Where Did That Attitude Come From?

By Leah B. Mazzola

Attitude Formation

Today, the term attitude is often used with a negative tone, especially as it relates to teens or young people.  I am probably safe to say the majority of the population does not feel the need to conduct in-depth study on the concept, its origins, or purpose to know “little Joe just gave me an attitude” and to feel “that child needs to check his attitude.”  A rudimentary knowledge of the word is likely sufficient to serve me through life unless, of course, I have an interest in successfully changing unhelpful and detrimental attitudes.  In that case, any hope to change an attitude requires investigation into the what, why, and how of attitude formation and attitude change.  Fortunately, thanks to social psychologists, anyone interested in an informed approach to attitudes has a plethora of resources available for layman’s study on the topic. Here’s an overview to save you some of the trouble of digging around yourself.

Social psychologists describe the human tendency for preferences as attitudes.  Attitudes are evaluative judgments in favor or disfavor of an object or entity (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) described attitude as an unobservable psychological construct manifesting in beliefs, feelings, and behavior.  The formation of attitude occurs from birth onward through direct experience or external influence.  If an infant tastes a new food and dislikes it a new attitude of distaste for this food forms by direct experience for response to the food in the future.  If a parent reacts with fear in the presence of a large dog and tells the child dogs are dangerous an attitude of disfavor or fear forms in the child by influence.  Attitude researchers find cognitive, affective (emotional), and behavioral processes contribute to attitude formation in various ways (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  The following explores a couple ways cognition, affect (emotion), and behavior impact attitude formation, the functions attitudes serve, and the extent to which they affect behavior.

Cognitive, Affective (Emotional), and Behavioral Impacts on Attitude Formation


Cognition is an intellectual process of knowing, or the experience of knowing, including all mental processes related to knowing (e.g., perceiving, recognizing, conceiving, and reasoning) (Merriam-Webster, 2013).  Cognition contributes to attitude formation when one comes to believe the attitude object relates to positive or negative attributions or outcomes (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  The cognitive learning and cognitive response models hold persuasion primary in attitude formation (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Greenwald, 1968).  Greenwald (1968) asserted, “the cognitive learning model of persuasion is most reasonable” because an infant is not born with cognition but acquires it by experience and the most obvious source of this cognition is the communications the child is directly exposed to (p. 148).

According to the cognitive learning model, a child forms an attitude toward an object or entity by direct face-to-face communication or various other regular communications the child intercepts such as television or radio.  So, again, attitudes are learned from birth by exposure to the attitudes of caregivers, siblings, other close relatives, media, peers, teachers, etc.  Children share the attitudes of those with which they spend the most time.  You are the company you keep, a relatively simple concept.  Discriminatory attitudes are an example of cognitive learning in attitude formation.  If a parent holds a discriminatory attitude toward a particular race, gender, or culture the parent is highly likely to speak of these ideas regularly with strong conviction around the child.  An attitude of disfavor then easily forms in the child through cognitive learning even though he or she has no direct negative experience with the target group.

Heider (1946, 1958) proposed people change attitudes in an effort to maintain harmony between self and close others.  According to this theory, three elements are involved in cognitive balance; a reference person, another person, and an object (Visser & Cooper, 2003).  When the reference person and the other person agree on an object, there is harmony and cognitive balance.  When the reference person and the other person do not agree on an object, there is disharmony and cognitive imbalance.  Heider (1946, 1958) suggested people change attitudes in an effort to maintain harmony between self and close others, as imbalance is psychologically uncomfortable.

According to this model, an individual receives a persuasive message, evaluates said message, and makes a decision to accept or reject considering relational consequences.  Shared taste in clothing styles in adolescents is an example of cognitive response and cognitive balance. Young people tend to take on the appearance of close peers with regard to clothing, hair, and accessories.  If a young person is new to a school and becomes part of a group of close friends persuasion begins to happen when peers discuss taste in clothing and style.  The new student may alter his or her appearance by way of direct or indirect communication and persuasion by the new group.  The child’s decision to accept the persuasive message stems from an interest in fitting in or ensuring harmony with the new peer group.  You may also be familiar with this phenomenon if you’ve ever experienced your child begin to change his or her attitudes after spending time with a new best friend or new group of friends.

Affect (Emotion)

The affective process contributes to attitude formation when the attitude object evokes positive or negative feelings (e.g., fear, anxiety, joy, excitement) (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and mere exposure are the primary methods, identified by social psychologists, in which affect or emotion forms attitudes (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Pavlov’s (1927) classical conditioning refers to the process by which one develops positive or negative attitudes toward a previously neutral entity by associations with a characteristically positive or negative attribute (Banaji & Heiphetz, 2010).  This attitude formation occurs internally with no external response necessary (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Operant conditioning involves positive or negative outcomes encouraging attitudinal responses evidenced behaviorally (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Zajonc’s (1968) mere exposure effect occurs when repeated exposure to novel stimuli influences formation of a positive attitude toward the stimuli.

Advertising campaigns use the classical conditioning basis when pairing attractive models with a new product.  Advertisers count on consumers to have a positive response to the attractive model thereby associating the positive response with the previously neutral product.  Reward and punishment are tools for operant conditioning.  A parent may use reward for good behavior in hopes of encouraging this behavior in the future.  The parent may use punishment for bad behavior in hopes of discouraging this behavior in the future.  Operant conditioning has occurred if the child begins to associate the negative outcomes and emotions with the bad behavior and in turn avoids the behavior in the future.  A child exposed to a new dresser in his or her room may initially have no preference for or against it but develop a positive attitude toward it as time passes with repeated exposure.  This positive regard developed with familiarity of repeated exposure is an example of the mere exposure effect.


Behavioral processes contribute to attitude formation through self-perception of experiences (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  One may infer an attitude toward an object through self-perception of past behavior.  Regan and Fazio (1977) found attitudes formed by direct behavioral experience are “more clearly, confidently, and stably maintained” than those formed by indirect means (pg. 28).  Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory proposed attitudes are affected by actions and if either is incompatible with the other, discomfort arises.  This discomfort associated with dissonance leads to the person taking action to reduce it by changing the action or attitude for congruency (Visser & Cooper, 2003).

An adopted routine is an example of attitude formed by behavior.  Many people adopt daily routines for any number of reasons.  The routine alone may have no associated preference for the individual other than convenience for the current situation and schedule.  A person may travel the same route to work every morning, stop at the same gas station to fill up the tank when necessary, and grab a cup of coffee at the same stop finding this routine works well.  If the person were to reflect on the routine, a number of reasons may come to mind to support a positive or negative attitude toward it.  If this reflection results in a positive evaluation, the person would likely keep the routine.  If the evaluation is negative the person would likely change the routine or find arguments for it until satisfied to minimize the dissonance.

Another likely familiar example of this phenomenon is in an attitude toward a job.  If a person has come to form a negative attitude toward a current job or employer because the job or environment is incongruent with the person’s values, feelings of discomfort and unhappiness in the role would arise.  The solution to address the dissonance is changing his or her attitude toward the job to make it tolerable or finding a new job that fit better with his or her values.

Attitude Functions

According to functionalists, all phenomena in human psychological processing serve adaptive functions (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Katz (1960) proposed attitudes serve functions for “adjustment, ego defense, value expression, and knowledge” (pg. 163).  Value-expressive attitudes serve to affirm one’s identity solidifying beliefs about self through expression (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Katz, 1960).  This value-expression also helps to connect people with like-minded others for supportive relationships.  The knowledge function helps one to understand, make sense of, and navigate his or her world (Fazio & Olson, 2003; Katz, 1960).  The ego-defensive function serving to protect is aroused by threats to self-concept (Katz, 1960).  Each of these      functions are vital to one’s adjustment and adaptive thriving in a social world.

Impact of Attitudes on Behavior

Attitudes often predict behavior but not always.  Early theory assumed attitudes predicted behavior however; empirical data showing low attitude-behavior correlations falsified this assumption (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  These findings raised questions regarding the influence of the person and situation on behavior (Fazio & Olson, 2003).  Guagnano, Stern, and Dietz (1995) discussed the ways internal factors (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, or intentions) and external factors or conditions (e.g., social environment or economic status) interact to influence behavior.  Guagnano et al. (1995) asserted the attitude theories in the psychology literature failed to appreciate the influence of internal and external variables in behavioral influence.  Evidence does suggest both internal and external factors influence behavior.  Fishbein and Ajzen’s (1975) theory of reasoned action considers internal and external factors; attitude toward the behavior and social norms.  According to Fishbein and Ajzen, positive or negative values toward the behavior and subjective norms influence the likelihood of the behavior (Fazio & Olson, 2003).


Attitudes serve a distinctive purpose in human psychological functioning allowing people to refer to known preferences while interacting with the environment.  These preferences offer reflexive and responsive defaults for behavior when a quick evaluation is necessary and can change as needed.  The above review of various contributors to attitude formation highlights the influence of persuasion, self-perception, and direct experience.  Evidence supports attitudes serve an adaptive function and influence behavior when appropriate for the person and the situation.  So, the important take away here is that attitudes can change and, due to the impact of social learning in attitude formation it is imperative that we recognize and challenge our attitudes.  Have you ever stopped to consider whether your attitudes were formed consciously and intentionally, supported by evidence obtained through your own open investigation?  Or, were they simply learned from those around you indirectly, who may or may not have formed their own attitudes intentionally?  Is it possible that your attitudes are harbored unconsciously like a parasite affecting your perceptions, interactions, and beliefs?  Maybe it’s time to challenge each of us to honest self-exploration.  Intentional attitudes, beliefs, and informed opinions make all the difference in effective interaction with our social world.