Ulterior Motives

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How does needing to act affect attitude change?

Vegetarian
Over the course of your life, attitudes shift.  As a teen, you might be a complete omnivore, diving into every barbecue with abandon.  As a young adult, you might hear economic arguments against meat production and cut back on the amount of meat you eat.  Still later, you might hear about the health benefits of a plant-based diet and give up meat altogether. 

Your attitudes are not just there to be changed, of course.  Your attitudes also help you decide how to act.  Your attitude toward eating meat affects the foods you buy, cook, and eat. 

An interesting paper in the June, 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dolores Albarracin and Ian Handley explores the effects of wanting to do something on your attitudes.  This research suggests that wanting to do things makes it easier for you to think about your attitudes but harder to change them.

No guns icon
In one study, participants were told that they were going to express their attitude toward gun control at the end of the study.  Then, the participants filled in words with missing letters.  For some people, the words were all related to performing actions (like action, motivation, and doing).  For other people, the words were all related to inaction (like freeze, stop, and calm).  A third group filled in words that were unrelated to either action or inaction.  The idea is that filling in words relating to action would put people in a mode of wanting to act.  Filling in words relating to inaction would put people in a mode of wanting to rest.

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After that, participants expressed their attitude toward gun control by pressing one button if they were in favor of gun control or a second button if they were opposed to it.  Participants were fastest to express their attitude if they were primed for action and slowest if they were primed for inaction.  The control condition came out in between.  Another study in this series showed that people are only faster to express an attitude when they are warned at the start of the study that they will later have to express that attitude.

A second set of studies examined attitude change.  In these studies, people again heard that they were going to express an attitude about a topic (in this case vegetarianism).   This time, the participants were selected based on a survey they took earlier in which they expressed opposition to being vegetarian.  Just as in the study I described earlier, half of the participants were primed toward action and the other half were primed toward inaction.  Then, everyone read a passage providing a few strong arguments for reducing meat consumption.  After reading the passage, people gave their opinion about vegetarianism. 

After reading a passage promoting being a vegetarian, the people primed toward inaction changed their attitude toward vegetarianism quite a bit, while those who were primed toward action did not change their opinion much at all. 

Putting this all together, the studies in this paper suggest that when people are oriented to act, they have ready access to their existing opinions.  That makes it easier to act, but the strength of these prior opinions makes it hard for people to change their existing attitudes.  When people are oriented to wait before acting, they do not have ready access to their existing opinions.  As a result, it is harder for them to engage in actions.  However, people oriented toward inaction are also more likely to be affected by information aimed to change their opinion.

This research does suggest why television commercials are so often effective.  When people are watching TV, they are generally oriented toward inaction.  Most TV watching is done by people who are seated with the goal of being entertained.  As a result, they are in exactly the state they need to be in to be influenced by persuasive messages.

Now that you are relaxed, follow me on Twitter.

 

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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