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It's Time for an Attitude Check

What are attitudes and why are they important for understanding behavior?

Some people are lightning rods for public scrutiny. Love them or loathe them, they always make headlines. Figures ranging from Presidents, like Barack Obama, to prominent celebrities, like Justin Bieber, get people’s attention. We’d argue that they get our attention because they strongly evoke attitudes—as people tend to like or dislike things in their world.

We are really pleased to have been invited by Psychology Today to start a blog on the psychology of attitudes. In this initial post, we simply want to tell you a little bit about what attitudes are and the types of questions and issues we anticipate addressing in future posts.

In psychological research, attitudes are typically defined as an individual’s overall evaluation (or opinion) of some entity. There are lots of things we like or dislike, including people, groups, policy issues, and other objects in our world (e.g., foods, music). Reporting an attitude involves making a decision about liking versus disliking or favoring versus disfavoring an attitude object. The study of attitudes is at the heart of the field of social psychology, as knowing a person’s likes and dislikes are important in relation to understanding the self, interpersonal attraction, and intergroup relations. Further, the study of attitudes has implications for other areas of psychology (such as clinical psychology, consumer psychology, health psychology, personality psychology, and political psychology) as well as other disciplines (such as economics, politics, and sociology).

Researchers study attitudes because they have learned that our attitudes influence how we see and think about things as well as how we behave. For example, if you are a fan of the National Football League (NFL), you might remember some controversial refereeing decisions in recent playoff games. Attitudes are relevant in this context because we know that when two people see the same event (in this case, a particular play), their perception and interpretation of the event (whether or not a penalty has been committed) can be determined by their attitudes (whether they support one of the teams). Of course, our attitudes also help guide and predict our behavior. Actions such as whether or not we donate to a particular charity, vote for one politician over another, or even mundane things like deciding which pen to buy, are all influenced by our attitudes.

With our posts, we hope that readers will become interested in thinking about how attitudes are important in everyday life. We aim to achieve this goal in a number of ways. First, in some posts we will highlight the results of some particularly fascinating (and sometimes counterintuitive) research findings and discuss how they help us better understand human thought and behavior. Second, we will offer examples of when and how the study of attitudes can help be applied to help facilitate social change (for example, getting people to exercise and recycle more). Third, as events unfold in our world, such as important political elections or disputes between countries, we can see how attitudes play a role in understanding what takes place around us.

We look forward to having you learn more about this interesting area of psychology!

Teaser image: Chris Sopher for Knight Foundation / Wikimedia Commons