Attitudes are a widely used construct amongst social scientists. However, what are the exact functions of having attitudes? Why do we have them, what do they do for us?
Functions of Attitudes
Attitudes are defined by Perloff (2003) as: “a learned global (typically emotional) evaluation of an object (person, place or issue) that influences thought and action” (p. 59) (See also article ‘Attitudes Defined’. This article deals with the functions of attitudes. Scholars are interested in these functions because they explain why attitudes are so important to us and why they seem to have such an influence on our behavior.
In general, attitudes seem to help us categorize the world around us. In other words, it makes the world comprehensive. If you prefer abstract thinking: they are like the cabinet with drawers into which we can put all relevant information. More attitudes (and stronger ones, see article ‘Attitude Strength’) mean ‘more cabinets’ or categories, thus a more specific view on the object at hand.
However, there are also other benefits of attitudes. These are (amongst others)
- · Knowledge benefits: this is the previously discussed ‘cabinet with drawers’. The framework by which we can categorize and understand reality as we perceive it.
- · Utilitarian benefits: attitudes can help people obtain better results. For instance, when you absolutely hate mathematics, but have to pass for a statistics exam. Telling yourself what horrible predicament you’re in will not help you perform better. Telling yourself you can do it and you’re not all that bad can. It can actually help you learn easier, and perhaps prove to be just the small difference between a pass and a fail!
- · Social adjustive benefits: we all want to be accepted by important others. For some these others are many, for others there are only a few people important enough. But in the end, (almost) all people need the reckognition of others. Attitudes again help. For instance, your friends are very important to you, but they all listen to metal, something you don’t particularly fancy. In order to be adjusted, however, you may grow to ‘like’ metal more and more, up to the point where you actually do enjoy the sound of grunts and screams just as much as your friends do. This way, you’ve socially adjusted your attitudes to your friends, making them accept you, and giving you a better feeling when listening to their music as well.
- · Social identity benefits: just as important as being accepted, is being identified as a person. People want to communicate who they are. This can be done by buying (and thus having positive attitudes about) certain products or doing certain behaviors. Your metal friends may all wear band shirts, which would be a reason to wear them also, so that you can identify yourself with the group identity of ‘metalheads’. A more personal identification can also take place, for instance, ‘being the only one with blue-dyed hair’. Other examples are religion identification by wearing a cross-necklace, and job-identification, by buying only the brand you happen to work for.
- · Value-expressive benefits: attitudes can be expressive of your core values and beliefs. Wearing black clothes and band shirts can also be an expression of being ‘alternative’ and ‘not like the mainstream’. These express values of independence, autonomy and individuality. Tattoos can be another good example of this.
- · Lastly, ego-defensive benefits: attitudes that you accept as your own because you feel you need to defend yourself against awkward outside inputs. For instance, you tell yourself your favourite soccer team will probably lose the final match. This way, you will avoid being devastated when they actually do fail to win, but you will be alleviated when they do. You avoid awkward situations, you’re defending yourself against it. In order to do so, you must convince yourself with enough arguments that the team is really not all that good at the moment, thus it will probably not win.
One important thing to remember from this list is the following: people can share the same attitude, but have different functions underlying it. For example, one metal-fan (yes, again the metalheads) wears band-shirts and has positive attitudes towards the music because of social-adjustive reasons: this way his friends like him. Another person might be into the metal-scene because of more value-expressive reasons: informing her parents that she is rebellious and autonomous.
Messages that are in line with the underlying functions of people are more likely to be persuasive. For instance, you want to convince a person that metal-music is very uncool. When addressing the first metalhead from above (the one who is socially-adjustive), a message may focus on letting this person think that his friends are more into soft-rock music, rather than heavy metal. Or getting him to take up a different set of friends altogether, perhaps. For the second person (the value-expressor) it might be more important to give them more space to express their autonomy and rebellion in different ways, such as piercings?
You can read more on persuasion in my articles on Persuasion Defined, Strategies to Persuade, Processes of Persuasion and Cialdini’s Weapons of Influence.
Another important thing to take home is the notion that all functions can also prove to be dysfunctional. Think for a moment. A piercing might be really functional in expressing values, yet, if you get an ulcer because of it, you’re not helping yourself that much. The balancing of importance of these functions and dysfunctions can be difficult, it’s obviously a personal balance and also very context specific.
Perloff, R.M., The Dynamics of Persuasion, Communication and Attitudes in the 21st century (2nd edition), Mahwah, NJ/London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.