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How People Differ in Confidence About Their Attitudes

Differences in confidence can also affect action.

Key points

  • There are individual differences in certainty about attitudes.
  • These differences are related to personality characteristics.
  • Differences in attitude certainty also affect intentions to act.
Andrzej Rostek/iStock. Licensed to Art Markman
Source: Andrzej Rostek/iStock. Licensed to Art Markman

People have attitudes about all kinds of things, including activities (like playing chess), objects (such as the Empire State building), and issues (such as the income tax rate). These attitudes reflect how much you like or dislike something, and can influence your actions related to the object of the attitude.

In addition to the attitude itself, you also have a degree of confidence or certainty associated with that attitude. For example, you might think you like to eat Brussels sprouts. That is an attitude. If you have only had them once, though, you might not be very certain of that attitude. If you eat them weekly prepared in lots of different ways, though, you might be very certain of your attitude.

Clearly, then, your individual experiences with items can affect your attitude toward them. There are also likely to be social influences on attitudes. If everyone you know likes Brussels sprouts, that might influence you to like them. And the more that everyone in your social group likes them, the more certain you may be that you do as well.

On top of that, there may be differences between people in how certain they are of the attitudes they hold. That is, some people may feel uncertain about most of their attitudes, while others may feel certain about most of theirs. This possibility was explored in a 2020 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Kenneth DeMarree, Richard Petty, Pablo Brunol, and Ji Xia.

First, they developed a measure for certainty in attitudes. This measure involved having people rate their attitudes toward several objects and issues including coffee, paper plates, affirmative action, and Tide Laundry Detergent). After rating whether they had a positive or negative attitude, they rated their certainty in the attitude on a scale ranging from very uncertain to very certain.

In tests of this scale on a broad sample, they found that there were small differences between people in the degree to which they expressed certainty in their attitudes. That is, some people hold their attitudes with more certainty than others.

Across several studies, the authors explored different aspects of this observation. They related the tendency to hold attitudes with certainty to a variety of other characteristics. They found that personality characteristics associated with having positive feelings (like extraversion) were related to more certainty than personality characteristics associated with having negative feelings (like neuroticism). In addition, people who need to think about things tend to feel more certainty about their attitudes than those who don’t typically need to think about things.

The researchers also related certainty to intentions to take actions related to their attitudes. Unsurprisingly, if you say you like chess and you’re certain that you like chess, you are more likely to say that you intend to play chess than if you don’t like chess or if you’re uncertain about how you feel about chess. More surprisingly, people who tend to hold their opinions with certainty express more intention to engage in activities relating to everything they say they like compared to people who express their attitudes with less certainty.

Another study tested people at two different sessions about two weeks apart. One possible explanation for the results I have described so far is that people have some kind of mood that leads them to feel certain of their attitudes, but that mood can shift over time. Instead, the researchers found that people were fairly consistent in their tendency to express attitudes with certainty. So, the results of the previous studies probably did not reflect a rapidly changing mood.

Putting all this together, then, there really do seem to be some people who are more certain of their attitudes than others. This tendency is stronger in people who experience a lot of positive feelings and who like to think about things. It also influences their tendency to express that they want to participate in future activities. More work will have to explore whether being more certain in attitudes also makes people more likely to follow through with their intention to do things.


DeMarree, K. G., Petty, R. E., Briñol, P., & Xia, J. (2020). Documenting individual differences in the propensity to hold attitudes with certainty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(6), 1239–1265.