AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

34: Instructional Technology and Attitude Change

34.1 Introduction
34.2 The Nature of Attitudes
34.3 Theories of Attitude Change
34.4 Attitudes and Behavior
34.5 Measuring Attitudes
34.6 Attitudes and Instructional Media - The Literature
34.7 Conclusion: Designing Mediated Messages for Attitude Change and the Model of Cumulative Effect.


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34.3 Theories of Attitude Change

Several attitude change categorization schemes have been proposed in the literature (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993; O'Keefe, 1990), and most are similar. For this discussion, attitude theories have been organized into four categories (see 11.6):

  • Consistency theories
  • Learning theories
  • Social judgment theories
  • Functional theories

The study of attitudes has been approached with varying emphases and methods during most of this century. Prior to World War II, the emphasis was on definition issues and attitude measurement. Most studies were of a survey nature and provided important correlational findings, but little insight into causality. Experimental techniques such as control groups or comparison groups were notably absent (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974).

This changed dramatically during World War H. Attitude change was an important topic of Army-sponsored research (see 1. 10). Because of the influence of experimental psychologists such as Carl Hovland, true experimental techniques were used to study the persuasive effects of propaganda. The work of Hovland and his associates in the area of attitude change research was continued after the war at Yale University. Theories developed by this group served as an organizational framework for the study of attitude change (Hovland, Janis & Kelley, 1953; Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Insko, 1967; O'Keefe, 1990). Most of Hovland's attitude change research can be considered classical. Most of this research and theory building approached the concept of attitude from the behaviorist perspective, and most research activities dealt with trying to relate attitudes to observable outcomes in learners.

An example of research of the classical type that demonstrated a consistency theory approach was Simonson's (1977) study of dissonance theory principles. In this study, cognitive dissonance theory (Festinger, 1957) assumptions, one of the most influential consistency theories, were used in a formal program of attitude change in order to improve student attitude toward an instructional activity. Student achievement in this instructional activity was then measured to determine if achievement was influenced by a change in student attitude toward instruction.

Randomly assigned to one of three treatment groups were 218 students. Students in the experimental treatments were asked to make a videotape about their attitudes toward an instructional activity. An "Instructional Improvement Needs Assessment" was the tide given to the fictitious activity that in reality was the research study. First, students were given a camouflaged attitude pretest. Then, students were met individually by a researcher who told them that:

I am a member of a committee in the college called the Instructional Improvement Needs Assessment Committee. We are attempting to obtain as much information as possible about student's opinions of college courses. This is difficult, so we are asking for several different types of information.

Then, depending on the random treatment group assignment, the students were told:

  1. Control group: "I would like you to complete this Needs Assessment opinionnaire. You can fill it out in the next room. Answer on the score sheet and when you finish place the opinionnaire and answer sheet in the box."
  2. Nonrelevant treatment group: "The entire committee would like to study your opinions, so I will give you several minutes to think of everything positive you can about (a course irrelevant to the study and to the attitude tests). Then I will take you to the next room where we will ask you to state your positive comments while you are being videotaped. We need to videotape you so that the entire committee can get together and observe all the videotapes. I'll give you 5 minutes to collect your thoughts.
  3. Relevant experimental group: The experimenter read the same comments to students assigned to this group, with one exception; they were given the name of the course that the study was attempting to change attitudes about.

Students in the "irrelevant" and "relevant" groups were given time to jot down ideas and then were escorted into the video-recording room where their comments were recorded. When they were finished, they were told that "faculty and students will be viewing this tape." Next, they signed a release and were given a questionnaire that contained the attitude test embedded among other items.

Subjects in the "relevant experimental treatment" who initially had low attitudes toward the course in question were expected to experience dissonance when they stated positive comments about this course. The dissonance-producing experience was heightened by leading the students to believe that a group of peers and faculty would view the videotapes. The videotaping session and the signing of the release were included to make the treatment procedures as forceful and irreversible as possible. The two other treatments were included to control for the impact of videotaping and for change due to extraneous events.

Results of this classical dissonance theory study demonstrated that attitude change& could be produced. Students in the relevant videotaping group changed their attitudes toward the course they were asked to talk about more than one standard deviation (p < .0001). Simonson (1977) also tested the persistence of the attitude changes and reported that while there was a regression to the mean, student's attitudes remained positive 6 weeks later. There was only a minor and statistically insignificant relationship between attitude change and achievement.

This study showed in an experimental situation with real-world implications, that it was possible, even simple, to modify student attitudes toward an instructional event, in this case a college course. Simonson used video recording as a technique to "cement" and make irreversible a student's attitude positions. No one would argue that the video recording itself changed attitudes. The forces that changed attitudes were the arguments created by the student that were recorded on the video. In this situation, the video recording was a methodological tool of the researcher. This chapter will tend to show that in media and attitude research the role of media is as a tool. Media do not influence attitudes; messages and methods do.

Simonson's (1977) study is an example of the type of attitude change research often reported in the literature between the 1950s and today. Certainly, human subject regulations would force modification in Simonson's approach if it were replicated today. However, the behavioral and experimental approach taken is typical of the research used to identify and support the consistency theories of attitude change summarized next. Early attitude change literature is firmly anchored in traditional experimental psychology and draws heavily on behaviorism (see 2.2; Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

34.3.1 Consistency Theories

The basic assumption of these theories is the need of the individual for consistency. There must be consistency between attitudes, between behaviors, and among attitudes and behaviors. A lack of consistency causes discomfort so that an individual attempts to ease the tension by adjusting attitudes or behaviors in order to once again achieve balance or consistency. One of the earliest consistency theories was balance theory (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler, Collins & Miller, 1969; O'Keefe, 1990).

Relationships among the perceiver, another person, and an object are the main focus of balance theory (Heider, 1958). Relationships are either positive or negative, based on the cognitive perceptions of the perceiver. In this theory, there are eight possible configurations; four balanced and four unbalanced. Unbalanced states are recognized as being unstable. Under these conditions, perceivers attempt to restore balance by changing their attitudes toward objects or other persons.

Two extensions of Heider's balance theory include the work of Newcomb (1961) and that of Abelson (Abelson & Rosenberg, 1958). Newcomb studied interpersonal situations as well as cognitive balancing and transferred these ideas to research on the pressures for uniformity in groups. Abelson proposed four additional modes of restoring balance: (a) denial, (b) bolstering, (c) differentiation, and (d) transcendence (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler, Collins & Miller, 1969; Insko, 1967; O'Keefe, 1990). Establishing balance was critical to individuals. Attitude changes occurred when the individual attempted to reestablish balance by modifying their attitudes.

Affective-cognitive consistency theory examines the relationship between attitudes and beliefs (Rosenberg, 1956). An unstable state occurs when an individual's attitudes toward an object and knowledge about an object are inconsistent. Persuasive communications (see 4.4) attempt to change the affective component of an attitude system by changing the cognitive component of attitude. In Other words, providing an individual with new information that changes the cognitive component of attitude will tend to cause that individual to change overall attitudes toward an object.

An alternative to Rosenberg's theory is Festinger's theory Of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). While Rosenberg's theory deals with affect and cognition, Festinger's theory examines consistency among cognitive elements or beliefs about oneself, behavior, or environment. Dissonance occurs when elements are logically inconsistent or psychologically inconsistent because of cultural mores, specific opinions deviating from more encompassing opinions, or information or experiences that are contrary to previous information or experiences. Dissonance motivates the individual to reduce the dissonance and return to consonance. When faced with dissonance, the individual seeks to avoid situations or information that may increase dissonance.

To test dissonance theory, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) reported on an experiment that is considered one of the most controversial ever conducted in the area of attitude change. It was also one of the most influential. This study lead to numerous modified replications, including Simonson's (1977) study reported here earlier.

Male undergraduates spent an hour performing two tasks that had been designed to be very boring: putting spools onto a tray and turning pegs on a board. Afterwards, the experimenter told them that the study concerned the effect that a prior expectation had on task performance and explained that participants in another experiment were being given a favorable expectation about the task. According to the researcher, this expectation was usually conveyed by an assistant who told a waiting subject of the study that the experience had been enjoyable and intriguing. The experimenter then claimed (a white lie, one of several told by researchers) that the assistant who was supposed to perform the chore had not shown up. The researcher then asked the student who had just finished the boring task to fill in for the absent assistant by conveying this story to the study's next participant. The researcher promised the student money for this service and for being on call in the future if help were needed again. The college male was told that the decision to help was up to him.

Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) introduced the critical dissonance theory incentive at the point when money was mentioned. Half the study's subjects were offered $1, and half were offered $20, for engaging in the counterattitudinal behavior. Because the inducement to comply with the researcher's request was much greater with the larger amount of money, the counterattitudinal behavior should have been considered by the students as justified, and little dissonance and attitude change produced. The $1 payment was designed to provide just enough pressure to induce compliance but insufficient reason for subjects to believe their actions were warranted by money alone. This was predicted to produce maximum dissonance and maximum attitude change.

In both the $1 and the $20 conditions, the students engaged in a brief role playing by praising the experiment to a confederate of the researcher who pretended to be waiting to participate in the study. This person appeared to be convinced by the student's story. Next, the students were referred to an interviewer who was supposedly conducting a survey unrelated to the experiment, This interviewer asked, among other things, how interesting and enjoyable the experimental tasks involving the spools and pegs had been. The results showed that the subjects who had been offered $1 for praising the experiment evaluated the tasks significantly more favorably than did the subjects who had been offered $20. The attitudes of students who received $20 did not differ from the control subjects, who participated in the dull tasks, but not the part of the experiment that involved making insincere statements to the confederate.

The results of the experiment confirmed Festinger's prediction that increased justification for role playing (i.e., more money) would reduce attitude change. In other words, the students who received $1 for their actions experienced dissonance. Their actions advocating the enjoyability of the peg and spool activity, and the reality of the boring activity, were dissonant from one another. In order to reduce the dissonance, it was easier to change their attitudes toward the activity to be more positive than it was to change their praising of the activity. Thus, attitude change occurred to reduce the student's level of dissonance. The $20 subjects did not experience dissonance. They were able to say in their minds: "I did it for the money; it really was boring." This study was the first of many that demonstrated clearly the need for consistency between attitude positions and behaviors. Consistency theories, notably cognitive dissonance theory, provide relatively straightforward, if incomplete, information about attitude change.

Studies on counter-attitudinal advocacy are based on dissonance theory. Individuals who are asked to write an essay or present a speech promoting a position contrary to their beliefs become committed to certain aspects of the contrary position. This causes dissonance, which the individuals attempt to reduce by changing their original position or attitude. The stronger the magnitude of the dissonance, the stronger the need to change the original attitude.

The simple act of decision making creates dissonance, too. The magnitude of the dissonance is related to the importance of the decision and the attractiveness of both the chosen and the unchosen alternatives (O'Keefe, 1990). For example, hypermedia-based instructional systems (see 21.1, 23.3.), with their many learner choices, provide a great deal of decision making that may influence learner's attitudes in either a positive or negative direction, depending on the success and attractiveness of the decisions.

One of the major criticisms of consistency theories is that there are too many of them. Since they all work from the similar theme of an individual's trying to maintain consistency, it has been suggested that the area would be stronger if the various subtheories were consolidated. Today, interest in dissonance theory specifically, and consistency theories generally, has waned considerably in social psychology (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). This loss of interest is, in part, due to the growth of understanding about the conditions and processes responsible for the phenomena dissonance theorists investigated. Researchers have a better understanding of the interactions between attitudes and opinions and actions and behaviors, so consistency theories that are not directly related to processes are of little interest to today's cognitive scientists who tend to be more process oriented than behaviorists who studied consistency theories.

34.3.2 Early Learning Theories

This section might more accurately be called behavioral theories of attitude change. These theories were also developed during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, learning theories reflected behavioral psychology (see 2.2). A major commonality of these theories was their emphasis on the stimulus characteristics of the communication situation.

Staat's (Insko, 1967) work reflected the ideas of classical conditioning, and focused almost entirely on the formation of attitudes. Events in the environment create an emotional response in an individual. As new stimuli are consistently paired with old stimuli (events), the new stimuli develop the power to create an emotional response in the individual (O'Keefe, 1990).

Learning theories of attitude change received major emphasis by Hovland and his associates in the Yale Communication Research Program (Hovland, Janis & Kelley, 1953). They proposed that opinions tended to persist unless the individual underwent some new learning experience. Persuasive communications that both present a question and suggest an answer serve as learning experiences. Acceptance of the suggested answer is dependent on the opportunity for mental rehearsal or practice of the attitude response, and on the number of incentives included in the communication. Hovland and his colleagues assumed that as people processed persuasive message content, they rehearsed the message's recommended attitudinal response, as well as their initial attitude. For attitude change to occur, more than rehearsal and practice had to take place. The Yale researchers emphasized the role of incentives and the drive - reducing aspects of persuasive messages as mechanisms for reinforcement, thereby creating acceptance of new beliefs and attitudes.

In the Yale model of attitude change emphasis is placed on attention, comprehension, and acceptance. An individual must attend to and comprehend the communication before acceptance can occur. It is during the attending and comprehending phases that the individual has the opportunity to practice the recommended new opinion. Practice alone does not lead to acceptance, but when combined with incentives and recommendations imbedded in the communication, attitude change is likely. Incentives are broadly defined by Hovland et al. (1953). They could be direct financial or physical benefits (e.g., money, improved health), or they could take on more abstract forms such as the knowledge gain from persuasive arguments, social acceptance by others who are respected, or self-approval from the feeling that one is correct.

Hovland and his associates identified three classes of variables that influenced the effectiveness of the message: (a) source characteristics, (b) setting characteristics, and (c) communication content elements. Research using the Yale model focuses on variables in one or more of these three classes. Examples include research in communicator credibility (trustworthiness and degree of expertness), fear-arousing appeals, and the placement of persuasive arguments within the communication (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler et al., 1969; Insko, 1967).

A Skinnerian approach (see 2.5) to the study of attitude change was employed by Bem (1967), whose major assumptions reflected the viewpoint that attitudes were learned as a result of previous experience with the environment. Bem proposed that since the person trying to change attitudes usually lacked direct knowledge of the internal stimuli available to the learner, it was necessary to rely on external cues in order to reward and punish the individual. It was the combination of external cues and observable behaviors that produced changes in attitude (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler et al., 1969; Insko, 1967).

Today, few attitude change theorists feel that the early research by Hovland and others has direct impact on current procedures (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). Newer research and theory building is directed toward approaches that emphasize multiple modes of processing information. However, these early researchers investigated basic issues, such as reinforcement, incentives, and drive-reduction constructs, that are related to how motivational states influence information processing and persuasion. Early-learning theorists' efforts provided a foundation for more modem process models of attitude change.

34.3.3 Social Judgment Theory

Social judgment theory focuses on how people's prior attitudes distort their perceptions of the positions advocated in persuasive messages, and how such perceptions mediate persuasion. In general terms, the theory assumes that a person's own attitudes serve as a judgmental standard and anchor that influences where along a continuum a persuader's advocated position is perceived to lie (Sherif & Hovland, 1961). Social judgment theory- is an attempt to apply the principles of judgment to the study of attitude change.

According to Sherif, Sherif, and Nebergall (1965), an individual's initial attitude serves as an anchor for the judgment of related attitude communications. Opinions are evaluated against this point of reference and are placed on an attitudinal continuum. Opinions that most characterized the individual's own opinion are in the latitude of acceptance. Those opinions found most objectionable are placed in the latitude of rejection. The latitude of noncommitment consists of those opinions that are neither accepted nor rejected.

Communication that falls within the latitude of acceptance is assimilated, and if judged to be fair and unbiased will result in a change in attitude, Within the limits of the latitude of acceptance, the greater the difference between the initial opinion and the communicated opinion, the greater the attitude change. Though some change is possible when Opinions fall within the latitude of rejection, the greater the discrepancy the less the change in attitude (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler et al., 1.969; Insko, 1.967).

Social judgment theory's core propositions can be summarized as follows (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993):

  1. A person's current attitude serves as a judgmental anchor for new attitude positions.
  2. Latitude widths determine whether a message's position will be assimilated or contrasted (e.g., accepted or rejected). Positions falling within the latitude of acceptance will be assimilated toward a person's current attitude. Positions falling within the latitude of rejection will be contrasted away from the person's own attitude.
  3. Ego involvement of a person broadens the latitude of rejection and narrows the latitude of noncommitment.
  4. Both assimilation and contrast effects increase as a positive function of a message's position and the recipient's attitude,
  5. Ego involvement increases the anchoring property of initial attitudes.
  6. Greater assimilation produces more positive evaluation of message content, which produces greater amounts of attitude change. Conversely, greater contrast produces more negative evaluations of message content, which produces lesser amounts of attitude change.
  7. Ambiguity enhances the likelihood of judgmental distortions. Therefore, other effects are greater when recipients are exposed to persuasive messages whose content positions are ambiguous.

In summary, social judgment theory predictions for attitude change are largely home out by the research literature and by practice. Recently however, researchers have questioned the basic principles of social judgment theory and how the theory's principles relate to one another. Social judgment theory is important because it demonstrates the importance of people's prior attitudes. Most other approaches only deal marginally with previous attitudes. Newer theories incorporate social judgment principles as covariates and control variables in experimental designs (Wood, 1982).

34.3.4 Functional Theories

A fundamental question about attitudes concerns their purpose: That is, what functions do attitudes serve? Understanding the purposes of attitudes is the identifying characteristic of functional theories. Attitudes serve different functions for different individuals or for the same individual in different settings. The reasons for attitude changes are individualized and related to personal functions of attitudes.

Functional theories of attitude entered the literature in the 1950s when researchers developed the idea that attitudes served varying psychological needs and thus had variable motivational bases. A common and central theme of these early efforts was the listing of the specific personality functions that attitudes served for individuals. Unlike other theoretical approaches developed during this golden decade of attitude research, functional theories are still relevant and important today (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

Functional theories hold that successful persuasion entails implementing change procedures that match the functional basis of the attitude one is trying to change. Katz (1960) proposed that any attitude held by an individual served one or more of the four distinct personality functions. The more of these functions that contributed to an attitude system, the stronger and less likely it was that the attitude could be changed.

Katz (1960) identified four personality functions of attitudes as follows: (a) utilitarian function, (b) knowledge function, (c) ego-defensive function, and (d) value-expressive function. In order for attitude change to occur, there must be a discrepancy between the need being met by the attitude and the attitude itself. Attitude change is accomplished by recognizing the function of the attitude for the individual, and designing strategies to produce a disparity between the attitude and one or more of the attitude functions.

The utilitarian function acknowledges the behaviorist principle that people are motivated to gain rewards and avoid punishments from their environment. Utilitarian attitudes are instrumental in securing positive outcomes or preventing negative ones. For example, parents' opposition to busing might be based on the utilitarian belief that it would be harmful to their child. Often, utilitarian beliefs are associations to stimuli. For example, children often acquire a positive feeling about the month of December because they associate it with holidays, presents, and vacations (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

The knowledge function -of attitudes presumes a basic human need to gain a meaningful, stable, and organized view of the world. Attitudes supply a standard for organizing and simplifying perceptions of a complex and ambiguous environment. Attitudes provide a way of sizing up objects and events so they can be reacted to in a meaningful way. If people's attitudes toward school are positive, then when they are asked about schools they will be likely to say positive things without needing to "think about it too much."

Katz's ego-defensive-function emphasizes the psychoanalytic principle that people use defense mechanisms such as denial, repression, and projection to protect their self-concepts against internal and external threats. People protect their feelings by developing convenient, if sometimes biased, attitudes that do not require active involvement in threatening or unfamiliar situations. For example, a high school student may think: "Chemistry is for nerds, and I do not want to be a nerd; that is why I do not like chemistry." Or a student might think: "Only really smart people study chemistry, and I study chemistry, so I must be really smart; that is why I like chemistry.,,

Finally, Katz's value-expressive function acknowledges the importance of self-expression and self-actualization.

Attitudes are a means for expressing personal values and other aspects of self-concept. A person who draws self-esteem from being a liberal and an environmentalist is motivated to hold attitudes that reflect these ideologies (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).

The central theme of functional theories is that changing an attitude requires understanding its motivational basis, or its function for the individual. Knowing what function an attitude performs for a person helps guide the designer of the persuasive message who wants to change the attitude. Whatever function attitudes perform they provide a frame of reference for comprehending and categorizing objects, persons, and events, and only by understanding an attitude's function can attitude change efforts be successful.

An alternative and related theory looks at social relationships that occur in social influence situations (see 6.2). Kelman (1958) looked at three processes of opinion change: (a) compliance, (b) identification, and (c) internalization. Compliance results in only a surface level change. Attitudes are changed only to receive a favorable reaction from another person or group. This attitude is only expressed when the other person is present.

The attitude change resulting from identification occurs both publicly and privately but does not become part of the person's value system. The change is dependent on the relationship with the source but not with the source's presence. Attitudes that are internalized become part of an individual's value system.

McGuire's (1964) inoculation theory is concerned with resistance to change (see 37.4). Research in this area investigates the treatments individuals could receive which would allow them to resist successfully attacks on their belief systems. An analogy is drawn from the biological process of inoculation. Once people are inoculated, they are immune when exposed to the disease. Attitudes are often established in a relatively "germ-free" environment, free from attack. Thus, the individual has little chance to develop resistance to future attacks. McGuire's research strategy was to expose the individual to mild attacks in a control setting in order to motivate the individual to defend his or her beliefs (Himmelfarb & Eagly, 1974; Kiesler et al., 1969; Insko, 1967).

Functional theories are in the mainstream of attitude research. Their theoretical approaches remain conceptually intriguing to investigators because of their breadth and unique focus on the functional bases for attitudes. Functional theories provide a link between the behavioral theories proposed during the 1950s (consistency theories, early-learning theories, social judgment theories) and the processing and cognitive themes of more recent theorizing.

Attitude and persuasion research is a major area of interest to those in social psychology. Theory building has been characteristic of this research. Only a fraction of this literature has been reviewed in this section of this chapter; however, the information presented provides a basis for information presented later. These theories, especially the functional theories discussed last, provide guidance to the development of recommendations for the design of persuasive messages delivered by media.

Updated August 3, 2001
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