Social psychologists like to write about attitudes. In fact, following Allport (1935), many of them have happily commented that the attitude is the most central and indispensable construct in social psychology (e.g., Petty, Wegener, Fabrigar, 1997). Here is a standard definition of an attitude: an attitude is
a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor. (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007, p. 598)
A somewhat more specific view has it that attitudes are
associations between a given object and a given summary evaluation of the object — associations that can vary in strength and, hence, in their accessibility from memory. (Fazio, 2007, p. 608)
Attitudes are also supposed to be important for predicting behavior, though the attitude–behavior link is the subject of a great deal of controversy, which I can’t fully treat here. An extreme, design-oriented view is expressed by a B.F. Skinner-channeling B.J. Fogg:
Don’t waste time mapping attitudes to behaviors. It’s a tough, useless problem. Blackbox attitudes. Focus on behavior change & metrics.
While Fogg isn’t representative of mainstream, contemporary social psychology, similarly skeptical thoughts are expressed by investigators like Schwartz (2007). On the other hand, one common view of the attitude–behavior link is that it is quite strong (Kraus, 1997), but that (a) many research methods fail to measure attitudes and behaviors with regard to the same entities (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1977) and (b) this link is an important empirical subject, not built into the attitude construct by definition (Fazio, 2007; Zanna & Rempel, 1988).
I’ll set aside for now just how useful attitudes are for predicting behavior. But what should we make of this construct? That is, should we keep it around? Do we expect something like social psychology’s attitudes to be part of a mature science of human behavior?
Maybe I’m a sucker for a good slogan, but when I read psychologists’ on attitudes, I think of Quine’s slogan: no entity without identity. That is, we shouldn’t posit objects that don’t have identity conditions — the conditions under which we say that X and Y are the same object.
This slogan, followed strictly in everyday life, can get tricky: a restaurant changes owners and name — is it the same restaurant? But it is pretty compelling when it comes to the entities we use in science. Of course, philosophers have debated this slogan — and many particular proposed cases of posited entities lacking identity conditions (e.g., entities in quantum physics) — so I’ll leave it that lacking identity conditions might vary in how much trouble it causes for a theory that uses such entities.
What I do want to comment on is how strikingly social psychology’s attitudes lack good identity conditions — and thus have no good way of being individuated. While we might think this doesn’t cause much trouble in this case (as I just noted), I actually think it creates a whole family of pseudo-problems that psychologists spend their time on and build theories around.
First, evidence that there is trouble in individuating attitudes: As is clear from the definition of an attitude provided above, attitudes are supposed to be individuated by their object:
This evaluative responding is directed to some entity or thing that is its object—that is, we may evaluate a person (George W. Bush), a city (Chicago), an ideology (conservatism), and a myriad of other entities. In the language of social psychology, an entity that is evaluated is known as an attitude object. Anything that is discriminable or held in mind, sometimes below the level of conscious awareness, can be evaluated and therefore can function as an attitude object. Attitude objects may be abstract (e.g., liberalism, religious fiindamentalism) or concrete (e.g., the White House, my green raincoat) as well as individual (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, my sister-in-law) or collective (e.g., undocumented workers, European nations). (Eagly & Chaiken, 2007, p. 584)
So, for example, I can have an attitude towards Obama. This attitude can then have internal structure, such that there are multiple evaluations involved (e.g., implicit and explicit). This seems pretty straightforward: it is at least somewhat clear when some cognitive structures share the Obama as object.
But trouble is not far around the corner. Much discussion of attitudes involves attitudes objects that are abstract objects — like sets or classes of objects– embedded in a whole set of relationships. For example, I might have attitudes towards snakes, Blacks, or strawberry ice cream. And there isn’t any obvious way that the canonical class by which attitudes are to be individuated gets picked out. A person has evaluative responses to strawberry ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s brand ice cream, ice cream in general, the larger class of such foods (including frozen yogurt, gelato, “soft serve”), foods that cool one down when eaten, etc.
This doesn’t just work with ice cream. (Obama instantiates many properties and is a member of many relevant classes.)
At this point, you might be thinking, how does all this matter? Nothing hinges on whether X and Y are one attitude or two…
The particular trouble on my mind is that social psychologists have actually introduced distinctions that make this individuation important. For example, Eagly & Chaiken (2007) make much of their distinction between intra-attitudinal and inter-attitudinal structure. They list different kinds of features each can have and use this distinction to tell different stories about attitude formation and maintenance. I’m not ready to give a full review of these kinds of cases in the literature, but I think this is a pretty compelling example of where it seems critical to have a good way of individuating attitudes if this theory is to work.
Maybe the deck was stacked against attitudes by my prior beliefs, but I’m not sure I see why they are a useful level of analysis distinct from associations embedded in networks or other, more general, knowledge structures.
What should we use in our science of human behavior instead?
I’m surprised to find myself recommending this, but what philosophers call propositional attitudes — attitudes towards propositions, which are something like what sentences/utterances express — seem pretty appealing. Of course, there has been a great deal of trouble individuating them (in fact, they are one of the kinds of entities Quine was so concerned about). But their individuation troubles aren’t quite so terrible as social psychology’s attitudes: a propositional attitude can involve multiple objects without trouble, and it is the propositional attitudes themselves that can then specify the relationships of these entities to other entities.
I’m far from sure that current theories of propositional attitudes are ready to be dropped in, unmodified, to work in empirical social psychology — Daniel Dennett has even warned philosophers to be wary of promoting propositional attitudes for use in cognitive science, since theory about them is in such a mess. But I do think we have reason to worry about the state of the attitude construct in theorizing by social psychologists.
Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1977). Attitude-Behavior Relations: A Theoretical Analysis and Review of Empirical Research. Psychological Bulletin, 84(5), 8–918.
Allport, G. W. (1935). Attitudes. In C. Murchison (Ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 798–844). Worcester, MA: Clark University Press.
Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (2007). The Advantages of an Inclusive Definition of Attitude. Social Cognition, 25(5), 582-602.
Fazio, R. H. (2007). Attitudes as object-evaluation associations of varying strength. Social Cognition, 25(5), 603-637.
Fodor, J. A. (1980). Methodological solipsism considered as a research strategy in cognitive psychology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 63–73.
Kraus, S. J. (1995). Attitudes and the Prediction of Behavior: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 21(1), 58-75. doi: 10.1177/0146167295211007.
Petty, R. E., Wegener, D. T., & Fabrigar, L. R. (1997). Attitudes and Attitude Change. Annual Review of Psychology, 48(1), 609-647.
Quine, W.V.O. (1969). Speaking of Objects. Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.
Schwarz, N. (2007). Attitude Construction: Evaluation in Context. Social Cognition, 25(5), 638-656.
Zanna, M. P., & Rempel, J. K. (1988). Attitudes: A new look at an old concept. The Social Psychology of Knowledge, 315–334.