Attitudes and Opinions

By Stuart Oskamp; P. Wesley Schultz | Go to book overview

1
Background: History
and Concepts

Attitude. It's the current buzzword. It's also one of the most important factors of success, according to more than 1,000 top- and middle-level executives of 13 major American corporations Your attitude can make or break your career. —Allan Cox, 1983.

What are laws but the expressions of the opinion of some class, which has power over the rest of the community? By what was the world ever governed but by the opinion of some person or persons? By what else can it ever be governed? —Thomas B. Macaulay, 1830.

As these quotations illustrate, attitudes and opinions are important. They can help people, they can hurt people, they have influenced the course of history. Novelists and poets describe them, historians weigh and assess them, average citizens explain people's behavior in terms of their attitudes, politicians attempt to understand and shape public opinion. Consequently social psychologists, too, have long had a great interest in attitudes and opinions and have devised many ways of studying them. This book describes these research methods, summarizes the important findings on major aspects of attitudes and opinions, and tries to clarify the many current theories and controversies in the field.


WHY STUDY ATTITUDES?

One long-standing controversy has been whether to study attitudes or behavior. This debate goes back to the early years of social psychology, when it was just beginning to be differentiated from other areas of psychology and sociology. For instance, the wellknown sociologist Read Bain (1928, p. 940) wrote, “The development of sociology as a natural science has been hindered by… too much attention to subjective factors, such as… attitudes. ” Behaviorists, following the lead of psychologists such as B. F. Skinner (1957), have generally tried to avoid use of “mentalistic concepts” like attitude, and to study observable behavior instead.

However, the majority view among social psychologists was best expressed in a landmark handbook chapter by Gordon Allport, one of the founders of the field (see Box 1–1). Writing in 1935, he stressed the central importance of attitudes:

The concept of attitude is probably the most distinctive and indispensable concept in contemporary American social psychology This useful, one might almost say peaceful, concept has been so widely adopted that it has virtually established itself as the keystone in the edifice of American social psychology, (p. 798)

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