Tuesday, January 28, 2014

You Have an Attitude!

How many times have you heard someone say that you have "an attitude" as if that's a bad thing? Or perhaps you've heard someone ask "Why are you giving me attitude?" I often wonder if people truly understand that these statements are mostly meaningless and completely without context. For one thing, everyone has at least one attitude about one thing. Attitudes are not really something to give, either, but rather, they are something to have. Let me try to explain.

Attitude: a learned tendency to respond (often positively or negatively) to a stimulus--person, place, thing, idea, etc. No one is born with an attitude of any kind. An infant makes no judgments about anything until they have some kind of experience with stimuli. On top of this, there are actually three components that make up an attitude, which is one of the main reasons why attitudes are not very good predictors of behavior. That, and an attitude can also have varying strengths. Each individual has some variation of strong to mild attitudes. Even highly opinionated people will have some things that they do not care about as passionately as everything else. Let's take a look at the individual components, the ABC (affect, behavior, cognition), of an attitude so that we can build a clearer picture.

Affect. This is the emotion you feel toward the stimulus. Do you feel positively or negatively (or neutrally) about it? Do happy, sad, angry, annoyed sensations come to mind when thinking about or interacting with the stimulus? Also, affect comes in many degrees from very strong (e.g. when someone says "I LOVE ..." or "I HATE ...") to very mild ("I'm not a fan" or "It's all right"). Affect can also be more or less neutral ("I can take it or leave it" or "I really don't care one way or the other"). Much of the affect component of an attitude comes from initial exposure to the stimulus. Continued exposure can either enhance the initial emotional response or dull it over time, again, depending upon one's subsequent experiences.

Cognition. This is what you think and believe about the stimulus. Do you think it is a good thing or worthy of your investment? Do you believe it represents some sort of value, gain, or loss for you? Do you see it as something you can learn from or as a waste of time and effort? For example, you may feel positively about buying new clothes in general, but if you think that the particular outfit is overpriced or not right for you, then your attitude toward the purchase may be milder than either your thoughts or your feelings in isolation. Sometimes this happens when someone is in a less-than-ideal relationship. Logically, they know/think/believe that they are being mistreated by the other party, but they still have positive emotions (usually love) for the person, which generate hope that things will change.

Behavior. This is the action you take regarding the stimulus. Do you actively seek it out or go out of your way to avoid it? Do you speak ill or well of the subject? Sometimes the behavior does not match the emotion or the thought. For example, maybe someone feels thoroughly bored with a class but insists on attending because they are more afraid of the consequences of ditching than they are attracted to the joy of doing something else. Because stimuli often present many cross-overs in our lives, it is not easy to separate an attitude about one without affecting the attitude of something else. We have a tendency to make many complex, interrelated associations in our mind that are not easy to unravel or keep isolated from one another. As a result, you may find yourself not really caring about something itself, but behaving positively toward it because of your thoughts and feelings toward something else that is connected to it. For example, think of a husband who really doesn't like opera because he thinks it is boring and finds himself dreading the act of dressing up. Yet, he may attend the opera because he loves his wife more than he dislikes the performance, so he is willing to let his feelings for his wife drive his behaviors toward the opera.

When we find ourselves facing a serious disconnect between our affect, behavior, and cognition concerning a certain stimulus, we may experience cognitive dissonance. Politics is a good illustration. Let's say, for argument's sake, that Ronda is a die-hard Republican. She usually listens to everything the Republican candidates have to say and usually whole-heartedly agrees with everything they appear to stand for when they campaign. As a result, she has always voted for the Republican candidate in every election, sometimes not even bothering to look too in-depth into the candidates' stances on the issues. Ronda is also a strong advocate for environmental conservation. This year's Republican candidate seems to believe everything that Ronda does, except he is pushing for a bill that will reduce protected land for a vulnerable (not yet endangered) species so that affordable housing can be built to reduce the amount of people living on the street. Now Ronda is torn. If she votes for the Republican, then he will endanger the animals. Yet, if she votes for the Democrat, then she will be endorsing a lot of things that don't align with her usual philosophy on the other issues. So, how do we usually resolve cognitive dissonance? Well, since attitudes have three components, we have a number of options. 1) Ronda can change her conflicting attitudes. She can reevaluate her thoughts and feelings about her desire for the Republican label, or her thoughts and feelings about environmental conservation. 2) Ronda can change her behavior. She can vote for the Democratic (or a third-party) candidate to prevent the development of the protected land. She can also choose not to vote at all, taking herself out of the debate. 3) She can develop a new attitude. Ronda can reduce the strength of her convictions--see the Republican label as less important as before, see conservation as less important than before, see a Democrat label as not so demonic. She can also start to investigate and weigh more options from both sides of the arguments to find a new position that will help her feel less conflicted.

Because of the overlap in our experiences with so many different stimuli and the complexity of decision making in general, it is not easy to predict what a person will do based solely on how they feel or what they think. In addition, as an attitude is learned, the importance we place on our learning experience will modify the strength of each of the components differently.
We form attitudes from direct experience with the stimulus. If someone is kind or rude to you the first time you meet them, then you may feel either positively or negatively, respectively, about them. We generally don't like to contradict our first impressions, so direct experience can sometimes be a very powerful creator of an attitude.
We also form attitudes from secondary exposure. Bob had a horrible experience at a local repair shop and tells Amy all about it. Even though Amy has never been there, she might now think twice about going there because of Bob's experience. If Amy values Bob's opinions very much because of her strong positive attitude toward him, then she is more likely to avoid the place than if she has a milder attitude toward Bob.
Attitudes can be learned from direct instruction, usually from parents. If a parent has ever told a child that they should be friends with someone or that they should avoid certain things, then it is likely that the child will then start to think about those things in the same light it was presented. This is one of the many reasons why prejudices (good and bad) can sometimes pass down from one generation to the next. [Yes, I will do a future post on prejudice versus discrimination.] Again, the strength of one's attitude toward the source will be a significant moderator for the resulting attitude for the stimulus. When a child tends to dismiss their parent's opinions or doesn't like them, that child may insist on forming the opposite attitude from the parent, sometimes just to spite the parent.
In addition, a person may form an attitude through observation. Many people, for example, talk about how wonderful cast members at Walt Disney World are. When you ask them why they believe this, you may find that they never personally experienced an abundance of out-of-the-way kindness or "Disney Magic" themselves, but they may have witnessed a cast member go out of their way for another guest. Mood is a strong moderator in this case. When you are in a good mood to begin with and you see someone else being helped, you have a tendency to form a more positive affect and belief toward the situation. However, if you were having a bad day and you see someone else being treated well, you may form a negative attitude out of jealousy and a wish for special treatment to yourself.

As you can see, attitudes are very complex. To tell someone that they need to change their attitude is not only unjust, it's also a very tall order, depending upon the strength of the attitude. No one "gives" an attitude, either. They simply have one composed from their thoughts, feelings, and actions regarding certain stimuli. If someone has a negative attitude toward you personally, you might want to ask what brought about the opinion before you judge them, showing your own attitude toward them.