Social psychologists study the thoughts, feelings, and actions of people in social situations or, conversely, the influence of others on those thoughts, feelings, and actions. Social psychology deals with group behavior as well as the behavior of individuals within groups.

Attitudes are lasting patterns of beliefs and opinions which predispose reactions to objects, events, and people. Attitudes may also serve as brief composites of one's beliefs. (For example, through generalization, those who fear their father may initially experience fear upon meeting any older man.) Attitudes may be quantified by using self‐report measures or attitude scales such as the popular Likert scale (named after Robert Likert) in which subjects are asked how strongly they agree or disagree on each topic. A total attitude score is derived by summing the measures. Another measurement approach employs covert measures, observations of behaviors such as facial expressions, voice tone, and body language. (The latter measures may lack validity, as people monitor such covert behaviors in some situations.) Assessment strategies also include measures of physiological arousal, for example, by means of a facial electromyograph (EMG) (to record facial muscle activity) or an electroencephalograph (EEG) (to measure brain activity). Such measures, which can detect responses a person may be trying to conceal, are obtained as a subject hears verbal material designed to produce arousal and with which they might agree or disagree.

Attitude components. Attitudes consist of cognitive, behavioral, and affective components.

  • The cognitive component is made up of the beliefs of an individual about the object of an attitude, for example, the belief that all old people are senile.

  • The behavioral component consists of a predisposition to respond in a certain way to the object of the attitude, for example, talking to an old person as if talking to a child.

  • The affective component refers to emotions aroused by the object of the attitude, for example, always feeling sorry for an older person.

Attitude formation. Attitude formation occurs through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and modeling (observational learning). Advertising relies to a great extent upon modeling when it shows a famous person using and liking a product. Some theories describing the formation of attitudes follow.

  • Balance theory, proposed by Fritz Heider, is based on the premise that people try to maintain consistency in their attitudes. If an attitude inconsistency occurs, such as believing all old people to be senile but meeting an older person who is intelligent and mentally active, the person who holds the attitude tries to reestablish consistency either by changing the attitude or changing the perception of the older person as intelligent.

  • Proponents of reactance theory contend that attitudes are influenced by restrictions on behavior, to which people react. The extent of reaction is related to a person's perception of the relative importance of the behavior. If a behavior, although restricted, is not considered important, there is little reaction. If, however, the activity is considered important and the restriction unjust, then the restriction itself makes the activity even more attractive. For example, if a teenager wants to date a person her parents disapprove of and forbid her to see, she might find that person even more desirable as a result and date on the sly.

  • Cognitive dissonance theory (developed by Leon Festinger) states that an unpleasant physiological state often exists when two cognitions are incompatible with one another. The incompatibility creates tensions, which a person tries to relieve. For example, a student who advocates honesty but who does cheat on an examination must either alter her or his self‐concept or rationalize the cheating behavior to reduce tension.

  • Self‐perception theory (introduced by Daryl Bem) proposes that people infer their attitudes on the basis of observing their own behavior(s). A usually honest student who does cheat on an exam may infer the attitude from the behavior by thinking, “Being first is more important than honesty to me” or “I believe that the end justifies the means.”

Attitude change. Attitude change may occur through the use of persuasion, the process of intentionally attempting to alter an attitude. Persuasion includes variations in the source (origin of the message), the message (information transmitted), and the receiver of the message. Persuasion is likely to be more effective if an individual likes rather than dislikes the source and if the source is viewed as trustworthy and credible. The manner in which the message is presented (for example, in every‐day language rather than technical terminology) as well as the characteristics of the receiver (for example, being a teenager rather than middle‐aged) affect the ease of attitude change.