Behavior and Attitudes

Behavior and Attitudes

What is the relationship between what we are (on the inside) and what we do (on the outside)? Philosophers, theologians, and educators have long speculated about the connections between attitude and action, character and conduct, private word and public deed. Underlying most teaching, counseling, and child rearing is an assumption: Our private beliefs and feelings determine our public behavior, so if we wish to change behavior we must first change hearts and minds.

When social psychologists talk about someone’s attitude, they refer to beliefs and feelings related to a person or an event and the resulting behavior tendency. Taken together, favorable or unfavorable evaluative reactions toward something—often rooted in beliefs and exhibited in feelings and inclinations to act—define a person’s attitude. Thus, a person may have a negative attitude toward coffee, a neutral attitude toward the French, and a positive attitude toward the next-door neighbor. Attitudes provide an efficient way to size up the world. When we have to respond quickly to something, the way we feel about it can guide how we react. For example, a person who believes a particular ethnic group is lazy and aggressive may feel dislike for such people and therefore intend to act in a discriminatory manner.

The study of attitudes is close to the heart of social psychology and was one of its first concerns. For much of the last century, researchers wondered how much our attitudes affect our actions.

You can remember these three dimensions as the ABCs of attitudes: affect (feelings), behavior tendency, and cognition (thoughts) (Figure 4.1).

How Well Do Our Attitudes Predict Our Behavior?

To what extent, and under what conditions, do the attitudes of the heart drive our outward actions? Why were social psychologists at first surprised by a seemingly small connection between attitudes and actions?

When Attitudes Predict Behavior

The reason—now obvious—why our behavior and our expressed attitudes differ is that both are subject to other influences. Many other influences. One social psychol- ogist counted 40 factors that complicate their relationship (Triandis, 1982; see also Kraus, 1995). Our attitudes do predict our behavior when these other influences on what we say and do are minimal, when the attitude is specific to the behavior, and when the attitude is potent.


Unlike a physician measuring heart rate, social psychologists never get a direct reading on attitudes. Rather, we measure expressed attitudes. Like other behaviors, expressions are subject to outside influences. Sometimes, for example, we say what we think others want to hear.

Today’s social psychologists have some clever means at their disposal for mini- mizing social influences on people’s attitude reports. Some of these complement traditional self-report measures of explicit (conscious) attitudes with measures of implicit (unconscious) attitudes. One such test measures facial muscle responses to various statements (Cacioppo & Petty, 1981). Those measurements, the researchers hope, can reveal enough of a microsmile or a microfrown to indicate the partici- pant’s attitude about a given statement.

A newer and widely used attitude measure, the implicit association test (IAT), uses reaction times to measure how quickly people associate concepts (Greenwald & others, 2002, 2003). One can, for example, measure implicit racial attitudes by assessing whether White people take longer to associate positive words with Black than with White faces.

A review of more than 100 studies and of more than 2.5 million IATs completed online reveals that explicit (self-report) and implicit attitudes both help predict peo- ple’s behaviors and judgments (Greenwald & others, 2008; Nosek & others, 2007). Thus, explicit and implicit attitudes may together predict behavior better than either alone (Spence & Townsend, 2007).

A word of caution: Despite much excitement over these recent studies of implicit attitudes hiding in the mind’s basement, the implicit associations test has detractors (Arkes & Tetlock, 2004; Blanton & others, 2006, 2007). They note that, unlike an aptitude test, the IAT is not reliable enough for use in assessing and comparing individuals. Moreover, a score that suggests some relative bias doesn’t distinguish a positive bias for one group (or greater familiarity with one group) from a negative bias against another. The critics also wonder whether compassion and guilt rather than latent hostility might slow one’s speed in associating Blacks with positive words. Regardless, the existence of distinct explicit and implicit attitudes confirms one of twenty-first-century psychology’s biggest lessons: our “dual processing” capacity for both controlled (deliberate, conscious, explicit) and automatic (effortless, habitual, implicit) thinking.


On any occasion, it’s not only our inner attitudes that guide us but also the situ- ation we face. As Chapters 5 to 8 will illustrate again and again, social influences can be enormous—enormous enough to induce people to violate their deepest convictions. So, would averaging many occasions enable us to detect more clearly the impact of our attitudes? Predicting people’s behavior is like predicting a baseball or cricket player’s hitting. The outcome of any particular turn at bat is nearly impos- sible to predict, because it is affected not only by the batter but also by what the pitcher throws and by a host of chance factors. When we aggregate many times at bat, we neutralize those complicating factors. Knowing the players, we can predict their approximate batting averages.

To use a research example, people’s general attitude toward religion poorly pre- dicts whether they will go to worship services during the coming week (because attendance is also influenced by the weather, the worship leader, how one is feel- ing, and so forth). But religious attitudes predict quite well the total quantity of religious behaviors over time (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1974; Kahle & Berman, 1979). The findings define a principle of aggregation: The effects of an attitude become more apparent when we look at a person’s aggregate or average behavior than when we consider isolated acts.


Other conditions further improve the predictive accuracy of attitudes. As Icek Ajzen and Martin Fishbein (1977, 2005) point out, when the measured attitude is a general one—say, an attitude toward Asians—and the behavior is very specific— say, a decision whether to help a particular Asian in a particular situation—we should not expect a close correspondence between words and actions. Indeed, report Fishbein and Ajzen, in 26 out of 27 such research studies, attitudes did not predict behavior. But attitudes did predict behavior in all 26 studies they could find in which the measured attitude was directly pertinent to the situation. Thus, attitudes toward the general concept of “health fitness” poorly predict spe- cific exercise and dietary practices, but an individual’s attitudes about the costs and benefits of jogging are a fairly strong predictor of whether he or she jogs regularly.

Better yet for predicting behavior, says Ajzen in his and Fishbein’s “theory of planned behavior,” is knowing people’s intended behaviors, and their perceived

The Theory of Planned Behavior

Icek Ajzen, working with Martin Fishbein, has shown that one’s (a) attitudes, (b) perceived social norms, and (c) feelings of control together determine one’s intentions, which guide behavior.
Compared with their general attitudes toward a healthy lifestyle, people’s specific attitudes regarding jogging predict their jogging behavior much better.

self-efficacy and control (Figure 4.2). Moreover, four dozen experimental tests con- firm that inducing new intentions induces new behavior (Webb & Sheeran, 2006). Even simply asking people about their intentions to engage in a behavior increases its likelihood (Levav & Fitzsimons, 2006). Ask people if they intend to floss their teeth in the next two weeks or to vote in an upcoming election, they will become more likely to do so.

Further studies—more than 700 studies with 276,000 participants—confirmed that specific, relevant attitudes do predict intended and actual behavior (Armit- age & Conner, 2001; Six & Eckes, 1996; Wallace & others, 2005). For example, attitudes toward condoms strongly predict condom use (Albarracin & others, 2001). And attitudes toward recycling (but not general attitudes toward envi- ronmental issues) predict participation in recycling (Oskamp, 1991). To change habits through persuasion, we had best alter people’s attitudes toward specific practices.

So far we have seen two conditions under which attitudes will predict behavior: (1) when we minimize other influences upon our attitude statements and on our behavior, and (2) when the attitude is specifically relevant to the observed behav- ior. There is a third condition: An attitude predicts behavior better when the atti- tude is potent.


Much of our behavior is automatic. We act out familiar scripts without reflecting on what we’re doing. We respond to people we meet in the hall with an automatic “Hi.” We answer the restaurant cashier’s question “How was your meal?” by say- ing, “Fine,” even if we found it tasteless.

Such mindlessness is adaptive. It frees our minds to work on other things. For habitual behaviors—seat belt use, coffee consumption, class attendance—conscious intentions hardly are activated (Ouellette & Wood, 1998). As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead argued, “Civilization advances by extending the number of oper- ations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

BRINGING ATTITUDES TO MIND. If we were prompted to think about our attitudes before acting, would we be truer to ourselves? Mark Snyder and William Swann (1976) wanted to find out. Two weeks after 120 of their Univer- sity of Minnesota students indicated their attitudes toward affirmative-action employment policies, Snyder and Swann invited them to act as jurors in a sex- discrimination court case. The participants’ attitudes predicted verdicts only for those who were first induced to remember their attitudes—by giving them “a few minutes to organize your thoughts and views on the affirmative-action issue.” Our attitudes become potent if we think about them.

Self-conscious people usually are in touch with their attitudes (Miller & Grush, 1986). That suggests another way to induce people to focus on their inner convic- tions: Make them self-aware, perhaps by having them act in front of a mirror (Carver & Scheier, 1981). Maybe you, too, can recall suddenly being acutely aware of your- self upon entering a room with a large mirror. Making people self-aware in this way promotes consistency between words and deeds (Froming & others, 1982; Gibbons, 1978).

Edward Diener and Mark Wallbom (1976) noted that nearly all college students say that cheating is morally wrong. But will they follow the advice of Shakespeare’s Polonius, “To thine own self be true”? Diener and Wallbom set University of Wash- ington students to work on an anagram-solving task (which, they were told, was to predict IQ) and told them to stop when a bell in the room sounded. Left alone, 71 percent cheated by working past the bell. Among students made self-aware—by working in front of a mirror while hearing their own tape-recorded voices—only 7 percent cheated. It makes one wonder: Would eye-level mirrors in stores make people more self-conscious of their attitudes about stealing?

Remember Batson’s studies of moral hypocrisy described on page 124? In a later experiment, Batson and his colleagues (1999) found that mirrors did bring behavior into line with espoused moral attitudes. When people flipped a coin while facing a mirror, the coin flip became scrupulously fair. Exactly half of the self-conscious participants assigned the other person to the positive task.

FORGING STRONG ATTITUDES THROUGH EXPERIENCE. The attitudes that best predict behavior are accessible (easily brought to mind) as well as stable (Glasman & Albarracin, 2006). And when attitudes are forged by experi- ence, not just by hearsay, they are more accessible, more enduring, and more likely to guide actions. In one study, university students all expressed negative attitudes about their school’s response to a housing shortage. But given oppor- tunities to act—to sign a petition, solicit signatures, join a committee, or write a letter—only those whose attitudes grew from direct experience acted (Regan & Fazio, 1977).

Summing Up: How Well Do Our Attitudes Predict Our Behavior?

  • How do our inner attitudes (evaluative reactions toward some object or person, often rooted in beliefs) relate to our external behavior? Although popular wisdom stresses the impact of attitudes on behavior, in fact, attitudes are often poor pre- dictors of behaviors. Moreover, changing people’s attitudes typically fails to produce much change in their behavior. These findings sent social psycholo- gists scurrying to find out why we so often fail to play the game we talk.
  • The answer: Our expressions of attitudes and our behaviors are each subject to many influences. Our attitudes will predict our behavior (1) if these “other influences” are minimized, (2) if the attitude corresponds very closely to the predicted behav- ior (as in voting studies), and (3) if the attitude is potent (because something reminds us of it, or because we acquired it by direct experience). Under these conditions what we think and feel predicts what we do.

When Does Our Behavior Affect Our Attitudes?

If social psychology has taught us anything during the last 25 years, it is that we are likely not only to think ourselves into a way of acting but also to act ourselves into a way of thinking. What evidence supports that assertion?

Now we turn to the more startling idea that behavior determines attitudes. It’s true that we sometimes stand up for what we believe. But it’s also true that we come to believe in what we stand up for. Social-psychological theories inspired much of the research that underlies that conclusion. Instead of beginning with these theo- ries, however, let’s first see what there is to explain. As we engage the evidence that behavior affects attitudes, speculate why actions affect attitudes and then compare your ideas with social psychologists’ explanations.

Consider the following incidents:

  • Sarah is hypnotized and told to take off her shoes when a book drops on the floor. Fifteen minutes later a book drops, and Sarah quietly slips out of her loafers. “Sarah,” asks the hypnotist, “why did you take off your shoes?” “Well . . . my feet are hot and tired,” Sarah replies. “It has been a long day.” The act produces the idea.
  • George has electrodes temporarily implanted in the brain region that controls his head movements. When neurosurgeon José Delgado (1973) stimulates the elec- trodes by remote control, George always turns his head. Unaware of the remote stimulation, he offers a reasonable explanation for his head turning: “I’m looking for my slipper.” “I heard a noise.” “I’m restless.” “I was looking under the bed.”

The mental aftereffects of our behavior also appear in many social psychological phenomena. The following examples illustrate such self-persuasion. As we will see over and over, attitudes follow behavior.

Role Playing

The word role is borrowed from the theater and, as in the theater, refers to actions expected of those who occupy a particular social position. When enacting new social roles, we may at first feel phony. But our unease seldom lasts.

Think of a time when you stepped into some new role—perhaps your first days on a job or at college. That first week on campus, for example, you may have been supersensitive to your new social situation and tried valiantly to act mature and to suppress your high school behavior. At such times you may have felt self-conscious. You observed your new speech and actions because they weren’t natural to you. Then one day something amazing happened: Your pseudo-intellectual talk no lon- ger felt forced. The role began to fit as comfortably as your old jeans and T-shirt.

Behavior is a product of both the individual per- son and the situation,

The deeper lesson of the role-playing studies is not that we are powerless machines. Rather, it concerns how what is unreal (an artificial role) can subtly evolve into what is real. In a new career, as teacher, soldier, or businessperson, we enact a role that shapes our attitudes.

Saying Becomes Believing

People often adapt what they say to please their listeners. They are quicker to tell people good news than bad, and they adjust their message toward their listener’s position (Manis & others, 1974; Tesser & others, 1972; Tetlock, 1983). When induced to give spoken or written support to something they doubt, people will often feel bad about their deceit. Nevertheless, they begin to believe what they are saying—- provided they weren’t bribed or coerced into doing so. When there is no compelling external explanation for one’s words, saying becomes believing (Klaas, 1978).

Tory Higgins and his colleagues (Higgins & McCann, 1984; Higgins & Rholes, 1978) illustrated how saying becomes believing. They had university students read a personality description of someone and then summarize it for someone else, who was believed either to like or to dislike that person. The students wrote a more posi- tive description when the recipient liked the person. Having said positive things,

The Foot-in-the-Door Phenomenon

Most of us can recall times when, after agreeing to help out with a project or an organization, we ended up more involved than we ever intended, vowing that in the future we would say no to such requests. How does this happen? In keeping with the “attitude follows behavior” principle, experiments suggest that if you want people to do a big favor for you, an effective strategy is to get them to do a small favor first. In the best-known demon- stration of this foot-in-the-door phenomenon, research- ers posing as drive-safely volunteers asked Californians to permit the installation of huge, poorly lettered “Drive Carefully” signs in their front yards. Only 17 percent consented. Others were first approached with a small

request: Would they display three-inch “Be a safe driver” window signs? Nearly all readily agreed. When approached two weeks later to allow the large, ugly signs in their front yards, 76 percent consented (Freedman & Fraser, 1966). One project helper who went from house to house later recalled that, not know- ing who had been previously visited, “I was simply stunned at how easy it was to convince some people and how impossible to convince others” (Ornstein, 1991).

The foot-in-the-door phenomenon.

We will see again and again that when people commit themselves to public behaviors and perceive those acts to be their own doing, they come to believe more strongly in what they have done.

Cruel acts, such as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, tend to breed even crueler and more hate-filled attitudes.

The low-ball technique.

The foot-in-the-door phenomenon is a lesson worth remembering. Someone try- ing to seduce us—financially, politically, or sexually—will often use this technique to create a momentum of compliance. The practical lesson: Before agreeing to a small request, think about what may follow.

Evil and Moral Acts

The attitudes-follow-behavior principle works with immoral acts as well. Evil sometimes results from gradually escalating commitments. A trifling evil act can whittle down one’s moral sensitivity, making it easier to perform a worse act. To paraphrase La Rochefoucauld’s Max- ims (1665), it is not as difficult to find a person who has never succumbed to a given temptation as to find a person who has succumbed only once. After telling a “white lie” and thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” the person may go on to tell a bigger lie.
Another way in which evil acts influence attitudes is the paradoxical fact that we tend not only to hurt those we dislike but also to dislike those we hurt. Several studies (Berscheid & others, 1968; Davis & Jones, 1960; Glass, 1964) found that harming an innocent victim—by uttering hurtful comments or delivering electric  shocks—typically leads aggressors to disparage their victims, thus helping them justify their cruel behavior. This is especially so when we are coaxed into it, not coerced. When we agree to a deed voluntarily, we take more responsibility for it.

The phenomenon appears in wartime. Prisoner-of-war camp guards would sometimes display good manners to captives in their first days on the job, but not for long. Soldiers ordered to kill may initially react with revulsion to the point of sickness over their act. But not for long (Waller, 2002). Often they will denigrate their enemies with dehumanizing nicknames.

Attitudes also follow behavior in peacetime. A group that holds another in slavery will likely come to perceive the slaves as having traits that justify their oppression. Prison staff who participate in executions experience “moral disengagement” by coming to believe (more strongly than do other prison staff) that their victims deserve their fate (Osofsky & others, 2005). Actions and attitudes feed each other, sometimes to the point of moral numbness. The more one harms another and adjusts one’s attitudes, the easier harm-doing becomes. Conscience is corroded.

Moreover, positive behavior fosters liking for the person. Doing a favor for an experimenter or another participant, or tutoring a student, usually increases liking of the person helped (Blanchard & Cook, 1976). It is a lesson worth remembering: If you wish to love someone more, act as if you do.

Interracial Behavior and Racial Attitudes

If moral action feeds moral attitudes, will positive interracial behavior reduce racial prejudice—much as mandatory seat belt use has produced more favorable seat belt attitudes? That was part of social scientists’ testimony before the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision to desegregate schools. Their argument ran like this: If we wait for the heart to change—through preaching and teaching—we will wait a long time for racial justice. But if we legislate moral action, we can, under the right con- ditions, indirectly affect heartfelt attitudes.

That idea runs counter to the presumption that “you can’t legislate morality.” Yet attitude change has, as some social psychologists predicted, followed desegre gation. Consider:

  • Following the Supreme Court decision, the percentage of White Americans favoring integrated schools jumped and now includes nearly everyone. (For other examples of old and current racial attitudes, see Chapter 9.)
  • In the 10 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the percentage of White Americans who described their neighborhoods, friends, co-workers, or other students as all-White declined by about 20 percent for each of those mea- sures. Interracial behavior was increasing. During the same period, the per- centage of White Americans who said that Blacks should be allowed to live in any neighborhood increased from 65 percent to 87 percent (ISR Newsletter, 1975). Attitudes were changing, too.
  • More uniform national standards against discrimination were followed by decreasing differences in racial attitudes among people of differing religions, classes, and geographic regions. As Americans came to act more alike, they came to think more alike (Greeley & Sheatsley, 1971; Taylor & others, 1978).

Social Movements We have now seen that a society’s laws and, therefore, its behavior can have a strong influence on its racial attitudes. A danger lies in the possibility of employing the same idea for political socialization on a mass scale.

For many Germans during the 1930s, participation in Nazi rallies, displaying the Nazi flag, and especially the public greeting “Heil Hitler” established a profound incon- sistency between behavior and belief. Historian Richard Grunberger (1971) reports that for those who had their doubts about Hitler, “the ‘German greeting’ was a powerful conditioning device. Having once decided to intone it as an outward token of conformity, many experienced . . . discomfort at the contradiction between their words and their feelings. Prevented from say- ing what they believed, they tried to establish their psychic equilibrium by consciously making themselves believe what they said” (p. 27).

The practice is not limited to totalitar- ian regimes. Political rituals—the daily flag salute by schoolchildren, singing the national anthem—use public con- formity to build a private belief in patri- otism. I recall participating in air-raid drills in my elementary school not far from the Boeing Company in Seattle. After we acted repeatedly as if we were the targets of Russian attack, many of us came to fear the Russians.

Many people assume that the most
potent social indoctrination comes
through brainwashing, a term coined to describe what happened to American prisoners of war (POWs) during the 1950s Korean War. Although the “thought-control” program was not as irresistible as this term suggests, the results still were discon- certing. Hundreds of prisoners cooperated with their captors. Twenty-one chose to remain after being granted permission to return to America. And many of those who did return came home believing “although communism won’t work in America, I think it’s a good thing for Asia” (Segal, 1954).

Edgar Schein (1956) interviewed many of the POWs during their journey home and reported that the captors’ methods included a gradual escalation of demands. The captors always started with trivial requests and gradually worked up to more significant ones. “Thus after a prisoner had once been ‘trained’ to speak or write out trivia, statements on more important issues were demanded.” Moreover, they always expected active participation, be it just copying some- thing or participating in group discussions, writing self-criticism, or uttering public confessions. Once a prisoner had spoken or written a statement, he felt an inner need to make his beliefs consistent with his acts. That often drove pris- oners to persuade themselves of what they had done wrong. The “start-small- and-build” tactic was an effective application of the foot-in-the-door technique, and it continues to be so today in the socialization of terrorists and torturers (Chapter 6).

Now let me ask you, before reading further, to play theorist. Ask yourself: Why in these studies and real-life examples did attitudes follow behavior? Why might playing a role or making a speech influence your attitude?

Our political rituals—the daily flag salute by schoolchildren, singing the national anthem—use public conformity to build private allegiance.

Summing Up: When Does Our Behavior Affect Our Attitudes?

  • The attitude-action relation also works in the reverse direction: We are likely not only to think ourselves into action but also to act ourselves into a way of thinking. When we act, we amplify the idea underlying what we have done, especially when we feel responsible for it. Many streams of evidence converge on this principle. The actions prescribed by social roles mold the attitudes of the role players. 

  • Similarly, what we say or write can strongly influence attitudes that we subsequently hold. 

  • Research on the foot-in-the-door phenomenon reveals that committing a small act makes people more willing to do a larger one later. 

  • Actions also affect our moral attitudes: That which we have done, even if it is evil, we tend to justify as right.
  • Similarly, our racial and political behaviors help shape our social consciousness: We not only stand up for what we believe, we also believe in what we have stood up for.
  • Political and social movements may legislate behavior designed to lead to attitude change on a mass scale.

Why Does Our Behavior Affect Our Attitudes?

What theories help explain the attitudes-follow-behavior phenomenon? How does the contest between these competing theories illustrate the process of scientific explanation?

We have seen that several streams of evidence merge to form a river: the effect of actions on attitudes. Do these observations contain any clues to why action affects attitude? Social psychology’s detectives suspect three possible sources. Self- presentation theory assumes that for strategic reasons we express attitudes that make us appear consistent. Cognitive dissonance theory assumes that to reduce discomfort, we justify our actions to ourselves. Self-perception theory assumes that our actions are self-revealing (when uncertain about our feelings or beliefs, we look to our behavior, much as anyone else would). Let’s examine each explanation.

Self-Presentation: Impression Management

The first explanation for why actions affect attitudes began as a simple idea that you may recall from Chapter 2. Who among us does not care what people think? We spend countless dollars on clothes, diets, cosmetics, and now plastic surgery—all because of our fretting over what others think. We see making a good impression as a way to gain social and material rewards, to feel better about ourselves, even to become more secure in our social identities (Leary, 1994, 2001, 2004b, 2007).

No one wants to look foolishly inconsistent. To avoid seeming so, we express attitudes that match our actions. To appear consistent, we may pretend those attitudes. Even if that means displaying a little insincerity or hypocrisy, it can pay off in managing the impression we are making. Or so self-presentation theory suggests.

Does our feigning consistency explain why expressed attitudes shift toward consistency with behavior? To some extent, yes—people exhibit a much smaller attitude change when a fake lie detector inhibits them from trying to make a good impression (Paulhus, 1982; Tedeschi & others, 1987).

But there is more to attitudes than self-presentation, for people express their changed attitudes even to someone who has no knowledge of their earlier behav- ior. Two other theories explain why people sometimes internalize their self- presentations as genuine attitude changes.

Self-Justification: Cognitive Dissonance

One theory is that our attitudes change because we are motivated to maintain con- sistency among our cognitions. That is the implication of Leon Festinger’s (1957) famous cognitive dissonance theory. The theory is simple, but its range of applica- tion is enormous, making “cognitive dissonance” part of the vocabulary of today’s educated people. It assumes that we feel tension, or a lack of harmony (“disso- nance”), when two simultaneously accessible thoughts or beliefs (“cognitions”) are psychologically inconsistent. Festinger argued that to reduce this unpleasant arousal, we often adjust our thinking. This simple idea, and some surprising pre- dictions derived from it, have spawned more than 2,000 studies (Cooper, 1999).

Dissonance theory pertains mostly to discrepancies between behavior and atti- tudes. We are aware of both. Thus, if we sense some inconsistency, perhaps some hypocrisy, we feel pressure for change. That helps explain why British and U.S. cig- arette smokers have been much less likely than nonsmokers to believe that smoking is dangerous (Eiser & others, 1979; Saad, 2002).

After the 2003 Iraq War, noted the director of the Program of International Pol- icy Attitudes, some Americans struggled to reduce their “experience of cognitive dissonance” (Kull, 2003). The war’s main premise had been that Saddam Hussein, unlike most other brutal dictators whom the world was tolerating, had weapons of mass destruction that threatened U.S. and British security. As the war began, only 38 percent of Americans said the war was justified even if Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (Gallup, 2003). Nearly four in five Americans believed their invading troops would find such, and a similar percentage supported the just- launched war (Duffy, 2003; Newport & others, 2003).

When no such weapons were found, the war-supporting majority experienced dissonance, which was heightened by their awareness of the war’s financial and human costs, by scenes of Iraq in chaos, by surging anti-American attitudes in Europe and in Muslim countries, and by inflamed pro-terrorist attitudes. To reduce their dissonance, noted the Program of International Policy Attitudes, some Ameri- cans revised their memories of their government’s primary rationale for going to war. The reasons now became liberating an oppressed people from tyrannical and genocidal rule, and laying the groundwork for a more peaceful and democratic Middle East. Three months after the war began, the once-minority opinion became, for a time, the majority view: 58 percent of Americans now supported the war even if there were none of the proclaimed weapons of mass destruction (Gallup, 2003). “Whether or not they find weapons of mass destruction doesn’t matter,” sug- gested Republican pollster Frank Luntz (2003), “because the rationale for the war changed.”

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Deci- sions, and Hurtful Acts, social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson (2007, p. 7) illustrate dissonance reduction by leaders of various political parties when faced with clear evidence that a decision they made or a course of action they chose turned out to be wrong, even disastrous. This human phenomenon is nonpartisan,

note Tavris and Aronson: “A president who has justified his actions to himself, believing that he has the truth, becomes impervious to self-correction.” For exam- ple, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s biographer described him as someone who held to his beliefs, even when sinking in the quagmire of Vietnam, regardless “of the facts in the matter.” And Republican president George W. Bush, in the years after launching the Iraq war, said that “knowing what I know today, I’d make the decision again” (2005), that “I’ve never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions” (2006), and that “this war has . . . come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary” (2008).

Cognitive dissonance theory offers an explanation for self-persuasion, and it offers several surprising predictions. See if you can anticipate them.


Imagine you are a participant in a famous experiment staged by the creative Festinger and his student J. Merrill Carlsmith (1959). For an hour, you are required to perform dull tasks, such as turning wooden knobs again and again. After you finish, the experimenter (Carlsmith) explains that the study concerns how expecta- tions affect performance. The next participant, waiting outside, must be led to expect an interesting experiment. The seemingly upset experimenter, whom Festinger had spent hours coaching until he became extremely convincing, explains that the assis- tant who usually creates this expectation couldn’t make this session. Wringing his hands, he pleads, “Could you fill in and do this?”

It’s for science and you are being paid, so you agree to tell the next participant (who is actually the experimenter’s accomplice) what a delightful experience you have just had. “Really?” responds the supposed participant. “A friend of mine was in this experiment a week ago, and she said it was boring.” “Oh, no,” you respond, “it’s really very interesting. You get good exercise while turning some knobs. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.” Finally, someone else who is studying how people react to experiments has you complete a questionnaire that asks how much you actually enjoyed your knob-turning experience.

Now for the prediction: Under which condition are you most likely to believe your little lie and say that the experiment was indeed interesting? When paid $1 for fibbing, as some of the participants were? Or when paid a then-lavish $20, as others were? Contrary to the common notion that big rewards produce big effects, Festinger and Carlsmith made an outrageous prediction: Those paid just $1 (hardly sufficient justification for a lie) would be most likely to adjust their attitudes to their actions. Having insufficient justification for their actions, they would experience more discomfort (dissonance) and thus be more motivated to believe in what they had done. Those paid $20 had sufficient justification for what they had done and hence should have experienced less dissonance. As Figure 4.6 shows, the results fit this intriguing prediction.*

In dozens of later experiments, this attitudes-follow-behavior effect was strongest when people felt some choice and when their actions had foreseeable consequences. One experiment had people read disparaging lawyer jokes into a recorder (for exam- ple, “How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving”). The reading produced more negative attitudes toward lawyers when it was a chosen rather than a coerced activity (Hobden & Olson, 1994). Other experiments have engaged people to write essays for a measly $1.50 or so. When the essay argues something they don’t believe in—say, a tuition increase—the underpaid writers begin to feel some- what greater sympathy with the policy. Pretense becomes reality.

* There is a seldom-reported final aspect of this 1950s experiment. Imagine yourself finally back with the experimenter, who is truthfully explaining the whole study. Not only do you learn that you’ve been duped, but also the experimenter asks for the $20 back. Do you comply? Festinger and Carlsmith note that all their Stanford student participants will- ingly reached into their pockets and gave back the money. This is a foretaste of some quite amazing observations on compliance and conformity discussed in Chapter 6. As we will see, when the social situation makes clear demands, people usually respond accordingly.

Earlier we noted how the insufficient justification principle works with pun- ishments. Children were more likely to internalize a request not to play with an attractive toy if they were given a mild threat that insufficiently justified their com- pliance. When a parent says, “Clean up your room, Joshua, or else expect a hard spanking,” Joshua won’t need to internally justify cleaning his room. The severe threat is justification enough.

Note that cognitive dissonance theory focuses not on the relative effectiveness of rewards and punishments administered after the act but, rather, on what induces a desired action. It aims to have Joshua say, “I am cleaning up my room because I want a clean room,” rather than, “I am cleaning up my room because my parents will kill me if I don’t.” Students who perceive their required community service as something they would have chosen to do are more likely to anticipate future volun- teering than those who feel coerced (Stukas & others, 1999). The principle: Attitudes follow behaviors for which we feel some responsibility.

Authoritarian management will be effective, the theory predicts, only when the authority is present—because people are unlikely to internalize forced behavior. Bree, a formerly enslaved talking horse in C. S. Lewis’s TheHorse and His Boy (1974), observes, “One of the worst results

of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself” (p. 193). Disso- nance theory insists that encouragement and inducement should be enough to elicit the desired action (so that atti- tudes may follow the behavior). But it suggests that manag- ers, teachers, and parents should use only enough incentive to elicit the desired behavior.


The emphasis on perceived choice and responsibility implies that decisions produce dissonance. When faced with an important decision—what college to attend, whom to date, which job to accept—we are sometimes torn between two

Dissonance theory suggests that parents should aim
to elicit desired behavior noncoercively, thus motivating children to internalize the appropriate attitudes.

equally attractive alterna- tives. Perhaps you can recall a time when, having com- mitted yourself, you became painfully aware of dissonant cognitions—the desirable fea- tures of what you had rejected and the undesirable features of what you had chosen. If you decided to live on campus, you may have realized you were giving up the spacious- ness and freedom of an apart- ment in favor of cramped, noisy dorm quarters. If you elected to live off campus, you may have realized that your

decision meant physical separation from campus and friends, and having to cook and clean for yourself.

After making important decisions, we usually reduce dissonance by upgrading the chosen alternative and downgrading the unchosen option. In the first published dissonance experiment (1956), Jack Brehm brought some of his wedding gifts to his University of Minnesota lab and had women rate eight products, such as a toaster, a radio, and a hair dryer. Brehm then showed the women two objects they had rated closely and told them they could have whichever they chose. Later, when rerat- ing the eight objects, the women increased their evaluations of the item they had chosen and decreased their evaluations of the rejected item. It seems that after we have made our choices, the grass does not then grow greener on the other side of the fence. (Afterwards, Brehm confessed he couldn’t afford to let them keep what they chose.)

With simple decisions, this deciding-becomes-believing effect can breed over- confidence (Blanton & others, 2001): “What I’ve decided must be right.” The effect can occur very quickly. Robert Knox and James Inkster (1968) found that racetrack bettors who had just put down their money felt more optimistic about their bets than did those who were about to bet. In the few moments that intervened between standing in line and walking away from the betting window, noth- ing had changed—except the decisive action and the person’s feelings about it. There may sometimes be but a slight difference between two options, as I can recall in helping make faculty tenure decisions. The competence of one faculty member who barely makes it and that of another who barely loses seem not very different—until after you make and announce the decision.

Once made, decisions grow their own
self-justifying legs of support. Often,
these new legs are strong enough that
when one leg is pulled away—perhaps
the original one as in the Iraq war case—
the decision does not collapse. Rosalia
decides to take a trip home if it can be
done for an airfare under $400. It can, so
she makes her reservation and begins to
think of additional reasons why she will be glad to see her family. When she goes to buy the tickets, however, she learns there has been a fare increase to $475. No matter; she is now determined to go. As when being low-balled by a car dealer, it never occurs to people, reports Robert Cialdini (1984, p. 103), “that those additional reasons might never have existed had the choice not been made in the first place.”

And it’s not just grown-ups who do this. A Yale University team led by Louisa Egan (2007), invited 4-year-olds to rate different stickers on a scale of smiley faces. With each child, the researchers then picked three stickers which that child had rated equally, and randomly identified two (let’s call them Sticker A and Sticker B) from which the children could choose one to take home. Next they let the child choose one more—either the unchosen sticker or the third one, Sticker C. The result (which put a smiley on my face): The children apparently reduced disso- nance by downplaying the appeal of the unchosen first sticker, thus moving them to favor Sticker C 63 percent of the time (rather than half the time, as we might have expected). They repeated the experiment with capuchin monkeys using alternative sweets instead of stickers. As with the children, so with the monkeys: They, too, revised their attitudes after making an initial decision.


Although dissonance theory has inspired much research, an even simpler theory also explains its phenomena. Consider how we make inferences about other peo- ple’s attitudes. We see how a person acts in a particular situation, and then we attribute the behavior either to the person’s traits and attitudes or to environmen- tal forces. If we see parents coercing 10-year-old Brett into saying, “I’m sorry,” we attribute Brett’s apology to the situation, not to his personal regret. If we see Brett apologizing with no apparent inducement, we attribute the apology to Brett him- self (Figure 4.7).

Why do actions affect attitudes?


Self-presentation (impression management)

I look likea cool smoker.

Self-justification (cognitive dissonance)

Ah . . .I’ve been waiting all day for this.

I know smoking is bad for me.

Oh well . . . the statistics aren’t as awful as they say. Anyway, I’m very healthy. I won’t get sick.

Self-perception (self-observation)

Here I am smoking again. I must like smoking.

self-perception theory

The theory that when we are unsure of our attitudes, we infer them much as would someone observing us, by looking at our behavior and the circumstances under which it occurs.

“Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but action.”

—GOETHE, 1749–1832

Self-perception theory (proposed by Daryl Bem, 1972) assumes that we make similar inferences when we observe our own behavior. When our attitudes are weak or ambiguous, we are in the position of someone observing us from the out- side. Hearing myself talk informs me of my attitudes; seeing my actions provides clues to how strong my beliefs are. This is especially so when I can’t easily attribute my behavior to external constraints. The acts we freely commit are self-revealing.

The pioneering psychologist William James proposed a similar explanation for emotion a century ago. We infer our emotions, he suggested, by observing our bod- ies and our behaviors. A stimulus such as a growling bear confronts a woman in the forest. She tenses, her heartbeat increases, adrenaline flows, and she runs away. Observing all this, she then experiences fear. At a college where I am to give a lec- ture, I awake before dawn and am unable to get back to sleep. Noting my wakeful- ness, I conclude that I must be anxious.

Do people who observe themselves agreeing to a small request indeed come to perceive themselves as the helpful sort of person who responds positively to requests for help? Is that why, in the foot-in-the-door experiments, people will then later agree to larger requests? Indeed, yes, report Jerry Burger and David Caldwell (2003). Behavior can modify self-concept.


You may be skeptical of the self-perception effect, as I initially was. Experiments on the effects of facial expressions suggest a way for you to experience it. When James Laird (1974, 1984) induced college students to frown while attaching electrodes to their faces—“contract these muscles,” “pull your brows together”—they reported feeling angry. It’s more fun to try out Laird’s other finding: Those induced to make a smiling face felt happier and found cartoons more humorous. Those induced to repeatedly practice happy (versus sad or angry) expressions may recall more happy memories and find the happy mood lingering (Schnall & Laird, 2003). Viewing

one’s expressions in a mirror magnifies the self-perception effect (Kleinke & oth- ers, 1998).

We have all experienced this phenom-
enon. We’re feeling crabby, but then the
phone rings or someone comes to the
door and elicits from us warm, polite
behavior. “How’s everything?” “Just
fine, thanks. How are things with you?”
“Oh, not bad. . . .” If our feelings are not
intense, this warm behavior may change
our whole attitude. It’s tough to smile
and feel grouchy. When Miss Universe
parades her smile, she may, after all, be
helping herself feel happy. As Rodgers
and Hammerstein reminded us, when we are afraid, it may help to “whistle a happy tune.” Going through the motions can trigger the emotions. Contrariwise, extending the middle finger makes others’ ambiguous expressions seem more hos- tile (Chandler & Schwarz, 2009).

Even your gait can affect how you feel. When you get up from reading this chap- ter, walk for a minute taking short, shuffling steps, with eyes downcast. It’s a great way to feel depressed. “Sit all day in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to every- thing with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers,” noted William James (1890, p. 463). Want to feel better? Walk for a minute taking long strides with your arms swinging and your eyes straight ahead.

If our expressions influence our feelings, then would imitating others’ expres- sions help us know what they are feeling? An experiment by Katherine Burns Vaughan and John Lanzetta (1981) suggests it would. They asked Dartmouth Col- lege students to observe someone receiving electric shock. They told some of the observers to make a pained expression whenever the shock came on. If, as Freud and others supposed, expressing an emotion allows us to discharge it, then the pained expression should be inwardly calming (Cacioppo & others, 1991). Actually, compared with other students who did not act out the expressions, these grimacing students perspired more and had faster heart rates whenever they saw the shock being delivered. Acting out the person’s emotion enabled the observers to feel more empathy. The implication: To sense how other people are feeling, let your own face mirror their expressions.

Actually, you hardly need try. Observing others’ faces, postures, and voices, we naturally and unconsciously mimic their moment-to-moment reactions (Hat- field & others, 1992). We synchronize our movements, postures, and tones of voice with theirs. Doing so helps us tune in to what they’re feeling. It also makes for “emotional contagion,” which helps explain why it’s fun to be around happy people and depressing to be around depressed people (Chapter 14).

Our facial expressions also influence our attitudes. In a clever experiment, Gary Wells and Richard Petty (1980) had University of Alberta students “test headphone sets” by making either verti- cal or horizontal head movements while listening to a radio editorial. Who most agreed with the editorial? Those who had been nodding their heads up and down. Why? Wells and Petty surmised that positive thoughts are compatible with vertical nodding and incompatible with horizontal motion. Try it yourself when listening to someone: Do you feel more agreeable when nodding rather than shaking your head?

At the University of Cologne, Thomas Mussweiler (2006) likewise discov- ered that stereotyped actions feed stereotyped thinking. In one clever experi- ment, he induced some people to move about in the portly manner of an obese person—by having them wear a life vest and by putting weights on their wrists and ankles—and then to give their impressions of someone described on paper. Those whose movements simulated obesity, more than those in a control condi- tion, perceived the target person (described on the paper) as exhibiting traits (friendliness, sluggishness, unhealthiness) that people often perceive in obese people. In follow-up experiments, people induced to move slowly, as an elderly person might, ascribed more elderly stereotypic traits to a target person. Doing influenced thinking.

Postures also affect performance. After noting that people associate an arms- folded posture with determination and persistence, Ron Friedman and Andrew Elliot (2008) had students attempt to solve impossible anagrams. Those instructed to work with their arms folded persevered for an average 55 seconds, nearly double the 30 seconds of those with their hands on their thighs.


Recall the insufficient justification effect: The smallest incentive that will get people to do something is usually the most effective in getting them to like the activity and keep on doing it. Cognitive dissonance theory offers one explanation for this: When external inducements are insufficient to justify our behavior, we reduce dissonance internally, by justifying the behavior.

Self-perception theory offers a different explanation: People explain their behav- ior by noting the conditions under which it occurs. Imagine hearing someone pro- claim the wisdom of a tuition increase after being paid $20 to do so. Surely the state- ment would seem less sincere than if you thought the person was expressing those opinions for no pay. Perhaps we make similar inferences when observing our- selves. We observe our uncoerced action

and infer our attitude.
Self-perception theory goes a step fur-

ther. Contrary to the notion that rewards always increase motivation, it suggests that unnecessary rewards can have a hid- den cost. Rewarding people for doing what they already enjoy may lead them to attri- bute their action to the reward. If so, this would undermine their self-perception that they do it because they like it. Experiments by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (1991, 1997, 2008) at the University of Rochester, by Mark Lepper and David Greene (1979) at Stanford, and by Ann Boggiano and her colleagues (1985, 1987, 1992) at the Uni- versity of Colorado have confirmed this

Enjoyable activities

Self-perception: “I do this because I like it.”

Self-perception: “I do this because I'm paid to.”

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

When people do something they enjoy, without reward or coer- cion, they attribute their behavior to their love of the activity. Exter- nal rewards undermine intrinsic motivation by leading people to attribute their behavior to the incentive.

overjustification effectThe result of bribing people to do what they already like doing; they may then see their actions as externally controlled rather than intrinsically appealing.

No external reward

Behavior and Attitudes Chapter 4 149 FIGURE :: 4.8

Intrinsic motivation

External reward (e.g., $)

overjustification effect. Pay people for playing with puzzles, and they will later play with the puzzles less than will those who play for no pay. Promise children a reward for doing what they intrinsically enjoy (for example, playing with Magic Markers), and you will turn their play into work (Figure 4.8).

A folktale illustrates the overjustification effect. An old man lived alone on a street where boys played noisily every afternoon. The din annoyed him, so one day he called the boys to his door. He told them he loved the cheerful sound of children’s voices and promised them each 50 cents if they would return the next day. Next afternoon the youngsters raced back and played more lustily than ever. The old man paid them and promised another reward the next day. Again they returned, whooping it up, and the man again paid them; this time 25 cents. The following day they got only 15 cents, and the man explained that his meager resources were being exhausted. “Please, though, would you come to play for 10 cents tomorrow?” The disappointed boys told the man they would not be back. It wasn’t worth the effort, they said, to play all afternoon at his house for only 10 cents.

As self-perception theory implies, an unanticipated reward does not diminish intrinsic interest, because people can still attribute their actions to their own moti- vation (Bradley & Mannell, 1984; Tang & Hall, 1995). (It’s like the heroine who, having fallen in love with the woodcutter, now learns that he’s really a prince.) And if compliments for a good job make us feel more competent and successful, this can actually increase our intrinsic motivation. When rightly administered, rewards may also boost creativity (Eisenberger & others, 1999, 2001, 2003).

The overjustification effect occurs when someone offers an unnecessary reward beforehand in an obvious effort to control behavior. What matters is what a reward implies: Rewards and praise that inform people of their achievements—that make them feel, “I’m very good at this”—boost intrinsic motivation. Rewards that seek to control people and lead them to believe it was the reward that caused their effort—“I did it for the money”—diminish the intrinsic appeal of an enjoyable task (Rosenfeld & others, 1980; Sansone, 1986).

How then can we cultivate people’s enjoyment of initially unappealing tasks? Maria may find her first piano lessons frustrating. Toshi may not have an intrinsic love of ninth-grade science. DeShawn may embark on a career not looking forward to making those first sales calls. In such cases, the parent, the teacher, or the man- ager should probably use some incentives to coax the desired behavior (Boggiano & Ruble, 1985; Workman & Williams, 1980). After the person complies, suggest an intrinsic reason for doing so: “I’m not surprised that sales call went well, because you are so good at making a first impression.”

Extrinsic motivation

If we provide students with just enough justification to perform a learning task and use rewards and labels to help them feel competent, we may enhance their enjoyment and their eagerness to pursue the subject on their own. When there is too much justification—as happens in classrooms where teachers dictate behavior and use rewards to control the children—student-driven learning may diminish (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1991, 2008). My younger son eagerly consumed 6 or 8 library books a week—until our library started a reading club that promised a party to those who read 10 books in three months. Three weeks later he began checking out only 1 or 2 books during our weekly visits. Why? “Because you only need to read 10 books, you know.”

Comparing the Theories

We have seen one explanation of why our actions might only seem to affect our attitudes (self-presentation theory). And we have seen two explanations of why our actions genuinely affect our attitudes: (1) the dissonance-theory assump- tion that we justify our behavior to reduce our internal discomfort, and (2) the self-perception-theory assumption that we observe our behavior and make reason- able inferences about our attitudes, much as we observe other people and infer their attitudes.

These two explanations seem to contradict each other. Which is right? It’s difficult to find a definitive test. In most instances they make the same predic- tions, and we can bend each theory to accommodate most of the findings we have considered (Greenwald, 1975). Self-perception theorist Daryl Bem (1972) even suggested it boils down to a matter of personal loyalties and preferences. This illustrates the human element in scientific theorizing. Neither dissonance theory nor self-perception theory has been handed to us by nature. Both are products of human imagination—creative attempts to simplify and explain what we’ve observed.

It is not unusual in science to find that a principle, such as “attitudes follow behavior,” is predictable from more than one theory. Physicist Richard Feynman (1967) marveled that “one of the amazing characteristics of nature” is the “wide range of beautiful ways” in which we can describe it: “I do not understand the

reason why it is that the correct laws of physics seem to be expressible in such a tremendous variety of ways” (pp. 53–55). Like different roads leading to the same place, different sets of assumptions can lead to the same prin- ciple. If anything, this strengthens our confidence in the principle. It becomes credible not only because of the data supporting it but also because it rests on more than one theoretical pillar.


Can we say that one of our theories is better? On one key point, strong support has emerged for dissonance theory. Recall that dissonance is, by definition, an aroused state of uncomfortable tension. To reduce that tension, we sup- posedly change our attitudes. Self-perception theory says nothing about tension being aroused when our actions and attitudes are not in harmony. It assumes merely that when our attitudes are weak to begin with, we will use our behavior and its circumstances as a clue to those attitudes (like the person who said, “How do I tell what I think till I see what I say?” [Forster, 1976]).

Are conditions that supposedly produce dissonance (for example, making deci- sions or taking actions that are contrary to one’s attitudes) indeed uncomfortably arousing? Clearly yes, providing that the behavior has unwanted consequences for which the person feels responsible (Cooper, 1999; Elliot & Devine, 1994). If, in the privacy of your room, you say something you don’t believe, dissonance will be minimal. It will be much greater if there are unpleasant results—if someone hears and believes you, if the statement causes harm and the negative effects are irrevocable, and if the person harmed is someone you like. If, moreover, you feel responsible for those consequences—if you can’t easily excuse your act because you freely agreed to it and if you were able to foresee its consequences—then uncomfortable dissonance will be aroused. Such dissonance-related arousal is detectable as increased perspiration and heart rate (Cacioppo & Petty, 1986; Croyle & Cooper, 1983; Losch & Cacioppo, 1990).

Why is “volunteering” to say or do undesirable things so arousing? Because, suggests Claude Steele’s (1988) self-affirmation theory, such acts are embarrass- ing. They make us feel foolish. They threaten our sense of personal competence and goodness. Justifying our actions and decisions is therefore self-affirming; it protects and supports our sense of integrity and self-worth. And when people engage in dissonance-generating actions—uncoerced counterattitudinal actions—their think- ing left frontal lobes buzz with extra arousal (Harmon-Jones & others, 2008). This is the grinding gears of belief change at work.

What do you suppose happens, then, if we offer people who have committed self-contradictory acts a way to reaffirm their self-worth, such as doing good deeds? In several experiments Steele found that, with their self-concepts restored, people felt much less need to justify their acts (Steele & others, 1993). People with high and secure self-esteem also engage in less self-justification (Holland & others, 2002).

So, dissonance conditions do indeed arouse tension, especially when they threaten positive feelings of self-worth. But is this arousal necessary for the attitudes-follow-behavior effect? Steele and his colleagues (1981) believe the answer is yes. When drinking alcohol reduces dissonance-produced arousal, the attitudes- follow-behavior effect disappears. In one of their experiments, they induced Uni- versity of Washington students to write essays favoring a big tuition increase. The students reduced their resulting dissonance by softening their antituition attitudes—unless after writing the unpleasant essays they drank alcohol, suppos- edly as part of a beer- or vodka-tasting experiment.


Dissonance procedures are uncomfortably arousing. That makes for self-persuasion after acting contrary to one’s attitudes. But dissonance theory cannot explain atti- tude changes that occur without dissonance. When people argue a position that is in line with their opinion, although a step or two beyond it, procedures that elimi- nate arousal do not eliminate attitude change (Fazio & others, 1977, 1979). Disso- nance theory also does not explain the overjustification effect, since being paid to do what you like to do should not arouse great tension. And what about situations where the action does not contradict any attitude—when, for example, people are induced to smile or grimace? Here, too, there should be no dissonance. For these cases, self-perception theory has a ready explanation.

In short, it appears that dissonance theory successfully explains what happens when we act contrary to clearly defined attitudes: We feel tension, so we adjust our attitudes to reduce it. Dissonance theory, then, explains attitude change. In sit- uations where our attitudes are not well formed, self-perception theory explains attitude formation. As we act and reflect, we develop more readily accessible atti- tudes to guide our future behavior (Fazio, 1987; Roese & Olson, 1994).

self-affirmation theoryA theory that (a) people often experience a self-image threat, after engaging in an undesirable behavior; and (b) they can compensate by affirming another aspect of the self. Threaten people’s self-concept in one domain, and they will compensate either by refocusing or by doing good deeds in some other domain.

Summing Up: Why Does Our Behavior Affect Our Attitudes?

Three competing theories explain why our actions affect our attitude reports.

  • Self-presentation theory assumes that people, espe- cially those who self-monitor their behavior hoping to create good impressions, will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions. The available evidence confirms that people do adjust their attitude statements out of concern for what other people will think. But it also shows that some genuine attitude change occurs.

Two of these theories propose that our actions trigger genuine attitude change.

  • Dissonance theory explains this attitude change by assuming that we feel tension after acting con- trary to our attitudes or making difficult decisions. To reduce that arousal, we internally justify our

behavior. Dissonance theory further proposes that the less external justification we have for our unde- sirable actions, the more we feel responsible for them, and thus the more dissonance arises and the more attitudes change.

  • Self-perception theory assumes that when our atti- tudes are weak, we simply observe our behavior and its circumstances, then infer our attitudes. One interesting implication of self-perception theory is the “overjustification effect”: Rewarding people to do what they like doing anyway can turn their plea- sure into drudgery (if the reward leads them to attri- bute their behavior to the reward).
  • Evidence supports predictions from both theories, suggesting that each describes what happens under certain conditions.
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