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Social Psychology – Attitudes and Behaviour

Answers the Question 

Are Attitudes and Action Related?

How it Began

A young research at Stanford, LaPiere, who travelled widely, believed that attitudes were actions in respect of the way in which individual responded in a situation being a determinant of the attitude of that individual.  At the time questionnaires were used widely in attitude surveys and LaPiere questionnaire the reliance on this method.  LaPiere set out to test the assumption that there was a direct link between verbal and behavioural responses through The Hospitality Study.

American and Chinese Flags

In a research period, which covered two years LaPiere travelled across the US with a young Chinese couple visiting over 250 hospitality businesses from hotels to restaurants.  The couple were unaware that they were subjects of a study for fear of affecting their behaviour.  At each location he allowed the couple to take centre stage in arranging the details of the service they were to receive at the establishment.  The research resulted in some startling results.  In 251 requests for service, the Chinese couple were only refused service on one occasion at an auto-camp described by LaPiere as ‘inferior’.  They were never refused service at restaurants or café’s.  The behaviour observed by LaPiere during the trip seemed in direct contrast to ‘attitude’ surveys of the time, which indicated that at the time Americans had a negative attitude towards the Chinese.  Six months after the trip LaPiere surveyed the hospitality businesses they had visited and an additional control group that were not visited.  The result?  Over 90% of establishments visited indicated that they would not accept members of Chinese race at their establishment,  In the control group 81% of restaurants said the same.

The lack of correspondence between survey and behaviour led to two conclusions firstly there is a disparity between what people did and what they said they would do and secondly that attitude surveys are only useful for measuring reactions to symbolic or abstract concepts, not for assessing how someone would respond in a given situation.

Key Terminology

Attitude – An expression of favour or disfavour toward a person, place, thing, or event (the attitude object).   Carl Jung’s defined attitude as a “readiness of the psyche to act or react in a certain way” noting that attitudes very often come in pairs, one conscious and the other unconscious.

Behaviour – A response to various stimuli resulting in a range of actions and mannerisms in conjunction with their environment, which includes those around as well as the physical environment. Responses may be internal or external, conscious or subconscious, overt or covert, and voluntary or involuntary.

In Brief 

The impact of the Hospitality study was widely interpreted as showing that attitudes do not always predict behaviour resulting in a theoretical debate regarding the relationship between attitudes and behaviour.  In 1969 Wicker reviewed 42 experimental studies and found a low average correlation between attitudes and behaviour, concluding that in all likelihood attitudes and behaviours were unrelated or at best only slightly related.

Fishbein and Ajzen sought to explain the disparity using the theory of reasoned action, 1975, and the theory of planned behaviour, 1991 arguing that behaviour was determined by a persons intention to engage in that behaviour, and intention was determined by attitude, subjective norms and perceived controls.  Further research has established that both these theories provide reasonable goo accounts of the relationship between attitude and behaviour.

LaPieres initial work raised ethical, conceptual and procedural issues regarding attitude and behaviour studies leading to further research into the relationship between attitude and behaviour.   Today social psychologists tend to conceptualise attitudes as evaluative dispositions and distinctions between implicit and explicit attitudes raise further questions regarding the assessment of verbal expressions of attitudes and their connection to behaviours.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Employee opinion surveys, taking the temperature and recruitment assessment asking individuals to explain what they would do in a given situation are all tools used in the modern day organization.  The claim is that understanding attitudes will help the organization to support employees in adjusting to their environments and are a basis for future behaviours, helping employees to defend their self-images and justify their actions.

But be warned.  Attitude is an important, distinctive and indispensible concept in social psychology, but attitudes are only relevant if they are considered alongside the social context or organizational environment in which they are being expressed.  When it comes to predicting behaviour then nothing can be taken for granted.

Employee opinion surveys give an indication but not a real measure of attitudes.  Just because someone has a positive attitude to exercise does not mean that they will get up at 6am in the morning to go to the gym.  It is not possible for an organization to develop a programme that will make a person ‘change’ their attitude only the individual can do that.  The only thing that can be changed is the contextual basis for expressing central values and urging organizations to supply standards that allow people to organize and explain the world around them.