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The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion

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Social Judgment/
Involvement
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Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
The Nature of Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
Research on Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Judgment/involvement Theory
Glossary
Further Readings
Self-Test
Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
This theory of attitude change, developed by
Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland (and later by Carolyn Sherif), is different from other consistency theories for two reasons. As its name suggests, it is a model of judgment, which means that it declares that the audience interprets (judges) a message. Specifically, a listener judges how much the message agrees or disagrees with his or her own attitude. Second, Social Judgment/Involvement theory holds that a listener’s involvement in the topic of the persuasive message -- that is, how important a topic is to a listener -- is an important factor in attitude change.

In the fifth century B.C.E., Protagoras was a Greek sophist, or traveling teacher. He rebelled against the idea that there were absolute truths. Instead, he declared (in the gender-biased language of the time) “Man is the measure of all things” (see the discussion by
Schiappa, 1991). Without going into the philosophic details of his statement, we can observe that one person can think a summer day is hot while another believes it is only pleasantly warm. Two friends can see the same movie and one will like it and the other will hate it. And two people can hear the same persuasive message but have quite different reactions to it. Social Judgment/Involvement theory explains how two people can react so differently to the very same message.

When I teach this theory in my class, I bring in three buckets of water: hot, cold, and room temperature (tepid). I ask two students to volunteer to participate in a “science experiment.”  One puts his or her hand into the hot water and one places his or her hand into the cold water -- but they aren’t told anything about the temperature of the water in any of the three buckets. Then I ask them to put both of their hands into the third bucket of tepid water at the same time. I ask them to describe the temperature of the water in the third bucket. What do you think happens?

The student whose hand was in the hot water says, “cool” while the student whose hand was in the cold water says, “warm.”  These students both put their hands into the same bucket of water, yet they described it differently. The reason they gave different answers is that they had different comparison points or anchors. The water felt warm to the student whose hand had just been in the cold water (his or her anchor point), and that water felt cool to the student whose hand had just been in the hot water (one anchor point). Protagoras would have been happy to see his point demonstrated this way. This process is just what Social Judgment/Involvement theory says happens when people hear or read a persuasive message. Each listener or reader judges the main idea of the message, how much it agrees or disagrees with him or her, by comparing the message with his or her anchor point, which in Social Judgment/Involvement theory is his or her existing attitude on the message topic.

Of course, if I really wanted to know the temperature of the water in three buckets I would just use a thermometer. We have simple devices that accurately and objectively measure temperature. We could easily find out that the water in one bucket was 50 degrees, one was 70 degrees, and one was 90 degrees. However, we do not have any such thing as a “message thermometer.”  We have to make judgments about how much a message agrees or disagrees with us because there is not accurate or objective way to measure message position. Social Judgment/Involvement theory holds that the process of judging or perceiving the position of a message is important to understanding how persuasion works.

I will first describe the nature of Social Judgment/Involvement Theory. Then I will discuss experimental research on it. Next I will assess its strengths and weaknesses. A glossary of key terms appears at the end.


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