Got attitude? Evaluation, potency and activity

Thomas Vaughan-Johnston
11 May 2017

Above: Image © AntonioGullem, iStock

Do you have attitude? Of course you do! Attitudes are the evaluations you make about the things around you. Is Donald Trump a hero or a villain? Is your sibling strong or weak? Is hockey the greatest game in the world or a boring spectator sport?

People have attitudes about nearly everything. It doesn’t take much to get them to form one. Generally, it works like this: You encounter a new person, place, thing, or experience. You think having an attitude about it might eventually be useful. Someone asks you for your opinion. Voilà! Instant attitude.

Attitude psychologists and researchers like me are interested in what attitudes are, what purpose they serve, and how they change over time. You might say we have a positive attitude about attitudes! And what we’ve found is that all your attitudes boil down to three main kinds of descriptions.

Did you know? “Attitude objects” are what scientists call things that people judge. You can judge just about anything. So your attitude objects can include all kinds of things: music, food, clothing, politics, and the people in your life!

How psychologists study attitudes

Generally, when psychologists study attitudes, they look at three types of descriptions called EPA factors.

  • E = Evaluation, which refers to good versus bad. This is the most commonly studied factor. It can include things like whether someone is likeable or unlikable, or whether a meal is nice or nasty.
  • P = Potency, which refers to strong versus weak. It can include things like whether someone is powerful or powerless, or whether a meal is big or small.
  • A = Activity, which refers to fast (active) versus slow (inactive). It can include things like whether a person is changing or unchanging, or whether a meal is flavourful or flavourless.

For example, attitude psychologists studying people’s attitudes towards a new rap album might ask:

  • Do you think the artist is good or bad at rapping?
  • Do you think the rapper’s lyrics and style are powerful or weak?
  • Do you think the music is new and groundbreaking (high activity) or stale and boring (low activity)?

Psychologists have found that these three types of questions are enough to determine a person’s opinion. Of course, your opinions might be wildly different from someone else’s. But everyone’s opinions really boil down to how they view evaluation, potency and activity. Think about it!

Did you know? EPA factors (evaluation, potency, activity) are studied by psychologists, as well as by people working in other fields. For example, marketers use EPA to study people’s ideas about a product using easy-to-understand scores.

EPA and human survival

Why are people’s attitudes based on these three components? To understand, think about conditions thousands of years ago. What might your prehistoric ancestors have gained from being able to quickly judge whether things were good or bad, strong or weak, and fast or slow?

Imagine your distant ancestors spot an animal in the distance, and they have to decide whether to approach or avoid it. Maybe they’ve learned that animals like this one are bad because they attack. If so, the simple equation bad = avoid could save their lives! But maybe they’ve learned that the animal is good. It might be edible, friendly or just fluffy enough to make a good coat! In this case, good = approach.

Once they’ve decided whether to approach or avoid, they need to ask another question: is the animal powerful or powerless? If it’s powerful and bad, it will take more effort to avoid than if it’s powerless and bad. For example, it would take more effort to avoid a lion than a rat!

The final question is about activity: is the animal fast or slow? If it’s a bad animal, it will take more effort to avoid if it’s fast than if it’s slow. And if it’s a fast and good animal, like a tasty rabbit, your ancestors will need to act fast if they want supper. But if it’s a bee flying back to its hive, they can probably wait until later to gather the tools they need to collect the honey.

Now you know the basics of how psychologists study attitudes: evaluation, potency and activity. But why do you have attitudes in the first place? What purpose do they serve? And why do people’s attitudes change over time? Along with EPA factors, these are all questions that attitude psychologists try to answer through their research. If you were a scientist, how would you study attitude change?

Learn more!

About Attitudes:

Integrating the Stereotype Content Model (Warmth and Competence) And the Osgood Semantic Differential (Evaluation, Potency, And Activity) (2013)
N. Kervyn, S.T. Fiske, and V.Y. Yzerbyt, European Journal of Social Psychology 43

Attitude (2006)
Encyclopædia Britannica

Semantic Differential Technique in the Comparative Study of Cultures (1964)
C.E. Osgood, American Anthropologist 66
Link to abstract. Subscription required to access full text.

Thomas Vaughan-Johnston

Hello there. I hail from Edmonton, Alberta, where I pursued an honor's degree in psychology, focused on social psychology, especially priming research. I moved to Kingston, Ontario in order to attend Queen's University, where I recently acquired my Master's degree in psychology. I'm still at Queen's now, starting on the long road to a doctorate. Since hitting grad school, my interest in all elements of social psychology have exploded, and I'm interested in mindfulness, attitudes, emotions, self-esteem, and many other elements of my field. Aside from volunteering here with Let's Talk Science, I really enjoy judging science fairs and doing service related to my university (student organizations, reviewing for conferences). I'm a big fan of video games, and a huge book-reading nerd, especially in the genre of fantasy.