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Attitude Formation: Cognitive Consistency and Inconsistency

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 3023 words Published: 23rd Apr 2018

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Minahil Meher


Attitude Formation

Many of our views are acquired in situations in which we interact with or observe the behaviour of others, called social learning. Such learning can be acquired through several processes, which in turn help us form attitudes.

Classical Conditioning: Learning based on Association

The evoking of an attitude by the association of an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral conditioned stimulus is the first process of “learning”; classical conditioning. When a stimulus that is capable of producing a positive response (U.S) regularly precedes a second stimulus (C.S), the first becomes a signal for the second. Advertisers and other persuasion agents have considerable expertise in using this principle to create positive attitudes towards their products.

EXAMPLE: Marketing a new drink.

Before Conditioning:

Attractive Girls Positive Emotions

(Unconditioned Stimulus) (Unconditioned Response)

Drink’s Logo No Response

(Neutral Stimulus)

During Conditioning:

Attractive Girls

Positive Emotions/Attitudes

Drink’s Logo (Conditioned Response)

After Conditioning:

Drink’s Logo Positive Emotions/ Attitudes

(Conditioned Stimulus)

As the Drink’s Logo is continuously being paired with images of attractive girls, positive attitudes will be developed within the target population.

Classical conditioning takes place best in social settings where an individual’s close ones are concerned, thus helping form attitudes. A young child sees her mother frown and show other signs of displeasure and discomfort in the presence of a particular societal or religious class of people. At first the child is neutral towards the presence of these people as she/he is unaware of their distinct characteristics e.g. skin colour, type of clothes, language etc. The child at this point has not yet learned to categorize these variations in terms of group membership. However, once these cues are paired repeatedly with the mother’s negative emotional reactions, classical conditioning occurs, and the child then gradually begins to react in a similar fashion as her mother in the presence of the particular set of people. This usually takes place on the unconscious level i.e. the child may not have conscious access to the role that mother’s changed emotional reactions play on the formation of a negative attitude. As a result, the child acquires a negative attitude that is generalized to members of that group as a whole.

  1. Subliminal Conditioning:

According to a study by Krosnick et. al. (1992, as cited in Baron et.al. 2010), individuals can often form an attitude without being aware of the stimulus responsible. Students were shown photographs of a stranger engaging in a grocery store or walking into her apartment. While viewing these photos, other pictures; associated with either positive or negative feelings, were exposed for brief periods of time. Participants who were exposed to photographs that induced positive feelings (e.g. laughter, newly wed couple) liked the stranger better than participants who had been exposed to photos that induced negative feelings (e.g. open-heart surgery). This for of attitude formation is known as subliminal conditioning.

  1. Mere Exposure:

This refers to having seen an object before, but not remembering having seen it. This too results in attitude formation and its effects on attitudes are stronger as the stimuli are perceived consciously rather than subliminally thus, conscious memory of the stimuli is not required (but conscious exposure is). Alzheimer patients, who cannot not memorize the stimuli, are seen to form new attitudes on the basis of mere exposure to certain stimuli.

Instrumental Conditioning: Rewards for the “Right” Views.

We can acquire an attitude toward our classes and jobs through instrumental conditioning i.e. learning based on direct experience with the object on the basis of rewards and punishments. If an individual experience rewards related to some object, his/her attitude will be favorable. Thus, if their work provides them with good pay, a sense of accomplishment, and compliments from co-workers, their attitude toward it will be quite positive. Attitudes that are followed by positive outcomes tend to be strengthened and are likely to be repeated, while attitudes that are followed by negative outcomes are weakened so their likelihood of being expressed again is reduced.

The rewards given to individuals during such conditioning, in a social context, are usually in the form of psychological acceptance. That is why it is seen that most children express political, religious and social views that are highly similar to those of their parents and other family members, until the teen when the peer influences become especially strong.

EXAMPLE: Positive/Favorable Attitude toward alcohol consumption (Teenage).

Before Instrumental Conditioning:

Alcohol Consumption Negative

(Behaviour) (Attitude towards it)

Peers provide IF Alcohol Consumed: Social Acceptance/ Status

(Reward Given)

After Instrumental Conditioning:

Alcohol Consumption Positive (Behaviour) (Attitude towards it)

This shows that if someone rewards a behavior, even if the behaviour itself is wrong, it is more likely to be repeated as it is strengthened – it is the “right” view in the opinions of those who are in favor of alcohol consumption.

As adults, we may be aware that different groups we belong to will reward or punish us for expressing support for a particular attitude position. We may even find ourselves expressing one view on a topic to one audience and another view to a different audience. A relevant example would be the upcoming Elections ’13 of Pakistan i.e. they depend on a candidate’s success at delivering the “right view” to the “right audience”, and so may be perceived as shifting their responses to accommodate the views of different audiences rather than taking a firm stand on anything. This shows that they alter their attitudes just to gain rewards from people (votes). This however, can also be applied to the voters who will change their views or attitudes of voting for a particular party on the basis of the rewards in store for them e.g. financial benefits, technological advancements etc.

Observational Learning: Learning by Exposure to Others

Attitudes can form also in the absence of direct rewards for acquiring or expressing those attitudes through the method of observational learning or vicarious learning; when individuals acquire attitudes or behaviors simply by observing others. According to Myers and Caniglia (2004, as cited in Delamater & Myers, 2011) the media provide interpretive packages or frames about an object that may influence the attitudes of viewers and readers. By portraying events and actors in certain ways, TV news, news magazines, and newspapers can produce cognitive images of a racial group as being volatile, dangerous, or unreasonable that in turn produce negative attitudes. A common example is that of how Muslims are shown on international television; as terrorists, instilling within the international audience that all Muslim’s are terrorists even though they may never have actually been in direct contact with them and yet develop a negative attitude towards them. But why do people adopt the attitudes that they hear others express or imitate the behaviors they observe in others?

  1. Social Comparison:

This refers to our tendency to compare ourselves with others to determine whether our view of social reality is correct or not, as we often adopt the attitudes that others hold. An individual is then seen to adopt the attitude position of those they see as similar to themselves and not of those they consider or see as dissimilar. An 18 year-old girl is more likely to look at another 18 year-old girl to adopt a clothing fashion or be up-to-date with the latest trends rather than a 50 year-old woman who isolates herself from societal values. Similarly if a teenaged boy wants to know about the latest games to play on his Xbox/PS3, he will more likely observe ‘gamers’ rather than non-gamers also, if we go deeper, he will observe gamers who play the same kind of games as him; same genre of games.

  1. Reference Groups:

A reference group consists of the people an individual values and prefers to identify with, who they look up to when adjusting and forming their attitudes. The adoption of an attitude thus depend on extend to which an individual identifies with the group advocates the formation of an attitude or the change. This may apply to making small purchase decisions; which brand of sunscreen to buy, as well as forming attitudes about other groups of people; whether a new social group is positive or negative. According to a research it has been proven that if your reference group holds negative views about a new social group we have never been in contact with, we are more likely to form the similar negative attitude towards them despite not knowing them at all. Not only this but we ourselves expect to be influenced by those who we consider as similar. Example: University students being given a lecture on AIDS and the hazards of unprotected sex are more likely to be influenced by the attitude or views of the speakers if they are also university students, like themselves.

Cognitive Consistency/Inconsistency

Consistency among a person’s cognitions i.e. beliefs and attitudes is widespread. If you have liberal political values, you probably favor medical assistance programs for people living in poverty. If you value equal rights for all persons, you probably support affirmative action plans. The observation that most people’s cognitions are consistent with one another implies that individuals are motivated to maintain that consistency. Several theories of attitude organization are based on this principle. In general, these cognitive consistency theories hypothesize that if an inconsistency develops between cognitive elements, people are motivated to restore harmony between those elements.

Balance Theory:

Social balance theory as proposed by Fritz Heider (1946) is the theory that people strive for cognitive balance in their network of likes and dislikes. According to the balance theory, an imbalanced state is one in which two of the relationships between elements are positive and one is negative or in which all three are negative. This theory can thus be used to explain our attitudes and anxiety related to people we know, and consists of three possible states:

  1. Balance: When the person/people we know have the same attitude as us.
  2. Imbalance: When the person/people we know hold a contradictory attitude to ours.
  3. Non-balance: When the person/people we don’t like hold a contradictory attitude to ours.


Consider Fatima and Bilal, who are seniors in college. They have been going out together for 3 years and soon want to get married. Bilal is thinking about going to law school. Fatima doesn’t want him to stay in school after he gets his bachelor’s degree. She doesn’t want him to go to school for 3 more years, during their starting years of marriage.

  1. Bilal feels strongly about Law School (Positive Attitude).
  2. Bilal loves Fatima greatly and so does she (Positive Attitude).
  3. Fatima doesn’t want him to go to Law School (Negative Attitude).

Thus there is an imbalance that needs to be restored. There are three basic ways to do this:

  1. First, Bilal may change his attitudes so that the attitude status (negative or positive) of one of the relations is reversed. For instance, Bilal may decide he does not want to attend law school (Positive to Negative). Alternatively, Bilal may decide he does not love Fatima (Positive to Negative), or he may persuade Fatima it is a good idea for him to go to law school (Negative to Positive). Each of these involves changing one relationship so the system of beliefs contains either zero or two negative relationships.
  2. Bilal can restore balance by changing a positive or negative relation to a null relation. Bilal may decide that Fatima doesn’t know anything about law school and her attitude toward it is irrelevant.
  3. Third, Bilal can restore balance by differentiating the attributes of the other person or object. For instance, Bilal may distinguish between major law schools, which require all the time and energy of their students, and less prestigious ones, which require less work. Fatima is correct in her belief that they would have to postpone marriage if he went to Yale Law School. However, Bilal believes he can go to a local school part-time and also work and maintain a marriage.

Balance is usually restored in whichever way is easiest. If one relationship is weaker than the other two, the easiest mode of restoring balance is to change the weaker relationship. Because Bilal and Fatima have been seeing each other for 3 years, it would be very difficult for Bilal to change his sentiments toward Fatima. It would be easier for him to change his attitude toward law school than to get a new fiancée. However, Bilal would prefer to maintain their relationship and go to law school. Therefore, he may attempt to change Fatima’s attitude, perhaps by differentiating the object (law schools). If this influence attempt fails, Bilal will probably change his own attitude towards law school.

Cognitive-Dissonance Theory:

Whenever we make a decision, there are some cognitions; attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, that are consonant with that decision, and other cognitions that are dissonant with it. Dissonant cognitions create an unpleasant psychological state that we are motivated to reduce or eliminate. Whereas balance theory deals with the relationships among three cognitions, dissonance theory deals with consistency between two or more elements (behaviors and attitudes). There are two situations in which dissonance commonly occurs:

  1. After a decision.
  2. When one acts in a way that is inconsistent with one’s beliefs.
  1. Post-decision Dissonance:

After one has made a decision.

Example: Sajid needs a job in the city to earn money for his family.

Having made the choice, Sajid is experiencing cognitive dissonance; a state of psychological tension induced by dissonant relationships between cognitive elements. Some decisions produce a large amount of cognitive dissonance, others very little. The magnitude of dissonance experienced depends in part on the proportion of elements that are dissonant with a person’s decision. In Sajid’s case, there are three consonant and only two dissonant cognitions, so he will experience moderate dissonance. The magnitude is also influenced by the importance of the elements. He will experience less dissonance if it is not important that he will seldom get a holiday, but more dissonance if spending time with his family is of great importance to him. A way of reducing the dissonance would be to emphasize more on the consonant cognitions and de-emphasize the dissonant cognitions.

  1. Counter-attitudinal Behavior:

A second circumstance that produces dissonance occurs when a person behaves in a way that is inconsistent with his or her attitudes.

Example: When a person who considers himself high in honesty is asked to lie. Jameel works as a sales man and is asked to lie to the customers about the quality of a certain product; asked to say it’s imported when it’s not. For every customer he convinces to make such a purchase, he receives extra money (apart from his basic salary). If Jameel actually lies to the customer, he will face dissonance as it goes against his attitude of being honest; behaviour is inconsistent with cognitions. The theory of cognitive dissonance, in regard to reducing the amount of dissonance being faces predicts that

  1. One will change their attitudes toward the tasks (like them better).
  2. The amount of change will depend on the incentive paid to tell the lie.

Specifically, the theory predicts that greater attitude change will occur when the incentive to tell the lie is low rather than high, because one will experience greater dissonance under low incentives than under high incentives.


Baron, R. A., Bhardwaj. G., Branscombe, N. R. & Byrne, D. (2011) Social Psychology (12th ed). India: Dorling Kindersley.

Delamater, J. D. & Myers, D. J. (2011) Social Psychology (7th ed). CA, USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


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