Definition

The word attitude comes from the Latin “aptus” meaning fitted or fit, and the Latin ending “tude,” a feminine suffix for abstract nouns formed from adjectives (English Oxford Dictionary). “Aptitudin-em” was the Medieval Latin word for fittedness or fitness, from which the French “attitude” and Italian “attitudine” were adopted, meaning fitness or adaptation, or disposition or posture (English Oxford Dictionary). Derived from “aptus” attitude denoted fitness or adaptedness, hence the physical connotation, but like the word aptitude, attitude suggests a mental preparation for action as well (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.664).

Once used to describe the spatial orientation of physical objects (Rokeach, 1968), the concept of attitude has evolved to refer to a person’s mental and neural state of readiness (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.407). The origin of attitude as a modern concept began at the start of the twentieth century, before this point, attitude was a physical concept used by artists to describe the posture of stationary figures, actors and dancers (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.662). After advancements in social sciences research, the psychological meaning surpassed the physical posture connotation. Darwin first used attitude as a mental concept and as having an evaluative quality to describe the emotional readiness of animals in crisis (Shrigley et al.,1988, p.663). Until the middle of the 19th century attitude research had focused on measurement, but then psychology emphasized attitude as a mental concept (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.664). In the next few decades attitude’s effects on behavior became the focal point of research and theory, and history’s transformation of attitude from a physical to an evaluative concept progressed (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.664).


Research on Attitude

According to Dillard (1993), there are several varying conceptualization of attitudes in social science research. At different points in its history, the concept of attitude has been linked to emotional, behavioral and cognitive processes (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.408). Therefore, the definition of attitude should consist of cognitive, affective, and conative components (Rokeach, 1968; Azjen, 2005, p.20). Defining attitude proved to be a difficult task for psychologists and researchers of attitude. One of the first definitions of attitude by Thurstone defined attitude as, “an affect for or against a psychological object” (Ajzen, 2005, p.29). Later Fishbein and Azjen defined attitude as, “a learned predisposition to respond in a consistently favorable or unfavorable manner with respect to a given object” (Fishbein & Azjen, 1975, p.6). Petty and Cacioppo stated, “attitude is a general and enduring positive or negative feeling about some person, object, or issue” (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981, p.7). Eagly and Chaiken (1993) offered a more comprehensive definition by taking into account three major components of attitudenamely, tendency, entity (or attitude object), and evaluation. They defined attitude as "a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor (p. 1)." Similar revisions to these definitions by other scholars continued to populate attitude literature, but emotion, behavior and cognition remained central to each definition.


Characteristics of Attitudes

These definitions, along with the other variations of them, all emphasize four important characteristics of attitudes. Attitudes predispose:
  1. Action
  2. imply evaluation
  3. have an affective component
  4. are learned (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.412).

Predispositions are considered attitudes because they provide us with a response to varied situations, thus making attitudes consistent and able to predict behavior in different situations related to that particular attitude (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.666). The ability to make an evaluation with positive or negative valence is considered to be the central attribute of the attitude concept (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.665). Attitudes develop from experience and are learned from others or socialization (O’Sullivan, 1994, p.18). Since attitudes are learned they have the ability to be taught because they are enduring enough to be stable, but are temporary enough to be transformed (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.668).


Structural Properties of Attitudes

Attitudes allow previous experience to influence later behavior, thus creating a complex structure (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.418). Petty and Ajzen both discuss four structural properties of attitudes;
  1. Accessibility-- or strength of the object evaluation, is important for understanding the power of the attitude (Petty, 1997, p.612).
  2. Ambivalence-- coinciding positive and negative dispositions toward an object results in attitude ambivalence (Ajzen, 2001, p.39).
  3. Affective/cognitive bases-- the contributions of affect and cognition to evaluation depend on individual differences and the object’s predisposed emotional or factual state (Petty, 1997, p.613).
  4. Values --the importance that people place in certain values directs their attitudes towards behaviors that reflect their value orientation (Petty, 1997, p.614).


Functions of Attitudes

These structural properties influence the functions of the attitude. In 1960 Katz theorized four functions of attitudes that still hold in literature to this day: (Katz, 1960, p.171).
  1. Instrumental function-- explains why attitudes guide behavior toward valued goals and away from aversive events (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.418).
  2. Knowledge function -- explains how attitudes help to manage and simplify information processing and memory in favor of attitude consistent material (Ajzen, 2001, p.41).
  3. Ego Defensive function-- allows attitudes to protect the ego from unacceptable impulses that cause anxiety (Ajzen, 2001, p.41).
  4. Value Expressive function -- permits attitudes to express important values to the self concept (Watt et al., 2007, p.442).

These functions allow us to understand the reasons why people hold the attitudes that they do (Katz, 1960, p.171).


Attitude vs. Beliefs, Opinions, Values, and Judgments

In order to further understand the concept of attitude, we must differentiate it from what the concept is not. Shrigley and Katz discuss how the word attitude is often confused with the words belief, opinion and values. Beliefs are factual and fictional cognitions of information and provide the cognitive component for an attitude, but attitudes also subsume the feelings towards these beliefs (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.669). Therefore, all attitudes include beliefs, but not all beliefs are attitudes (Katz, 1960, p.169). An opinion is a cognition that can occur without one caring deeply about, and it does not predispose action; but on the other hand, attitudes involve a strong evaluative component (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.670). Opinions are only the verbal expression of an attitude, while attitudes can be verbal or nonverbal in nature (Katz, 1960, p.169). Thus, opinion change cannot fully represent attitude change because a true change in attitude would accompany other relevant changes like behavioral manifestations (Rokeah, 1966, p. 547). Values are comprehensive moral or ethical imperatives and are therefore more difficult to change than attitudes because they are culturally bound (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.671). Values also usually have a positive valence and can accommodate multiple attitudes that are either positive or negative in valence (Shrigley et al., 1988, p.672). Attitude is also different from evaluative expressions in that attitude is an internal evaluative tendency which is just one factor among others that influence evaluative responding, not the only one (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007, p. 586). Evaluative judgments not only reflect the external situation like context effects but also map out a whole range of tendencies such as personality traits and mood (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007, p. 587).


Attitude Theories

Attitude theory has advanced the concept of attitude. The Theory of Reasoned Action theorized by Ajzen and Fishbein in 1980 began the work on attitude theory (Ajzen, 1991, p.42). In the early 1990’s Ajzen revised this theory by adding another component and renamed it as the Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991, p.43). TPB theorizes that people act according to their intentions and perceptions of control over the behavior, while the intentions are being influenced by the attitudes toward the behavior, the subjective norms and the perceptions of behavioral control (Ajzen, 1991, p.43). Although this theory has consistently been the most popular theory in the literature, a few more contemporary theories have also been researched. Attitude functional theory (Katz, 1960) maintains that an individual has attitudes that serve different needs (e.g., utilitarian, value-expressive, or ego-defensive; Wang, 2012). In line with the original conceptualization of an attitude and the attitude object or behavior, attitude functional theory maintains that an attitude serves several purposes (Shavitt & Nelson, 2002), although the motives behind an attitude may differ. Bagozzi contributed the Theory of Trying and the Theory of Self-Regulation to attitude theory (Baggozzi, 1992, p.181).


Attitude Models

Models, along with theories, try to interpret the attitude concept. The Tripartite Model of Attitude states that when an attitude is formed, cognitive, affective, and conative responses occur that are consistent with the evaluative reaction and attitude response (Azjen, 2005, p.22). The Expectancy Value Model proposes that attitudes are activated automatically and are influenced by affect and cognition (Ajzen, 2001, p.41). The Dual Attitude Model accounts for the possibility of simultaneously holding two different attitudes towards an object in the same context, demonstrating that attitude change does not necessarily mean attitude replacement (Azjen, 2001, p.29).


Areas of Attitude Research

The attitude concept has been researched according to the previously outlined definitions, structures, functions, theories and models. Attitudes have been researched as responses that place objects of thought on dimensions of judgment (McGuire, 1985, p.239). A few of the major areas of attitude research have focused on attitude strength, attitude-behavior consistency, and persuasion. Attitude strength is measured by the importance of the issue, the extremity, stability, valence, knowledge, and frequency of the attitude (Azjen, 2001, p.39). Research has discovered that strong attitudes are more stable, resistant to persuasion and predict behavior (Ajzen, 2001, p.37). Attitude strength is also a moderator of attitudinal consequences, information processing and social judgments (Petty, 1997, p.636). Attitude-behavior studies focus on the relationship between verbally expressed attitudes and overt actions, but much of this research has yielded mixed results (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.417). Persuasion research has been dominated by message learning approaches and the effects of verbally expressed attitudes (Breckler & Wiggins, 1989, p.422). Multiple persuasive message, source, recipient, and contextual variables have been found to affect attitudes (Petty, 1997, p.616).

The expansive research and study of the attitude concept has played a pervasive role in communication studies and contributes to many sub-fields of communication. The research on attitude strength, change, behavior consistency and persuasion are vital in studying media effects in all areas of communication. In cultural communication, attitudes are particularly important for assessing stereotypes, bias, prejudice and persuasion (O’Sullivan, 1994, p.18). In organizational communication Hofstede researched the effect of attitudes on organizational culture and found that communication and cooperation affect attitude greater than any other organizational practice (Hofstede, 1998, p.491). In health communication attitudes are important for effective patient-provider communication, particularly for shared decision making responsibility and information seeking behavior (Ong et al., 1995, p.905).

Recently, researchers (Ledbetter, 2009) have investigated how attitudes affect intentions to communicate via computer-mediated communication and social networking sites. Moreover, Ledbetter (2009) conceptualized online communication attitude as “a cluster of cognitive and affective orientations that may foster or inhibit an individual’s tendency to communicate online” (p.446). Therefore, similar to Rokeach’s (1968) conceptualization of attitude, online communication attitude is similarly comprised of affective and cognitive components towards an object or behavior. Ledbetter (2009) developed a scale measuring online communication attitude (MOCA) and that has been used with success in other scholarship that has been associated with relational closeness (Ledbetter, Mazer, DeGroot, Meyer, Mao, & Swafford, 2011) and relational maintenance (Ledbetter & Kuznekoff, 2011).

The concept of attitude proves to be a substantial variable in communication studies. Until researchers can prove what forms an attitude, how it affects behavior, and what causes it to change, it will continue to be a focal point of research in all fields.


Minor revisions by David J. Roaché (August 2012)
Minor revisions by Sann Ryu (July 2015)

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