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Fundamentals of communication,

The Role of attitudes in human communication: defining attitudes

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The birth of a speciality: roots in antiquity, historic glimpse

Attitudes have been of central interest to social psychologists, sociologists as well as to communication
specialists as early as the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Zaretsky (1996)
has made a successful effort in condensing and editing the original 5 volume work of W.I. Thomas, the
American born sociologist and the Polish born American sociologist F.W. Znaniecki, who are credited with
the introduction of the concept 'attitudes' into the field of social psychology. From the time the discussion
of attitudes was first introduced to psychological and sociological literature and up to now there has been
a proliferation of published books and scientific as well as popularized articles. Visser and Cooper (2003)
have noted that a literature search on the concept of 'attitude' a decade ago at the time they published their
work would yield more than 50,000 items and their number has certainly increased ever since.

In the middle of the 20th century, during the decades of the 50s and 60s, Hovland gathered some of his
war-time colleagues and established the Communication and Persuasion (attitude change) program at
Yale University. Using initially as their springboard Laswell's (1948) historic question, now a maxim,
'who says what, in what channel to whom with what effect' the Yale team worked intensely and creatively
on their program focusing their investigations on the variety of motivational processes underlying
'persuasion' as one communication objective.

This chapter aims to familiarize the reader, without exhausting all possible facets of the concept, with
the concept of attitudes and their components and the multitude of implications they have for social
scientists as well as communication and P.R. practitioners.

Defining Attitudes

A plethora of definitions exists for the concept of 'attitude' as seems to be the case with many other
concepts in social and behavioural sciences. In practical, everyday terms, however, most laymen seem to
concur on a working definition of attitude as being the way we stand, in varying degrees, positively or
negatively towards persons, groups, public and private enterprises, ideas and ideologies, places and events.

Etymologically, as an informal and quick search will verify, the term attitude originates from the Latin
term 'aptus' which, as it turns out, is also the root to the term 'aptitude' which refers to preparedness or
adaptation. The term eventually developed into the late Latin concept of 'aptitudinem', to the modern
Italian language concept of 'attitudine' and, finally, the French 'attitude' referring, generally, to disposition,
aptness, posture and promptitude.

Thomas & Znaniecki (1918) introducing the concept of 'attitudes' in their 5 volume work, bearing the
now classic title of 'The Polish Peasant in Europe and America', went so far as to characterize them as a
central focus point of interest for social psychology. This is so since, according to the two authors, they
determine what an individual sees, hears, thinks and does. They defined attitudes, shortly, as a state of
mind of an individual toward an object.

Writing in the middle of the 1930s Gordon Allport (1935, p. 798) carved a now historic dictum stating
that attitudes are 'the most distinctive and indispensable concept in American social psychology' and
went on to define an attitude as:

'A mental and neural state of readiness, organized through experience, exerting a directive and dynamic
influence upon the individual's response to all objects and situations with which it is related'. (p. 810)
The Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines attitude as 'an enduring pattern of evaluative responses
towards a person, object or issue'. A definition that appears in many academic texts as well as in respectable
popular books sees attitude as 'the tendency to behave in specific ways when confronted by a person, a
group, an object, a symbol, an idea or any other reality.'

Crano and Prislin (2006) have stated that:

'An attitude represents an evaluative integration of cognitions and affects experienced in relation to an
object. Attitudes are the evaluative judgements that integrate and summarize these cognitive/affective
reactions. These evaluative abstractions very in strength, which in turn has implications for persistence,
resistance, and attitude-behavior consistency.' (p. 347)

Oscamp (1977) is one, among a large group of writers, who suggest that attitudes are acquired through
the process of 'socialization' which in sociology and social psychology is conceived and invariably defined
as 'the process of rendering the biological man into a social being'. Since the process of socialization
involves the family and relatives, peers, as well as the institutions of education and religion, attitudes
will be learned, shaped, reinforced or altered during a person's interface with them. Attitudes operate on
both the conscious and unconscious levels in each person and provide a frame of reference, a method
of organizing a person's beliefs, values, habits, perceptions and motives, shaping his/her short and long
term preferences.

The components of attitudes

Writing two decades after his initial statement on attitudes as mentioned above, Allport (1954), reiterated
his belief that attitudes were a most significant and indispensable concept and area of interest for social
psychology. He went on to redefine an attitude as the result of a learned predisposition to think, feel and
behave towards a person (or object) in a particular way.

In their pioneer work, which has been used in a variety of studies since its original publication more
than half a century ago, Rosenberg and Hovland (1960), proposed a three-component model in which
attitudes are made up of three parts, namely the affective, the cognitive and the behavioural. Olson and
Maio (2003, pp. 306–307) are among the current social psychologists who concur on the existence of
these three components in attitudes:

The affective component includes the positive or negative feelings or emotions the attitude holder may
have toward another person, group, object, idea etc,

The cognitive component includes the thoughts and beliefs held by a person toward the attitude object
and, finally,

The behavioural component refers to the attitude holder actions or the intention to act toward a person,
a group, an idea, or an event which constitute the attitude's object.

Attitude functions for the personality

The following scheme of four basic functions which attitudes perform for the individual rendering them
useful, if not actually indispensable, has been suggested by Katz (1960):

'The adjustive function which refers to the utility the attitudinal object has in serving the attitude holder
with need satisfaction; essentially it serves in maximizing external rewards and minimizing potential
punishment. The ego-defensive function which refers to the individual attitude holders' need to create
a protective layer around their subconscious defence mechanisms for the proper handling of potential
internal conflicts; attitudes, in serving this function for a person, operate protectively against internal
conflicts and external dangers.

The value expressive function which refers to maintaining self-identity and enhancing favourable selfimage,
self-expression and self determination, and The knowledge function which relates to individuals'
need for gaining knowledge and various skills for understanding and dealing with the world in which
they live and function. The attitudes serve, in this respect, to create and support the individuals' needs
for meaningful cognitive organizations, for sustaining consistency and clarity protecting them against
the ambiguities of the world about them.' (p. 170)

Our attitudes can change

Human beings are not born with attitudes inherited from their parents. Stated another way this means that
attitudes are not a part of our hereditary package. Humans acquire attitudes as they grow up, partaking
in the socialization process and through learning. It is not necessary for you, the reader of this book,
to possess the expertise gained through study and training by social and behavioural scientists to come
to grips with the realization that since attitudes are learned they can also be un-learned and new ones
can take the place of existing, older ones. In this context, the four functions attitudes perform for each
individual as presented above, must be kept in mind so that the brief analysis that will follow below will
be easier to comprehend.

Within such a frame of reference, understandably, a great deal of interest seems to be placed on the need
and usefulness of maintaining the stability of attitudes through time. Also significant in this realm is the
question of the possibility of changing existing attitudes and adapting new ones and, simultaneously,
the methods necessary for effecting such changes. Political parties, groups and associations, private and
public enterprises and organizations producing and selling products or operating as service providers
who are favoured as attitude objects do wish and do strive to maintain the individuals' existing attitude
intact through time. On the other hand, understandably, those wishing to gain the favour of consumers
are interested in finding and implementing the ways by which they can change old attitudes and introduce
new ones.

Relevant in this respect is the statement made by Olson and Maio (2003) who wrote that:

'It is important to note that the psychological processes involved in attitude formation can also lead
to attitude change (i.e. the alteration of an existing attitude to a different evaluative position) and that
theories of attitude formation are also theories of attitude change.' (p. 311)

At this point it is necessary for the readers to remember the 4 component elements system of
communication. According to that scheme it should be effortlessly easy to accept that the attitude holder
can be identified as the 'receiver' while those aiming to perpetuate existing attitudes through time or
facilitate their change and adaption of the ones they desire are identified as the 'sender'. The remaining
two elements of the communication system, namely the 'message' and the 'medium or channel', can
and indeed do dramatize significant and critical roles in achieving the stated objectives in tune with the
efforts the 'sender' makes.

Attitude measuring scales

The 3-component model of attitudes presented earlier leads to the realization that a person's attitudes
can be seen and measured only if and when the person engages in specific behaviour toward an attitude
object. Choosing a specific brand of toothpaste from a supermarket shelf, or an after shave for men
and a perfume for women from the shelves of a department store, are observable actions and can be
measured by researchers as an actual exhibition of behaviour. However, both the affective and the cognitive
components of the model do not lend themselves to direct observation and measurement. Obviously
most persons may not wish to state publicly their attitudes toward groups, ideas and ideologies, political
parties or consumer products and services. Additionally, the fact that the attitudes each person holds
operate not only at the conscious but on the subconscious level as well adds on even further limitations
to any direct study and measurement attempts.

Thurstone (1928) suggested that there exists a means of measuring attitudes and introduced what is
considered to be the oldest scale for attitude measurement in existence. This scale was initially presented in
a co-authored paper (Thurtstone & Chave 1929) but it is true that this scale is no longer in as widespread
usage as it was when first introduced. In the original study more than 100 statements of opinions were
used, ranging from extremely hostile to extremely favourable. Participants classified their responses into
the Thurstone scale of 11 categories located at equal distance from each other and covering a continuum
ranging from extremely hostile at one end to extremely favourable at the other end of the scale.

In the Thurstone scale statements are assigned numerical values and so, in practical terms, when a person's
attitudes are examined the researcher locates three statements chosen by the individual which have been
assigned the numerical scores of 4.8, 5.5 and 6.8. The score that occurs from the addition of these 3
numerical values is 5.7 (adding the 4.8 + 5.5 + 6.8 we get a total of 17.1 which divided by 3 gives the 5.7
value). This score falls at about the middle of the 1 to 11 continuum in the Thurstone scale and it can
be said that this person's attitudes toward the object examined could and should be classified as neutral.

A few years later, Likert (1932) presented his scale on attitude measurement which, as one can easily
see is obviously less complex than the Thurstone scale and much easier to construct, administer and
evaluate. In the Likert scale the person examined is presented with a series of statements each bearing
one of the following 5 labels: 'strongly agree' or 'agree' or 'undecided' to 'disagree' and 'strongly disagree'.
Each one of these labels is assigned a numerical value ranging from 5 to 1 (when the labels go from the
very positive to the very negative or from 1 to 5 when the progression is reversed from very negative
to very positive).

When the questionnaire is completed the responder's scores are added and so an average emerges
indicating the respondent's stance on the attitude measured. To derive the end product of a Likert
type scale the researchers begin with a large number of statements from which those that seem to be
statistically related are kept and incorporated in the final questionnaire. The process of retaining some
statements and accepting them presupposes that they have satisfied fully the demands for internal
statistical consistency and homogeneity.

Guttmann (1944) writing a decade after Likert, proceeded to create a scale for attitude measurement that
would assure unidimensionality of responses received. In the Guttman scale people are presented with
a series of three statements and are asked to score 0 when they disagree with all of them, 1 when they
agree with one of them, 2 when agreeing with two of them and 3 when they agree with all of them. The
statements are structured in such way as to enable the examiner, or any other person for that matter,
to predict the respondents' position on the three statements by looking at their scores. Examining, for
example, a person's attitudes toward recently released from prison 'ex-offenders' the questions would
take the form:

'I have no problem with re-integration of ex-offenders to the community' (1),
'I have no problem with an ex-offender living in my neighbourhood' (2),
'I would have no problem having dinner with an ex-offender' (3).

In this example a positive answer to question 3 means that the person has responded positively to
questions 2 and 1, while a positive answer to question 2 implies positive answer to question 1 and so on.

In our discussion of attitude measurement a brief mention should be made of an existing and very
simple method, considered by some somewhat naïve but not lacking practical usefulness, of measuring
and assessing attitudes held by various persons. In this method the researcher asks a person directly
to indicate preferences and avoidances of attitude objects he/she is presented with. If you, as readers of
this book are students, you might already have had personal experiences by participating in a research
project within your academic environment. It is usual for students in the UK as well as other European
and American colleges and universities to be asked to rank their modules as well as their teachers and
their degree programs. Additionally, some of you, while you were walking on your city's High Street or
strolling through a shopping Mall may have been approached and asked to respond and answer some
specific questions posed by a researcher conducting a relevant survey.

Since attitudes on both the conscious and sub-conscious levels in the personality structure of each
individual, the so-called 'projective tests' are also used in behavioural and social sciences research mainly
within the purview of personality tests (such are, for example, the Rorschach Inkblot test, the Thematic
Apperception Test, abbreviated and known as 'TAT' etc). Another version of a similar projective test
includes the process of completion of 'incomplete sentences'. A review of such tests is provided by Rabin
& Zltogorski (1985). In these simple form tests the subjects are asked to fill in the 'missing' end to the
sentence stem using their own words. Experts can then evaluate the respondents' integration of the
provided stems into complete sentences which usually reveal hidden, subconscious, attitudes.

Accurate measurement, in any case, presupposes that in each test two requisite statistical concepts,
namely 'validity' and 'reliability' are satisfactorily dealt with. In general terms, and as a practical rule of
research, it should be noted that validity, at one hand, refers to the assurance that a measure is assessing
exactly what it is supposed to assess, while reliability, on the other hand, relates to the stable nature of
responses meaning that there are no random fluctuations to the responses participants make. Reliability
is considered to be a prerequisite to validity, and not vice versa, necessitating that once researchers have
established the reliability of their constructs, they should concern themselves with the optimization of
their validity.


  1. Communication is a universal phenomenon: system of 4 components
  2. Human Communication: scheme of human communication, defining
  3. Body Language: darwins contribution, intrigue of body language
  4. Mass Media & social media: stone inscription, printing process
  5. The Role of attitudes in human communication: defining attitudes
  6. The birth of a speciality: roots in antiquity, historic glimpse
  7. Publics, Public Opinion and its moulders: historical evolution, term
  8. Rhetoric, Persuasion and Propaganda: rome, love, definitions, variety
  9. Corporate Communication & Responsibility: corporate communication
  10. Press releases, special events and sponsorships: PR specialist
  11. Leaders and Leadership: pantheon of leaders, persons, injustice
  12. Leadership, Power, Authority & Charisma: events, political, financial
  13. Leadership research at the Universities of Iowa, Ohio & Michigan:
  14. Modern theories of leadership in Private and Public Enterprises and Or
  15. Instead of an epilogue: Women leaders remain under a glass ceiling:
  16. References: Bibliography
  17. The Author: Dr Georgios P. Piperopoulos, sociology, psychology