Attitudes and Opinions

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

8
Formation of Attitudes
and Opinions

The greatest part of mankind have no other reasonfor their opinions than that they are infashion.—Samuel Johnson.

Opinions should be formed with great caution and changed with greater. —Josh Billings.

Attitudes and opinions are usually learned—that much is agreed on by all authorities. But how are they learned? The processes of attitude formation, and the factors that can be important in the development of attitudes, are numerous. Some researchers stress the role of family influences in a child's early years, others underline the importance of the educational system or of peer-group pressures, and still others emphasize the mass media of communication, particularly television. Undoubtedly all of these factors play a part in attitude formation, which may occur through several different learning processes. The research summarized in this chapter has begun the task of classifying and understanding the processes and the determining factors involved.

The term attitude formation refers to the initial change from having no attitude toward a given object to having some attitude toward it, either positive or negative. But what is it like to have no attitude toward an object? For an infant, the situation was described by William James as a world of “blooming, buzzing confusion” in which all stimuli are new and strange. For adults to have no attitude might mean that they have never had any experience, either direct or vicarious, with the object (for instance, your attitude toward “Cromelians, ” a group of people you have never heard of), or simply that they have never thought evaluatively about it (an example might be your attitude toward the planet Jupiter).

Starting from this zero point, what determining factors can cause a person to acquire an attitude toward Cromelians or toward Jupiter? In answering that question we consider several different factors, starting with internal and personal determinants and moving toward external influences. Then in the latter part of the chapter we briefly examine the various processes of learning by which a new attitude or opinion may be acquired.

First, one distinction is needed. Attitude formation and attitude change are often hard to distinguish from each other and are therefore often spoken of together, as if they were synonymous. Indeed, many of the same processes and influences are at work when attitudes and opinions are being changed as when they were originally formed. However, the research literature on attitude change, which is voluminous, involves a variety of issues and methods that differ from much of the work on attitude formation. Because the topic of attitude change is taken up in two subsequent chapters, this chapter focuses primarily on attitude formation. However, in some cases where the amount of available

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