Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

When are attitudes pliable?

Specific attitudes are more malleable than general ones.

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All of us have core beliefs. Things that we accept as being important to us that we expect will drive our behavior. Yet, there are times in social situations where it is awkward to express those beliefs, and we may even find ourselves sympathizing with someone else's opinion, even though at some level we feel like we disagree with them.

For example, I was once in a taxi on a long drive from an airport to a hotel where I was staying. The driver spent quite a bit of time relaying his political beliefs to me. Those beliefs were the opposite of my own on a number of dimensions. I did not feel like engaging with the driver, though, and so I kept silent. Afterwards, I wondered whether this driver's tirade could have any influence on my own beliefs.

This issue was addressed in a paper in the July, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Alison Ledgerwood, Yaacov Trope, and Shelly Chaiken. These authors suggest that attitudes are much more strongly influenced by the specific situation you are in when you think about them specifically than when you think about them generally.

I have written a number of times in this blog about the idea of construal level. Consider the issue of universal organ donation, for example. You might have a general attitude that organ donation is a good thing, and something people should do. At the same time, if you think about it specifically, you are forced to grapple with death, and the mechanics of organ donation. When you think about something generally, then your attitudes will tend to stay fairly consistent. When you think about something specifically, though, then you're your attitudes are more prone to be influenced by aspects of the current situation. Focusing on your own death might make you less interested in organ donation, while focusing specifically on people who might be saved by getting an organ transplant might make you more interested in it.

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To demonstrate the influence of generality and specificity on attitudes, these investigators ran a number of studies in which people prepared to talk with someone else about a difficult topic like organ donation or universal health care. Prior to the discussion, the participant in the experiment was given information about their partner's attitude toward the topic. Half were told that the partner supported the topic, while the other half were told that the partner opposed it. Some time after finding out their partner's opinion, participants were asked to express their own opinion on the topic.

Across studies, the researchers used a variety of techniques to manipulate how generally or specifically people thought about the core topic. In one study, a time manipulation was used. People were told they would discuss a potential change to an organ donation law that would take effect in a few days or that would take effect next year. Previous work suggests that things that are near in time are conceptualized more specifically than things that are distant in time.

In this study, people's attitude toward organ donation was unaffected by their partner's attitude when the law was set to take effect in a year. That is, when thinking about the topic generally, people stuck with their long-term attitude. When the law was set to take effect in a few days, however, people expressed a much more positive attitude toward organ donation when their partner was in favor it of than when their partner was opposed to it. Similar results were observed with other ways of manipulating how generally people represented the core issue.

What does this mean for you? We have all sorts of beliefs about the world. Some of them are the product of a lot of careful thought and consideration. We'd probably like those beliefs to have a big impact on the way we live our lives. So, for these beliefs, it is best if we try to think about them in general terms.

On the other hand, we also have beliefs that are not as well considered. These biases and prejudices can also influence our behavior, but we have less reason to trust them. In this case, thinking about these beliefs specifically provides more opportunities to allow other events in the world to allow us to influence those beliefs. Over time, perhaps you can turn these unanalyzed beliefs into ones that you have confidence holding.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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