An attitude is a general and lasting positive or negative opinion or feeling about some person, object, or issue. Attitude formation occurs through either direct experience or the persuasion of others or the media. Attitudes have three foundations: affect or emotion, behavior, and cognitions. In addition, evidence suggests that attitudes may develop out of psychological needs (motivational foundations), social interactions (social foundations), and genetics (biological foundations), although this last notion is new and controversial.
Emotional Foundations of Attitudes
A key part of an attitude is the affect or emotion associated with the attitude. At a very basic level, we know whether we like or dislike something or find an idea pleasant or unpleasant. For instance, we may say that we know something “in our heart” or have a “gut feeling.” In such cases our attitudes have been formed though our emotions rather than through logic or thinking. This can happen through (a) sensory reactions, (b) values, (c) operant/instrumental conditioning, (d) classical conditioning, (e) semantic generalization, (f) evaluative conditioning, or (g) mere exposure.
(a) Sensory Reactions
Any direct experience with an object though seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching will lead to an immediate evaluative reaction. We are experts at knowing whether we find a certain sensory experience pleas-ant or unpleasant. For example, immediately upon tasting a new type of candy bar, you know whether you like it or not. This also applies to aesthetic experiences, such as admiring the color or composition of an artwork. We form attitudes about objects immediately upon experiencing them.
Some attitudes come from our larger belief system. We may come to hold certain attitudes because they validate our basic values. Many attitudes come from religious or moral beliefs. For example, for many people their attitudes about abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, and the death penalty follow from their moral or religious beliefs and are highly emotional issues for them.
(c) Operant Conditioning
Operant or instrumental conditioning is when an attitude forms because it has been reinforced through reward or a pleasant experience or discouraged through punishment or an unpleasant experience. For example, a parent might praise a teenager for helping out at an after-school program with little kids. As a result, the teen may develop a positive attitude toward volunteer work. Similarly, many people find that broccoli has a terrible taste, and so they dislike broccoli because of its punishing flavor.
(d) Classical Conditioning
Classical or Pavlovian conditioning happens when a new stimulus comes to elicit an emotional reaction because of its association with a stimulus that already elicits the emotional response. The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov took dogs, which naturally salivate to meat powder, and trained them to salivate at the sound of a bell by continually ringing the bell as the meat powder was presented. In humans, some of our attitudes have become conditioned in much the same way. For example, some people have a negative attitude towards “dirty” words. Just the thought of a taboo word will cause some people to blush. The words themselves have come to elicit an emotional reaction because their use is frowned upon in our culture in most contexts.
(e) Semantic Generalization
Not only can we become conditioned to a specific stimulus, but this initial conditioning can generalize or spread to similar stimuli. For example, a bell higher or lower in pitch to the original conditioned sound may elicit the same reaction. In humans, the initial conditioning can spread even to words or concepts similar to the original stimulus. As a result, we can form attitudes about an object or idea without having direct contact with it. When this kind of generalization occurs, the process is called semantic generalization. For example, human subjects who have been conditioned to the sound of a bell may also show a response to the sight of a bell or by the spoken word bell. Semantic generalization can account for the formation of attitudes, like prejudice, where people have formed an attitude without having direct contact with the object of that attitude.
(f) Evaluative Conditioning
An object need not directly cause us to feel pleasant or unpleasant for us to form an attitude. Evaluative conditioning occurs when we form attitudes toward an object or person because our exposure to them coincided with a positive or negative emotion. For example, a couple may come to feel positive toward a particular song that was playing on the radio during their first date. Their positive attitude to the song is a result of its association with the happy experience of a date.
(g) Mere Exposure
Finally, when we see the same object or person over and over, we will generally form a positive attitude toward that object or person. This is true for an object or person we feel neutral or positive about, so long as we are not overexposed to it. For example, many popular styles of clothing seem bizarre at first, but then as we see more of them we may come to accept and even like them.