Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 8: Changing attitudes with actions (pp. 270289)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. From Action to Attitude via Superficial Processing (pp. 271277)
    1. Self-perception theory
    2. The foot-in-the-door technique: Would you mind doing me a small favor?
    3. Self-perception processes and volunteering
    4. Personality differences and the foot-in-the-door technique
    5. From actions to attitudes superficially
  2. Cognitive Dissonance: Changing Attitudes to Justify Behavior (pp. 277289)
    1. The theory of cognitive dissonance
    2. Justifying attitude-discrepant behavior: I have my reasons!
    3. Justifying effort: I suffered for it, so I like it
    4. Justifying decisions: Of course I was right!!
    5. The processing payoff: Justifying inconsistent actions creates persistent attitudes
    6. Dissonance processes and resisting media influence
    7. Alternatives to attitude change
    8. Cultural differences and dissonance
From Action to Attitude via Superficial Processing

When people process information superficially, attitudes are based on the associations with actions. It is more likely that actions will influence attitudes in this way if people are not motivated, or do not have the ability, to process the information at a deeper/more thorough level.

One example of actions affecting attitudes at a superficial level involved a study on people nodding or shaking their heads while listening to a radio broadcast about an increase in tuition: those people nodding their heads agreed with the increase in tuition more than those shaking their heads.

Self-perception theory

This theory states that actions influence attitudes because people infer their attitudes by observing their own behavior and the situations in which their behavior occurs. So people make direct inferences from their behavior to their attitude.

Numerous studies support this theory; one example includes a study on religious beliefs of students; those whose attention had been drawn to the frequency of their religious activities reported favorable attitudes towards religion, while the attitudes of those whose attention had been drawn to how seldom they engaged in religious activities were not favorable. These people inferred their attitudes from their behavior.

The process of self-perception has become a popular technique of social influence among advertisers and sales personnel (e.g., getting customers to spend hours thinking up a good slogan for their brand).

The foot-in-the-door technique: Would you mind doing me a small favor?

This technique gets people to perform a small act consistent with an intended goal. This small "foot in the door" makes people open to further influences, and so they will be more open to agreeing to a consistent/similar large request afterwards.

The foot-in-the-door technique works because the initial behavior triggers self-perception processes that lead people to believe their attitude is consistent with the action they have just performed. This "new" attitude then makes it more likely that they will agree to a second, larger request.

But the technique only works under the right conditions:

  1. Performing the initial request must be meaningful. The small request has to be important, so people will make inferences about their attitudes towards this kind of behavior (i.e., it should trigger self-perception processes). One way to do this is by asking people to put a lot of effort into the small request. It is also important that the first requests remain small, or people will refuse them.
  2. Performing the initial request must seem purely voluntary. People should not be able to attribute their behavior to external rewards or other environmental forces, as this undermines the self-perception process and they will not infer that their behavior is linked to their internal preferences/attitudes. If the behavior is attributable only to the person concerned, they will believe they hold action-consistent attitudes (and be more likely to accept the larger request).
Self-perception processes and volunteering

Various studies show that the foot-in-the-door technique works very well for getting people to volunteer time, money, effort, and so on.

Personality differences and the foot-in-the-door technique

As the effectiveness of the technique relies on consistency (between attitudes and behaviors), people who are more concerned with being consistent (between their attitudes and their behaviors) are more likely to be influenced by the technique than people who don't care about consistency.

From actions to attitudes superficially

People process superficially, and make simple associations between their actions and attitudes, when not much is at stake; that is, when attitudes are unformed, ambiguous, or unimportant.

When attitudes are well established or important, these associations are more difficult to make. However, actions can influence the intensity (but not the direction) of well-established attitudes.

So actions are more likely to lead people to adopt consistent attitudes when they think superficially. When attitudes are well established and important, people think more systematically about behavior that might contradict those attitudes. High stakes cause people to think more carefully about the implications of those actions on their attitudes. The importance of the attitude makes the attitude hard to change.

Case study: From actions to attitudes superficially: Self-perception and attitude strength

Cognitive Dissonance: Changing Attitudes to Justify Behavior
The theory of cognitive dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance states that when people become aware that their freely chosen actions violate important or relevant attitudes, the inconsistency produces an uncomfortable state of arousal called dissonance, which motivates people to change their initial attitudes to make them consistent with their behavior. For cognitive dissonance to occur, it is important that the attitude is important and self-relevant.

This theory was formed by Leon Festinger in 1957.

Tensions between important cognitions (attitudes, thoughts, beliefs) are often reduced by changes in thinking, not in behavior.

Four steps are necessary to produce dissonance, and for that dissonance to produce attitude change:

  1. The individual must perceive the action as inconsistent: Inconsistency alone is enough to cause discomfort/dissonance. Dissonance is most likely to be provoked when actions are inconsistent with positive and important self-images.
  2. The individual must take personal responsibility for the action: Dissonance is only aroused when an internal attribution is made: if people can attribute their actions to external rewards or punishments, they will not experience dissonance. Those individuals who routinely attribute their behavior to external causes don't experience dissonance in the same way as those who attribute actions to internal causes.
  3. The individual must experience uncomfortable physiological arousal: Studies have found that dissonance is actually experienced as a state of uncomfortable or unpleasant physical arousal.
  4. The individual must attribute the arousal to the inconsistency between attitude and action: People have to believe that their unpleasant feelings are a result of the inconsistency of their behavior with their attitudes, in order to focus their attention on that inconsistency.

Research activity: The cognitive dissonance effect

It is easier to change attitudes than it is to go back and change behavior that has already occurred, and so dissonance is only eliminated when attitudes are brought in line with the previous actions.

Justifying attitude-discrepant behavior: I have my reasons!

An example of a classic study by Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) is presented, which shows how cognitive dissonance works. Participants were asked to lie about how interesting they had found a study, which in fact was very boring, for either a $1 reward or a $20 reward. Cognitive dissonance, and a change in attitude, were only found for the first group, as participants in the second group attributed their lying to the external reward ($20).

Dissonance theory also predicts that when people want to do something, but don't do it because of a mild threat, they will change their attitudes to convince themselves that they don't really want to engage in that behavior anyway.

Justifying effort: I suffered for it, so I like it

In cases where people have freely chosen to act in ways that cause them suffering (e.g., staying with an abusive spouse), they change their attitudes to justify that suffering. This is because realizing that they have personally chosen this action causes uncomfortable tension (dissonance), which can be resolved by valuing that goal/action even more.

Almost any amount or kind of effort put into an action/goal can result in a dissonance-reducing attitude change to value that goal. This is a result of the effort-justification effect, which explains that the more effort, time, money, pain, and so on, are put into a goal, the more people value that goal, and change their attitudes towards that valuing.

Justifying decisions: Of course I was right!!

Decisions, by definition, involve dissonance. When people give up options (by making a choice/decision for one option) they experience decisional dissonance (or post-decisional regret): this is tension between the alternative they have chosen and all the attractive alternatives they have rejected.

According to dissonance theory, the more people focus on the implications of making a choice, the more this increases their feelings of dissonance, and their subsequent need to reduce that dissonance.

Dissonance processes can help people convince themselves that they have made the right decision (e.g., people are more convinced about their candidate after they have voted for the person than they were before).

The processing payoff: Justifying inconsistent actions creates persistent attitudes

Attitudes that result from extensive processing last longer than attitudes changed with little thought.

In order to reduce dissonance, people have to go through extensive cognitive processing. So attitude change that is brought about by dissonance reduction is very long lasting and solid, and is inoculated against further change.

Attitude change through dissonance has been shown to be just as powerful outside the lab as in it.

Dissonance processes and resisting media influence

It has been shown that dissonance processes can help teach children to resist the effects of violence on television. Children who were told to act out anti-television messages "to teach other children the threats of TV" with no rewards showed a change in attitude: they were less impressed by violent TV, and also behaved in less aggressive ways, than children who did not act out these messages.

Alternatives to attitude change

Attitude change is not the only way people can reduce dissonance.

Examples of alternative ways to reduce dissonance include:

People use whatever means of reducing dissonance that are most readily available. Direct ways are preferred over indirect ways.

Motivational factors also play a role, because the more important the attitude, the less likely it is that people will change that attitude to reduce dissonance.

Cultural differences and dissonance

As dissonance arises when an important part of the self is violated (an important attitude, a central self-definition), dissonance might arise differently in people from different cultures, who define their "selves" differently.

For members of independence-oriented cultures (such as in the West), making a wrong decision is personally threatening and will induce dissonance, but interdependence-oriented (e.g., Japanese) people will not find this as threatening. A typical dissonance-inducing study was conducted in both these cultures, and an additional feature was included by telling participants that their decision had implications for important others. Western participants experienced dissonance, and justified their decisions by adjusting their attitudes in all conditions; Eastern participants only did so when the social context was made obvious to them. So behaviors that violate important attitudes about the self cause dissonance across cultures, but what exactly constitutes such a violation is culturally sensitive.

When freely chosen but inconsistent actions are trivial or small, and do not violate self-images or important attitudes, self-perception processes can explain the easy/simple change made in the attitude. However, when freely chosen behavior violates an important attitude, people have to think extensively about, or process, their behavior, which causes dissonance; so, in this case, attitude change can be explained by the process of dissonance reduction.

So what does this mean?

Behavior is an important part of the information on which attitude formation is based. How actions influence attitudes depends on the level of processing: people can make simple action-to-attitude inferences (usually through self-perception processes), or can make deeper considerations of the implications of their actions (through cognitive dissonance processes). Self-perception theory states that actions influence attitudes because people infer their attitudes by observing their own behavior and the situations in which their behavior occurs.

The foot-in-the-door technique works when people process information superficially; it gets them to perform a small act consistent with an intended larger goal. When people become aware that their freely chosen actions violate important or relevant attitudes, this inconsistency produces an uncomfortable state of arousal called cognitive dissonance, which motivates people to change their initial attitudes to make them consistent with their behavior, or to increase the value they place on a goal, and to emphasize the positive aspects of the chosen option.

Next topic

Guiding actions with attitudes

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 8 introduction
  2. Changing attitudes with actions
  3. Guiding actions with attitudes
  4. Chapter overview (PDF)
  5. Fill-in-the-blanks
  6. Multiple-choice questions