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.

Research Methods Intro: Surveys – Standardizing How We Ask People About Prejudice

Individual survey questions may introduce noise – there’s rarely a perfect question that will be interpreted the same way by all people. Individuals may also tend to fill out any given question in certain ways, liking more moderate or more extreme responses, for example. Both of these factors introduce noise.

However, with enough questions and enough people providing data, you can deal with the first issue by identifying clusters of questions that tap into the same general idea. You can deal with the second issue by administering the survey to many different people and looking at correlations with other surveys and behavioral measures.

We can also use this process to identify differences between groups – if questions cluster for some groups but not for others – we have to think carefully about why this might be the case, why the same survey questions might tap into different ideas for different groups of people.

We can then compare the survey response to what we learned from our participant observation. Do differences in the language that people use to talk about race show up as actual differences in survey response? Do similarities show up as actual similarities?

There are numerous surveys available to tap into prejudice, stereotyping, and interpersonal motivation. Commonly used scales include the Modern Racism Scale (McConahey, 1986), the Pro and Anti-Black Attitudes Questionnaire (Katz & Haas, 1988), Dunton and Fazio (1995)’s Motivation to Control Prejudice Reactions scale, and Plant and Devine (1998)’s Internal and External Motivations to Respond Without Prejudice. These surveys have been extensively studied – predicting a variety of behavioral traits including reactions to African American authors and speakers and in person interracial interactions.

These surveys, in general, focus on negative attitudes towards African Americans as a group (with the exception of the Pro and Anti-Black Attitudes Questionnaire, which considers positive and negative attitudes).

The Motivation to Control Prejudiced Reactions scale assumes that people have stereotype-driven reactions and seek to control them. The Internal and External Motivations to Respond Without Prejudice scale assumes that these attempts at acting non-prejudiced can be driven by internal (personal) and external (social) reasons.

Internally-driven people, for example, are more likely to act from an egalitarian framework (Johns, Cullum, Smith, & Freng, 2008). This egalitarian framework treats individuals as individuals. Membership in a social category is acknowledged as a potential influence on what an individual becomes. However, for an egalitarian, the individual is best understood as a unique entity, the product of many, interacting, factors.

Other researchers contrast multicultural ideologies – ideologies that acknowledge that belonging to different social categories shapes your experience – with colorblind ideologies – perspectives that judge every individual by the same standard, regardless of what factors lead them to be who they are.

Planning Our Intervention:
As planned, our intervention will focus on those individual who attribute traits to all members of a group based on observations of representations of the group in the media. We want to see if we can get that person to shift their perspective. Perhaps quixotically, we want that individual to attribute traits to most members of the group based on empirically established means and standard deviations.

To do so – we would want to know the specific content of their prejudice, whether they feel any personal or social pressures to avoid being prejudiced, and whether colorblind or multicultural ideologies appeal to them. Each of these factors could influence how they interact with our intervention.

For example, someone who is purely externally (but not internally) motivated to respond without prejudice tends to self-report a greater number of and more extreme negative attitudes towards African Americans. She tends to demonstrate higher levels of implicit – automatic or unobtrusively measured – prejudice (Devine, Plant, Amodio, Harmon-Jones, & Vance, 2002; Hausmann & Ryan, 2004; Amodio, Devine, & Eddie Harmon-Jones, 2008; Plant & Devine, 2009; Schlauch, Lang, Plant, Christensen, & Donohue, 2009). When talking with someone who happens to be African American, she engages in fewer approach-oriented behaviors (she smiles less, asks fewer questions, and makes less eye contact). Further, she is consciously aware of her concern to avoid appearing prejudice and anticipates being less engaged, even before the interaction (Plant, Devine, & Peruche, 2010). They may also be less likely to pay attention to even a racially-irrelevant message when it is attribute to an African American source (Sude & Rios, 2011, conference presentation).

From this portrait, we can infer that it would be difficult to change how this socially (but not personally) motivated respond without prejudice person thinks about race. In order to do so, we would want to increase her personal motivation to change her mind. We would also want to refrain from making her anxious, refrain from signaling that she should take an avoidant, disengaged approach to our intervention.

We could appeal to values that are race-irrelevant, such as intelligence of sound-reasoning. We could then shape her critical thinking and her recognition of lower quality thinking in a way that is race-irrelevant. We could then embed information about race within a wider discussion of using statistics to make more nuanced interpretations of the social world.

If she doesn’t value intelligence or sound-reasoning, we could instead offer an intervention that directly targets her intergroup anxiety – one that will alleviate anxiety and provide effective strategies for smooth and at the same time authentic interracial interaction.

Research Methods Intro: Identifying Variables – Thinking About Race

What variables are relevant to my postulated practical question of how to change people’s use of stereotyping, with regard to racial attitudes?

Well, first I brainstorm a set of variables.

Let’s look at an output from that process:

What are the different characteristics of stereotyping that I see around me?:

  1. Thinking of individuals as belonging to the same “group” or being from the same category of people.
  2. Attributing traits to either a) all members of that group or b) most members of that group.
  3. Attributing traits based on a) observation of a single member of the group, b) observations from an initial encounter with multiple members of the group, c) observations based on the totality of encounters with group members, d) observation of representations of the group in the media, e) popular ways of talking about the group, f) traits attributed to the group that help justify group-based inequalities, g) traits that group members have by definition – believing in Jesus and being a practicing evangelical Christian, for example, h) observations based on a statistical average, i) observations based on a statistical average, taking into account the variability around that average.

With two ways of looking at 2 and nine ways of looking at 3, we already have 18 possible definitions of stereotyping, just from one brainstorming session by one person. In choosing to change the way people stereotype, we have to target a particular type of stereotyping and either eliminate it or change it into a different type of stereotyping.

For example, I might want to take someone who takes 3-d (observations of a group in the media) and infers 2-a (that all members of a group has that trait), and shift them to 3-i (data driven observations about the mean and standard deviation for that group) and 2-b (applied to the way they think about most people in that group).

Ok – we have a goal – now what are different ways of measuring these variables before we design our intervention?