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The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion

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The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion

What is Persuasion
Why Study Persuasion?
Persuasion is an Alternative to Apathy or Coercion
The Nature of Attitudes
The Process of Persuasion
Glossary
Additional Readings
Self-Test


The Nature of Attitudes
An attitude is a cognition (form of thought) that is formed through experience and influences our behavior. Both parts of this definition are important for our purposes. The fact that attitudes are formed through experience means that we can, potentially, change them. When a persuader gives a message to an auditor (an audience member), that message becomes part of the listenerís experience, and it can affect his or her attitudes. The fact that attitudes influence our behavior means that we can use persuasion as a means to achieve our goals -- when the behavior, or actions, or others can help attain those goals.

Attitudes have two basic components: beliefs and values. Beliefs are, roughly, statements of facts. Beliefs are potentially verifiable. We say a belief is true or correct when it seems to reflect the world and false or incorrect when it seems contradicted by the world. Values are judgments of worth, like good or bad, useful or useless, expensive or cheap, efficient or inefficient. Together, these cognitions (thoughts), beliefs and values, form attitudes.

For example, I may believe that Al Gore has executive branch experience, because he has served as the Vice President. I may value executive branch experience, thinking that, in general, presidents are likely to do a more effective job as president if they have executive branch experience. Together, this belief/value pair creates a positive attitude toward Al Gore as a presidential candidate.

Belief 1: Al Gore has executive branch experience.
Value 1: Executive branch experience is desirable for a president.
Attitude: I have a favorable attitude toward Al Gore as a potential president.

Many attitudes are made up of several belief/value pairs. I may also hold these belief value pairs:

Belief 2: Al Gore is a Democrat.
Value 2: I think on many issues Democrats are better than Republicans.
Belief 3: Al Gore is rather stiff and passionless.
Value 3: It is important for presidents to have and reveal emotions.

Notice that B1/V1 and B2/V2 incline me toward Gore as a president, while B3/V3 inclines me away from him. Often, what we know and believe about a given attitude object, like Al Gore, is mixed rather than uniformly positive or negative. A personís attitude is a conglomeration of all the relevant belief/value pairs that are salient (not forgotten). However, some belief/value pairs are more important than others, and the important ones contribute more to the attitude than the trivial ones.

Notice that these beliefs and values come in related pairs. This is very important: Beliefs and values both contribute to attitudes, and they do so in relevant pairs. For instance, this pair would not influence a personís attitude because they are irrelevant:

Belief 4: Al Gore may have solicited campaign contributions from China in 1996.
Value 5: For me, a president should understand the South.

For Belief 4 to influence oneís attitude, it must be connected with a value like this: Foreign countries should not contribute to presidential campaigns. If one doesnít think soliciting campaign contributions from China is bad, Belief 4 cannot influence oneís attitude (of course, some people might think China should give money to presidential candidates; for those people, Belief 4 inclines them toward a positive attitude toward Gore). Similarly, Value 5 cannot influence a personís attitude unless it is combined with a belief, that Gore does (or does not) understand the South. A belief without a relevant value cannot influence oneís attitude, and a value without a relevant belief cannot affect a personís attitude.

Understanding the nature of attitudes can be helpful in understanding how to persuade someone. For example, suppose one of your friends likes (has a favorable attitude toward) Gore and you want to change that attitude. Knowing your friendís beliefs and attitudes can help change his or her attitude. For example, they might hold this belief/value pair.

Belief 1: Al Gore has executive branch experience.
Value 1: Executive branch experience is desirable for a president.

If so, you could try to change Belief 1, arguing that Vice Presidents, like Gore, donít have very meaningful jobs, and thus, he does not really have executive branch experience. If you change this belief, you can make the attitude toward
Gore less positive:

Belief 1a: Al Gore, as Vice President, does not really have executive branch experience.
Value 1: Executive branch experience is desirable for a president.

Or you could try to change your friendís value, pointing out that some presidents (Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George Bush) who had experience in the White House were poor presidents. This revised value means that your friendís attitude toward Gore should be less favorable:

Belief 1: Al Gore has executive branch experience.
Value 1a: Executive branch experience can hurt a president.

However, you must be careful not to change both parts of a belief/value pair:

Belief 1a: Al Gore, as Vice President, does not really have executive branch experience.
Value 1a: Executive branch experience can hurt a president.

When both elements of the pair are changed, the attitude remains the same (although it is now held for different reasons).

Notice also that knowing an auditorís belief/value pairs can prevent wasted messages. For example, assume again that your friend has a favorable attitude toward Gore for these reasons:

Belief 1: Al Gore has executive branch experience.
Value 1: Executive branch experience is desirable for a president.

Telling your friend that campaign contributions from other countries are wrong, a value, probably wonít change his or her attitude unless he or she already knows (has the belief) that Gore tried to obtain contributions from foreign countries in 1996. Of course, you can give your friend a new, complete, belief/value pair, telling him or her that campaign contributions from other countries are wrong and telling your friend that Gore solicited contributions from
China in 1996.

Thus, attitudes are learned from experience and influence our behavior. They are made up of pairs of (relevant) beliefs and values. A personís attitude is a composite of all the relevant belief/value pairs, with the more important ones influencing the attitude more. You can change a personís attitude by changing either the belief or the value (but not both), or by creating new belief/value pairs (or by changing the relative importance of belief/value pairs).


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