What are attitudes? How are they formed, measured and changed? What degree of influence do they exert on behavior? What important effects does prejudice have on attitudes, and how is prejudice caused? These are all questions that are central to the study of social psychology and, by reviewing the findings of psychological research into these areas, this essay will attempt to provide a balanced explanation of the topic.

The fundamental question of what attitudes are cannot be answered easily, as many psychologists offer differing definitions. These range from simply describing them as likes and dislikes, to the definition provided by Tiffin and McCormick, in Attitude and Motivation(1971), where they summarize attitudes as being, “a frame of reference that influences the individual’s views or opinions on various topics and situations, and influences their behavior.” It is widely accepted, however, that attitudes include both beliefs and values. Beliefs, although considered to be based on the knowledge gained about the world around us, can vary greatly in their importance and influence, and therefore ibn their resistence to change. For instance, an individual’s belief in God is highly influential, not only on its own but also in its effect on many other beliefs held by the individual, whereas a belief that eating late at night may cause indigestion is far less central and influential in its effect. Beliefs, both major and minor, form the cognitive component of attitude structure.

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Values are an ethical, cultural and social code which can also be either central or peripheral in their influence but, unlike with beliefs, values serve as a justification of an individual’s way of life and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to change. Values form what is termed the affective component of attitude structure.

The third piece of the attitude jigsaw is the conative component and this is the behavior towards an object or situation which is either a direct result of an individual’s attitudes or, as shown by the study conducted by La Piere, the behavioral compromise that can be caused by a conflict of attitudes. Fishben and Ajzen (1975) believed that this resultant behavior could be more accurately predicted by means of an expectancy – value model, which takes into account the values that the individual will attach to a given situation plus their expected consequences of any specific behavior.
Attitude formation occurs in a variety of ways and is a continual process which is subject to influences throughout an individual’s lifetime. Many of these influences are external, such as family, school, religion, work and, to an increasing extent, the media. Also important are social influences, in areas such as conforming to peer pressure, complying with the rules and regulations imposed by authority, and by identification with those considered as role models. Yet, despite these numerous influences, the ones which ultimately lead to attitude formation are determined by internal functions, which serve to decide the attitudes that will best suit the individual’s needs and those of the outside world. Katz (1960) categorizes these into four functions the first of which is adaptation, which seeks to increase pleasure or reward and avoid pain and punishment. The second is ego-defensive, which is viewed as the individual’s protection from himself and others, by use of positive attitudes and denial in an attempt to shield the self from any negative or embarrassing episodes. The third factor, according to Katz, is value expression, which maintains a strong self-identity and projects this by letting others know of our values and beliefs. Fourthly comes knowledge. This is the cognitive element of attitudes and includes the information and understanding we possess about the physical and social world around us, thus allowing us the comfort of viewing situations as being more predictable and less uncertain.

Tiffin and McCormick. Attitude and Motivation. London: H.M.S.O. 1971.