Beliefs and Attitudes

You tend to make assumptions about a person's attitudes and beliefs based on a known belief. For example, if you know your coworker is against abortion, you might conclude that she believes in gun control, is against capital punishment, and believes marijuana use should be severely penalized. This way of thinking is based on cognitive consistency — the theory that all people try to be consistent in their beliefs and attitudes as reflected by the consistency of their behavior.

Consistency Between Beliefs and Attitudes

One way to look at the consistency between beliefs and attitudes is to examine how people rationalize things. If you believe that a particular television produces the best picture, color, and sound, you start to persuade yourself that they are the most desirable qualities. On the opposite scale, wishful thinking is when you believe that the television is acceptable; therefore, you persuade yourself that it has the qualities you're looking for and is indeed acceptable. Both rationalization and wishful thinking show how one can affect the other, and in turn, account for how you perceive things on a somewhat unrealistic basis.

Consistency Between Attitudes and Behavior

Attitudes are a combination of beliefs and feelings and can be affected when confronted with social pressures. An example of inconsistency between attitudes and behavior can be seen in a study conducted by R. LaPiere during the 1930s and published in the journal Social Forces. A white professor traveled the United States with a young Chinese couple. At the time, prejudice against Asians was strong and there was no law against denying guests accommodations based on race. The three commuters stopped at over 200 hotels, motels, and restaurants and were served at all the restaurants and all but one hotel without any hassles. Later, a letter was sent to all the businesses that they visited asking them if they would be willing to provide services to a Chinese couple. Of the 128 replies received, 92 percent said they wouldn't. In conclusion, the business owners displayed behavior that was far different from their actual beliefs.

When confronted with a situation, people often do things they don't like. Their behavior is affected then, not only by our beliefs and attitudes, but by social pressures as well.

Similarly, peer pressure can induce actions that aren't consistent with what you believe, but are consistent with your attitudes toward social situations and what others think of you. Teenagers often drink alcohol to “fit in” and may put their beliefs aside in order to conform to the social pressure. Although attitudes don't always predict your behavior, attitudes based on direct experience can influence it. For instance, a person whose mother died in a drunk-driving accident may advocate harsher penalties for drunk drivers and take part in the annual drunk-driving awareness campaign.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

As attitudes can affect behavior, behavior can affect attitudes. Leon Festinger's (1919–1989) theory of cognitive dissonance holds that when your beliefs and attitudes oppose each other or your behavior, you are motivated to reduce the dissonance through changes in behavior or cognition. The theory itself has been influential in predicting behavior that reflects an inconsistency in attitudes. Behaving in ways that conflict with one's attitudes causes pressure to change the attitudes in order to be consistent with the behavior.

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