Americans have, more than any other people I know, a willingness to change their opinions.—Gunnar Myrdal.
Most of our so-called reasoning consists in finding arguments for going on believing as we already have.—James Harvey Robinson.
It requires ages to destroy a popular opinion.—Voltaire.
Attitudes can sometimes change very rapidly, whereas in other situations they may prove very resistant to change. It is the goal of theories of attitude change to define the conditions under which attitudes will change and the ways in which this will occur. It is unlikely that any single theory will ever provide all of these answers, but recent studies have uncovered a number of fundamental principles of attitude change, and several broad theoretical models have emerged that offer integrated perspectives on attitude change.
Before we become overly impressed with the state of our current theoretical knowledge, it may be well to recall a statement by Thomas Edison: “I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light. … Yet in only two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. ”
In that spirit of continually searching for closer approximations of the truth, this chapter discusses several kinds of cognitive theories of attitude change—ones stressing consistency or dissonance or reactance as explanatory variables, ones emphasizing people's cognitive responses to persuasive messages, and attitude-change research stemming from attribution theories.
Over the years, consistency theories of attitude change have drawn a great deal of attention and inspired much research. These theories are, first of all, cognitive theories; that is, they emphasize the importance of people's beliefs and ideas. As their name implies, their key feature is the principle that people try to maintain consistency among their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Awareness of one's own inconsistency is viewed as an uncomfortable situation that every person is motivated to escape. Thus, attitude change should result if individuals receive new information that is inconsistent with their previous viewpoints, or if existing inconsistencies in their beliefs and attitudes are pointed out to them.