Department of Communication



The Nature of the Receiver: Attitude Formation and Change

Chapter 4

When we analyze our audiences we estimate their attitudes and beliefs and the then prepare our message to best meet those feelings. It’s an imprecise science, but essential if the rhetorical communicator is to have any success.

The Nature of Attitudes—

A person’s attitude predisposition to behave in a particular way in response to something they are exposed to from others. We may hold a specific attitude but still act in a way contradictory to it. You may dislike someone’s lifestyle but still treat him or her with respect if you interact with that person. So what we believe and how we act are not always consistent. The same is true for what we say and what we do (see the LaPiere along with the DeFleur and Westie examples on page 64-65). Seldom does our behavior result from one single attitude. More likely our behavior is influenced by many attitudes; and that “cluster of attitudes” will shape our actions much more so than a single attitude. People generally have thousands of attitudes. Key point: behavior is always consistent with one or more attitudes, but what particular attitudes these are, are not always immediately apparent. Our opinions are essentially our attitudes that are verbally expressed; and certainly predictable given our attitude toward whatever. Like our attitudes, our expressed opinions are sometimes inconsistent. We may give “lip service” by saying one thing while believing something else. But in general, our behaviors and our opinions accurately reflect the attitudes we hold.

The Nature of Attitude: Three Characteristics—

Direction—favorable, unfavorable or neutral. If the sender misses this most basic characteristic of the audience, success of the message is almost impossible.

Intensity—the strength of the attitude. This can range from incredibly intensive to being apathetic. The greater the intensity of an attitude the more likely our behavior will be consistent with that feeling. For example, if you really dislike going to the ballet, you won’t go no matter how much your date urges you otherwise.

Salience—the perceived importance of the attitude for the person holding it. Something is salient to us if we are personally affected by it; if the outcome impacts our lives in some direct fashion. The farther we are removed from the issue, the less personal it is to us, the less salient it is.

These characteristics are not distinctively different; they tend to blend together and complement one another. For example, highly salient attitudes are commonly intense as well.

Neutral audiences present other challenges for speakers. We may be ignorant neutral (lacking information or experience about something); unconcerned neutral (we know something about the issue but since it does not impact us, we have not feelings pro or con about it); and intense neutral (we feel strongly about an issue but have mixed emotions or have contradictory feelings). We know much about the issue, it impacts us directly, but we still cannot decide what to do. For many people the Iraq War and the US role in it is an example of this.

Attitudes and Beliefs—

What is the difference between an attitude and a belief? Our attitudes evaluate something. For example, I don’t like Senator Snort. Or the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie was the worst of the three. Our beliefs assign a degree of probable truth; like Senator Snort is incompetent. Or Johnny Depp won’t make a fourth movie on this subject. Our beliefs also are guided by direction, intensity, and salience. Our attitudes and beliefs are typically consistent with each other but they don’t have to be. Changing one usually means changing the other one. In order for me to like Senator Snort, I’d need to believe that he is competent. Though it is possible for me to either like or dislike Senator Snort and still find him competent or incompetent, as the case may be.

How Attitudes are Formed—

All of our attitudes (positive, negative, or neutral) are products of our experiences. People with similar experiences (frame of references) tend to have similar attitudes. The “reinforcement” theory seems to offer the most logical explanation when explaining why our attitudes are formed. In short, when we respond to a stimulus in a certain way and then get positive reinforcement for that response, we tend to repeat that response and adopt that as our attitude. The reverse is likewise true. For example, if I said “I like Senator Snort,” but always got criticized by family and friends for that response, it’s likely I would change my attitude. Additionally, if we offer overly blunt assessments of people but are chastised for being insensitive, we are apt to become more vague or abstract in the future when commenting. Attitudes are learned responses; based on a large total of experiences we have had. But we do not have to have direct contact with others to form attitudes. We may acquire them more indirectly as well. And not surprisingly, we tend to hold attitudes similar to the groups we belong to. Such groups could be our family, fraternities, social groups, etc. People who are well informed tend to have more intense attitudes than those who are less informed. In short, it’s hard to get all worked up and actively involved when we don’t know the issues! Nincompoops seldom have strong opinions about much of anything.

The Persistence of Attitudes—

Not only does reinforcement cause our attitudes to form, but other factors contribute as well. These factors are selective exposure; selective attention, selective perception; and selective recall.

Selective Exposure—our tendency to look for stimuli that we think will be consistent with our attitudes; and to avoid those stimuli we think will upset us by being inconsistent with our attitudes. For example, If you like comedies on television, chances are you will look for them and not dramas. If you prefer conservative columnists, you are more apt to read and agree with their point of view than you will read and agree with more liberal perspectives. Most of us prefer to avoid people and settings that are inconsistent with our attitudes. We deliberately select those stimuli that will please us. While this is logical, it’s not always a good idea for us to expose ourselves only to stimuli that reinforce our attitudes.

Selective Attention—Sometimes we can’t avoid being exposed to certain stimuli we disagree with or find uncomfortable. So we may pay attention to certain parts of the message and disregard other parts; the parts we don’t agree with. Even with those messages we agree with…we seldom can attend to everything. This is usually not a conscious act. But we are apt to pay closer attention to things we agree with and less attention to things we disagree with.

Selective Perception—sometimes we can’t ignore stimuli and we must pay attention to them. But those stimuli that are inconsistent with our attitudes are apt to get distorted slightly to better fit our frame of reference. In short, we tend to perceive what we want to perceive; reshaping a message to better fit our attitudes. The more intense and salient the attitude, the more likely this will happen.

Selective Recall—if we cannot avoid exposure, attention, or perception to what we find inconsistent with our attitudes, we may still recall or remember only those portions that are consistent. We commonly remember those things that we like; that reinforce our attitudes and forget those things we dislike or are inconsistent with our attitudes. You may have heard the expression, “He sees the matter through rose-colored glasses.” What this is saying, in effect, is that he sees only the good things; those things we has fond memories of and has effectively discarded the bad.

Due to these factors it is hard for attitudes to change; they persist or cling to us. Yet sometimes our attitudes do, in fact, change…but not without a struggle. Think of it….what do you feel differently about today than you did five years ago?

Attitude Consistency and Attitude Change—

Attitudes often change when we are conscious of the fact. But they also change unconsciously. And that is what we are interested in here. Many theories abound as to why we change our attitudes. The common thread is called the principle of consistency. In other words, we need to find consistency in our lives, and in our attitudes. When we are faced with inconsistency we will make efforts to resolve that uncomfortable feeling and seek consistency. We need to keep the focus on the audience’s attitude toward the source (the speaker) and toward the topic. If the audience has a more positive attitude toward the speaker than it does toward the topic, the rhetorical attempt by the speaker will usually increase the positive feelings of the audience toward the topic. But this may result in the audience feeling less positive toward the speaker. If this is a politician, this may be referred to as “using political capital.” They can cash in on their popularity to get something done on an issue that might not be popular or easy to tackle.
The same is true if the conditions are reversed of initial feelings toward the speaker or source and the topic. None of the theories on consistency can make guaranteed predictions, but they can provide indicators and tendencies. In short, if your audience has a favorable attitude toward you and your topic, you are in the proverbial “hog heaven.” If they dislike you and have a bad attitude toward the subject, the chances of your success are slim to none.

Message Discrepancy and Attitude Change—

Usually it is the case that the degree or depth of attitude change will increase as the degree of inconsistency increases. This is true in general. But there is a limit of inconsistency before we start having an almost reverse effect. At some point we doubt what we’re hearing or seeing. For example, we all know there is some kind of climate change underway, but just how much and what it ultimately means is still unclear. If I told you that the oceans would rise by 20 feet in the next five years and the entire East and West coast of the US would be underwater and millions of people would have their lives ruined, you’d likely have serious doubts. Selective exposure, perception, attention, etc. come into play. So when the degree of inconsistency between attitudes is tremendous, less attitude change will actually occur.

To better understand this seemingly contradictory behavior, some terms need to be explained:

Discrepant message—any message different from the view we hold.

Latitude of Acceptance—this is the range of acceptable positions that we feel comfortable enough accepting as true or legitimate. When our attitudes are not salient (important to us), we are more likely to have a wider range of acceptance of other possible views or positions. For example, abortion is often highly salient to people and their latitude of acceptance is usually very limited.

Latitude of Rejection—the range of positions or responses that we just can’t accept…can’t buy it.

Latitude of Non-commitment—range of positions in which we have no feelings or opinions toward.

Key: Overly strong messages are likely to produce the opposite effect that was intended. We may have even stronger and more divergent attitudes from those of the speaker. Remember: not only must you know the attitudes of your audience, but the latitudes of acceptance and rejection. If you fall outside those boundaries you are apt to get the boomerang effect on your message. Often better to ask for moderate change and to do so over a period of time. Big changes sought quickly will often threaten us and make us resist even more. Example: Former President Clinton’s healthcare package from the early 1990s. He was asking for too much too soon and it soon collapsed under a mountain of resistance.

Retention of Attitude Change—

Getting anyone to make a drastic or complete change in attitude is hard, to say the least. It requires great skill and patience. But getting some change of attitude is not that difficult. The question is how do we get someone to change his or her attitude for the long haul; and not just for a short time. When we are conscious of our change in attitude we are more apt to keep that new attitude. In other words, it’s more likely to stay changed. Ideally, a good persuader attempts to appeal to both the conscious and unconscious. Also it is important to be vivid and memorable with language and organization of the message. This gives us greater chance to decide what the audience will focus on and ultimately put more emphasis upon. Additionally, showing the audience how this new attitude is important to the individuals’ self-interest (high in salience), they are more likely to retain it. In general, the new attitude change tends to decline over time, but we can reduce the decline and keep more of the new attitude by making our argument vivid and memorable; and by showing our audience that this change is in their best interest. We must be able to show clear and convincing evidence to support our request for change and we must employ inoculation (two-sided argument) to counter persuasion that will come later in a future chapter.

Rhetorical Thought—

People are self-centered by nature. Not in a negative way; but in a way that ensures they want to know how they will benefit from issues. The rhetorical communicator has an obligation to fulfill this need. We need to be logical in our arguments but we also need to give logical reasons for what we want others to do. In short, we need to show others how our ideas will work to their self-interest, not just our own. It is the process of guiding the audience’s thinking in such a manner that will get them to believe what we (the source) have proposed.