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You’ve got attitudes, and psychologists want to know about them. They’ve even developed a system to classify them.

But why do they care about attitudes? And, for that matter, why should you? It turns out that attitudes are pretty useful. They help predict how you’ll act and who you’ll make friends with. They also help you keep your friends! Not only that, but friends and loved ones help you form some of your attitudes. Turns out there’s a lot to learn about attitudes, so let’s jump right into it!

Can attitude predict behavior?

Today, most psychologists agree that our opinions predict our actions. But if you’re trying to predict someone’s behavior, you have to match question type and behaviour type.  This matching is called correspondence.  If you’re trying to predict a specific behaviour, you should ask a specific question. But if you just want to know about someone’s overall behaviour, asking a wide-open question works fine.

For example, imagine you and your friend are going to a baseball game today. You love those ball game hot dogs. If you asked your friend “Do you like hot dogs?” you wouldn’t be able to very accurately predict if they’d be up for eating one at the game. But if you asked “Do you like the idea of eating a hot dog today at the baseball game?” you’d have a good chance of predicting whether or not they’d want to hit the hot dog stand with you.

Meanwhile, if you just wanted to know your friend’s general behaviour towards hot dogs - say, how many they might eat in their lifetime - that general “Do you like hot dogs?” question would work well.

Psychologists use correspondence when studying the links between attitude and behaviour.

Why do you have (consistent) attitudes?

Many people’s attitudes are generally stable over time. Like cats? Dislike broccoli? You probably will for a while! This is important - it would be really hard to make plans or reach goals without consistent attitudes. Imagine how chaotic life would be if your attitudes changed every day. You would wake up, and hate the cereal you bought yesterday. You would despise the jeans you bought last week. You might just end up hungry and pantless!

Your attitudes also help maintain your relationships. Imagine this: your sibling says they like dark chocolate. You buy them a box for their birthday, but by then, they’ve started to hate it. Great! How would you ever find and keep friends if your attitudes (or theirs) completely shifted every day?

Also, studies have shown that people prefer to form relationships with people who share their attitudes.

Did you know? When you first meet someone, you’re more likely to end up liking them if you believe they share your attitudes about various topics - even if they actually disagree with you!

Relationships help attitudes

Relationships can also help you form attitudes in the first place. You probably have attitudes about things you haven’t directly experienced. That’s because you can learn from what people say about things. But you don’t just mindlessly take on every attitude you hear. Instead, you’re strongly motivated to agree with the attitudes of people you like, but not people you dislike.

You probably also want to share likes with people you’re fond of. It helps maintain an inner harmony.  Think of how it feels when you strongly disagree with friends and family. It sucks, doesn’t it? Now think of how it would feel for James Bond to realize that he and his archnemesis Blofeld share the same favourite band. That would suck, too! Psychologists use the fancy term social-adjustive function of attitudes to describe the extent to which you pick attitudes to blend in with people you like. It can be considered  part of a larger theory called balance theory.

Of course, not all attitudes stay consistent forever. So why do they change? Psychologists have found a few reasons. You might be able to guess some, but others are quite complex, and a bit surprising! Stay tuned for the next article in this series to find out more!

Learn more!

Attitude structure and function (1998)
A.H. Eagly & S.Chaiken. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (4th ed., pp. 269-322). New York: Oxford University Press.

Social Balance
P. Marek (Ed.), Online Psychology Laboratory

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.

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