Research Methods Intro: Attitude Strength and Attitude Change – Survey Items in Context

Social scientists use the word “attitude” to refer to a positive or negative impression of some specific thing. That thing could be internal – most people have a negative attitude towards physical pain, for example. It could also be external. A stereotype is either a positive or negative attitude towards members of a social category. Prejudice, as I will be talking about it, is a negative attitude towards a person based on their membership in a social category. For a fuller look at stereotyping, click.

Regarding attitudes, decades of carefully designed experiments (Bohner & Dickel, 2011) ask the following questions:

  1. When we take an attitude in the moment, how much of our positive or negative feeling is driven by our memories, how much by other thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we are having at the same time?
  2. How complex are our attitudes? How complex is the thing we are reacting to? Do we feel ambivalent about it? Do we pay attention to different features of it in different contexts? Do we have an overall impression or are we still making up our minds?
  3. Do our attitudes reflect our most important, foundational beliefs and perspectives on the world?
  4. Do we think that our attitude is legitimate? Do we accept it and agree with it? Are we proud of it? Or do we think that we’re being unfair or even immoral?
  5. Do we think a lot about our attitude? Do we try to shape it in the moment?
  6. Do we act on our attitude?
  7. What would change our minds?

The purpose of these decades of research has mainly been a) to better understand how attitudes relate to behavior and b) to understand how to change destructive or unwanted attitudes.

We tend to measure attitudes by asking people to agree or disagree with a statement on a bipolar likert scale. Explicit measures are subject to social desirability concerns and, particularly when doing cross-cultural research, reference group effects. In understanding reference group effects as they apply to surveys, imagine a 7-point scale that asks you to do the following:

Please rate your agreement with the following statement –

“It is personally important to me to be nonprejudiced.”

In answering that question, you have to decide whether you “Agree very much” or “Agree” or “Disagree very much.” However, what is it to be nonprejudiced? Personal perceptions of cultural standards necessarily shape your answer.

Despite concerns about reference groups and social desirability, many explicit measures produce reliable – consistent – responses over time. In the absence of experimental manipulations, most people will respond to the same question similarly when they first answer it and when they answer it again a week or several weeks later.

In understanding the attitude, we can also directly ask people about:

  • the personal importance of their attitudes
  • whether they feel they have an attitude that reflects a clear stance
  • whether they feel that their attitude is the correct one to hold.

By asking participants to reflect on their attitudes, we can better predict the stability of the attitude, whether they will act on it, and how they will respond to people who disagree with them.

Attitude extremity (distance from the midpoint on the scale) and attitude accessibility (amount of time it takes to answer the survey question) can be calculated from the original question without necessitating additional questions. Attitude extremity may reflect both passion and automaticity – people may report more extreme attitudes when they have stronger emotional responses. They may also report more extreme attitudes when they are responding on first instinct, without taking the time to have a “sober second thought.”

Attitude accessibility, on the other hand, can reflect both difficulty interpreting the question and actual difficulty or ease deciding how you feel about something.

Because our deliberate answer on a survey may be different from our initial feeling, there are also numerous implicit measures of attitudes. These measures all attempt to gauge one’s degree of negativity or positivity in a way that is unobtrusive and more difficult for the participant to control. Numerous measures have been developed (see Fazio & Olson, 2003 and Gawronski & De Houwer, 2014 for reviews) to various degree of success. They tend to take two forms. In one, the participant’s positive or negative feelings facilitate responding to other positive or negative stimuli. In the second, positive or negative feelings are attributed to a neutral stimulus – a Chinese ideograph, when the participants is not familiar with those ideographs – for example. Various semantic versions of implicit measures – looking at the strength of associations between different concepts – have been designed as well.

Explicit and implicit measures, taken together, can improve your ability to predict whether people will act on their attitudes, how they will respond to attitude-relevant information, and how they will interact with people who disagree with them. If there is implicit-explicit discrepancy, for example, participants may try to resolve this discrepancy by being more sensitive to relevant information and processing that information more carefully. Implicit measures may be better predictors of behavior when a participant is a) indecisive (an undecided voter, for example), b) under time pressure (culling a stack of résumés for a job), or c) making complex, multiply-determined judgments (a hiring decision, for example). Explicit measures, on the other hand, may be sufficient or even superior predictors when a) implicit and explicit measures are congruent, or b) the person is making a decision based on a limited number of variables and has the time to process relevant information.