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:
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.1
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…2
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.
- There is still plenty of room for trouble, but this will be common to many representational constructs. For example, there are the familiar problems of what attitudes Louis has towards Superman. Superman is Clark Kent, but it would be odd if this external fact (which Louis doesn’t know) should determine the structure of Louis’ mind. See Fodor (1980). [↩]
- You would likely be in good company, I’m guessing this is a thought that was running through the heads of many of the smart folks in the seminar, “Attitudes and Persuasion”, in which I rambled on about this issue two weeks ago. [↩]
Jaron Lanier (2006) calls the ability of humans to learn to control virtual bodies that are quite different than our own “homuncular flexibility”. This is, for him, a dangerous idea. The idea is that the familiar mapping of the body represented in the cortical homunculus is only one option – we can flexibly act (and perceive) using quite other mappings, e.g., to virtual bodies. Your body can be tracked, and these movements can be used to control a lobster in virtual reality – just as one experiences (via head-mounted display, haptic feedback, etc.) the virtual space from the perspective of the lobster under your control.
This name and description makes this sound quite like science fiction. In this post, I assimilate homuncular flexibility to the much more general phenomenon of distal attribution (Loomis, 1992; White, 1970). When I have a perceptual experience, I can just as well attribute that experience – and take it as being directed at or about – more proximal or distal phenomena. For example, I can attribute it to my sensory surface, or I can attribute it to a flower in the distance. White (1970) proposed that more distal attribution occurs when the afference (perception) is lawfully related to efference (action) on the proximal side of that distal entity. That is, if my action and perception are lawfully related on “my side” of that entity in the causal tree, then I will make attributions to that entity. Loomis (1992) adds the requirement that this lawful relationship be successfully modeled. This is close, but not quite right, for if I can make distal attributions even in the absence of an actual lawful relationship that I successfully model, my (perhaps inaccurate) modeling of a (perhaps non-existent) lawful relationship will do just fine.
Just as I attribute a sensory experience to a flower and not the air between me and the flower, so the blind man or the skilled hammer-user can attribute a sensory experience to the ground or the nail, rather than the handle of the cane or hammer. On consideration, I think we can see that these phenomena are very much what Lanier is talking about. When I learn to operate (and, not treated by Lanier, 2006, sense) my lobster-body, it is because I have modeled an efference–afference relationship, yielding a kind of transparency. This is a quite familiar sort of experience. It might still be a quite dangerous or exciting idea, but its examples are ubiquitous, not restricted to virtual reality labs.
Lanier paraphrases biologist Jim Boyer as counting this capability as a kind of evolutionary artifact – a spandrel in the jargon of evolutionary theory. But I think a much better just-so evolutionary story can be given: it is this capability – to make distal attributions to the limits of the efference–afference relationships we successfully model – that makes us able to use tools so effectively. At an even more basic and general level, it is this capability that makes it possible for us to communicate meaningfully: our utterances have their meaning in the context of triangulating with other people such that the content of what we are saying is related to the common cause of both of our perceptual experiences (Davidson, 1984).
Davidson, D. (1984). Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge.
Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 1(1), 113-119.
White, B. W. (1970). Perceptual findings with the vision-substitution system. IEEE Transactions on Man-Machine Systems, 11(1), 54-58.