical approach is taken in relation to which factor of the above three is more important. This means that behaviourists would support a more conative based definition, as this is based upon observed behaviour, whilst cognitivists would obviously support a definition that leans more towards a conscious thought meaning. An attitude is, ultimately, an abstraction of individual thoughts and feelings, making it a highly subjective phenomenon, and it is this fact that makes it unreliable as a predictor of behaviour.Due to the fact that every individual holds a number of attitudes within their own conceptual framework, the question then becomes on of how these attitudes are determined. There is never one simple answer to any question of this nature, and as such, it becomes an issue of ‘theoretical controversy’ (Reich and Adcock 1976). There are four main theoretical groups regarding the determination and foundation of attitudes, these being Cognitive, Emotional, Behavioural and Social.

Cognitive theorists, also known as ‘person-oriented’ (Kahle 1984) theorists, believe that the experiences of a person, and their perceptions of the experience, cause an attitude to develop. There are two particular theories within this spectrum, that have had a far reaching effect on attitude research in general, these being balance and dissonance theories. The basic premise of these forms of the theory is that individuals, in general, prefer balance and harmony, and as such all experiences produce either a positive or negative attitude, dependant on the individual’s subjective experience of the particular event.Emotional theorists focus more on the ‘physiological changes’ (Bem 1970) that occur when an emotional response accompanies an attitude.

There are a large number of theories based on this premise, with the most notable being classical conditioning. These theories generally concentrate on the premise that individuals, when faced with a situation, produce a physiological response. This physical response produces an attitude to a particular situation dependant on the nature, strength and amount of pleasure or displeasure of the reaction.Behavioral theorists believe that rather than attitude causing behavior, behavior causes attitudes. Theorists of this school of thought fall within two main schools, those of cognitive dissonance and those of self-perception.

Cognitive dissonance theorizes that if an individual engages in behaviour that is not in agreeance with their beliefs or attitudes, this causes them enough discomfort to seek a return to harmony by convincing themselves that the behavior actually meshes with their belief or attitude, thus changing the attitude in question.Self-perception theorists believe that social influences ranging from superficial to profound, create the basic premises on which individuals base their attitudes. These social influences include exposure to media, social norms and group and interpersonal influences, such as family and friends. The theory is that exposure to these societal influences provide the individual with references on which they base their attitudes.None of the theories regarding attitude development are by any means mutually exclusive, as most theorists agree that it is a combination of things that cause attitudes to develop, and as we will see, any theory regarding attitudes causing or predicting behaviour faces numerous difficulties.

In attempting to research and measure attitude, one of the main issues facing the researcher is that attitudes are an internal and personal concept. They are not directly observable, and hence, not directly able to be measured.As stated by Elms (1976), the problem with measuring attitudes is that ‘most people use only the vaguest criteria in categorizing personal concepts’. In order to produce empirical research, it is necessary to measure particular components of attitude.

This allows to comparisons between individuals or groups.Unfortunately, in order to produce date, it is necessary to assume that questions designed by the researcher have the same meaning for all respondents. Given the subjective nature of attitudes themselves, this form of research can never be one hundred percent reliable or valid.Interpretive distortion will always occur.

In order to minimize this distortion, a whole host of research methods have been designed to measure peoples attitudes, generally orientated around asking them what they think about particular people, issues or objects of attention in general. To a much greater degree than with the observation of behaviour and demographic social issues such as age or income, the very act of designing research to tap into peoples attitudes and to try to get to their internal world, creates problems.Along with the development of these new methodologies have come a whole host of problems of operationalism, reliability, validity and analysis, not least of which is the fact that, as verbal behaviour is also an action, we can ever prove that any answer is caused by an underlying attitude. Research conducted by questionnaire consists of linguistic questions that are derived to measure theoretical constructs. What is measured from this construct will never be the actual attitude as experienced by the individual, hence causing a blurring between actual and communicated attitude.The beliefs, values and attitudes that a questionnaire is designed to measure, will vary according to the object of attention that the attitude is held towards, as an attitude does not exist on it’s own, and is essentially a reaction to the external world.

Because the subjective world is so complex, as soon as one sets out to measure a belief or value towards an isolated subject, distortion will inevitably occur, because it is highly unlikely that each respondent will understand the concept in exactly the same way. This has serious implications for the use of attitudes in explaining and predicting human behavior. Read what is challenging behavior in health and social careSuch problems of conceptual confusion are demonstrated in Cohen, O’Connor and Blakemore’s study, designed to examine the attitudes of nurses, entitled ‘ Nurses attitudes to palliative care in nursing homes in Western Australia’. This study is broken up into four parts, and it is the second and fourth parts which assist to illustrate the potential for conceptual confusion. These sections required participants to generate ten beliefs and emotions regarding palliative care, then rate the extent to which these beliefs and emotions influenced their attitude to palliative care.

By leaving these sections free for the respondent to answer as they choose, the researcher is allowing a large amount of definitional flexibility. Such questions will be interpreted subjectively by the respondents, and as such, can never be objective, standard measures of an attitude, however attitudes are defined. As evidenced above, the concept of attitude affecting behavior is a tenuous one. The very nature of attitudes themselves makes it impossible to assume that any particular behavior has it’s foundations in a specific attitude.All attitudes are evaluative, in the sense that they are expressed only in the individual’s terms, and as such, can be open to a wide interpretation by researchers.

The simple fact that there are so many definitions of attitude, makes it difficult to measure, and hence unreliable as a predictor of behavior. As attitudes are a private phenomenon, which are unobservable, we can only assume they exist. This questions the credibility of any behavioral prediction that is based on them, as attitudes themselves cannot be measured, only post behavioural actions can.

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