The Concept of Attitude in Social Psychology

Anselm Strauss
Department of Sociology, Lawrence College

The concept of attitude occupies a very favored position in social psychology. Psychologists as well informed as G. Allport (1) and G. Murphy (9) consider it the central concept in the field; various textbooks have indicated its usefulness in the advance of the science; and the literature revolving around "attitudes" has grown in the past 20 years to voluminous proportions. Yet the concept, despite its key position, is marked by considerable confusion.


Examination of the various definitions and discussions of attitude offered by social psychologists, for example, reveals that there is an amazing diversity of conceptions of what the term denotes. The range of these views can be illustrated by noting the following dissimilar definitions of attitude:

A person's attitude is "the relatively stable overt behavior which affects his status" (3).

When a certain type of experience is constantly repeated a change of set is brought about which affects many central neurons and tends to spread over other parts of the central nervous system. These changes in the general set of the central nervous system temper the process of reception; they lead to the formation of certain general modes of receiving and integrating stimuli. In terms of the subjective life these general sets are called attitudes (15).

Attitudes in the narrow and more specific sense are essentially motor sets of the organism toward some specific or general stimulus. They rest upon innate stimulus-response patterns as these have become modified, elaborated, and integrated through learning in the social world. . . . Attitudes do not exist without reference to value meanings. And meanings are related to situations of all sorts around which we have constructed our habits and built up a series of images (16).

An attitude is "a process of individual consciousness which determines real or possible activity of the individual in the social world" (13).

The first definition refers t-o a particular kind of overt behavior. The

(330) second points to a kind of neurological action. The third includes both neurological action and action that involves meaning, imagery, and value. The fourth definition points to any process of individual consciousness. These four views of attitude suggest the extent to which conceptions of the attitude differ. The published writings of psychologists show no general agreement upon what the term attitude denotes.


While it is a perfectly legitimate scientific procedure to define terms in any, manner one wishes, the fact that a single psychological concept should be conceived in such dissimilar ways by social psychologists indicates the state of confusion in the use of the term. How is it that a single "concept" has so many different meanings?

Probably the answer lies in the different rôles which the concept plays within the different psychological schemes of various psychological theorists. The concept has been gradually taken over by divergent approaches within the field. Despite the clashing methodological implications resident in some of these approaches, various social psychologists have been able to use the term because they have assigned to it quite different rôles.

To illustrate what is meant by this contention, one can point to the different fashions in which the concept has been utilized by such writers as Thomas (13), Park (10), Dewey (6), and Bain (3). Thomas' concept of attitude afforded him the subjective factor with which--together with the objective factor (value)--he sought to account for human social behavior. Thomas was looking for causal explanation and believed it could not' be found without taking into account both objective and subjective factors. The "attitude" supplied the necessary subjective tool which enabled him to seek laws of social behavior. On the other hand Park used the attitude for a different purpose. He sought the ultimate social forces within each individual which would account for all human behavior. He employed attitudes as these ultimate units of analysis. In contrast, Dewey built his social psychological scheme for the analysis of human behavior upon three analytic tools: impulse, attitude, and thought. Attitude organizes impulse in this scheme, and must be taken into account in order to understand human behavior; one must realize the importance of the reaction of attitude to impulse and thought. Bain's use of the attitude differs strikingly from each of the above. He wrote as a strict behaviorist, holding that subjective states are illusions and that their use in analysis of behavior is harmful to the advance of social science. Hence Bain employed the attitude to refer

(331) to a particular kind of overt behavior, for it is overt behavior which is the only legitimate phenomenon for research study.

Each of these four theorists makes his concept of attitude perform some special function within his particular psychological scheme. These functions assigned the concept are not identical, and this taken in wider application is the probable explanation for the exceedingly dissimilar conceptions of the attitude held by various social psychologists. Any one term used to cover such different phenomena could hardly refer to the same or even similar referents. Because the psychological schemes employed by various theorists arc so diverse, and because the word "attitude" is used to refer to some structure in each of these schemes, it is unlikely that there could be general agreement on the meaning of the concept.


If this is so it suggests that definitions of the attitude are not generally grounded upon nor derived from empirical research. It seems unlikely that the concept (or concepts) arose during and as a direct result of the solving of empirical problems.

That attitude theory is indeed largely ungrounded can be established by pointing to: (a) the paucity of verified knowledge about the nature of attitudes, and (b) the inclusion in many definitions of the attitude of conceptions which are unfounded or unverified.

Examination of the literature of attitude research indicates that although there is a very sizeable amount of research which turns about the concept, there is very little research which has been concerned with the study of the attitude as such.[2]

Study of attitudes as attitudes, i.e., the "nature" of attitudes-would be expected to yield knowledge concerning such problems as: how attitudes are formed, how they are changed, how they disappear, how they are related to personal organization, and how they influence behavior subsequent to their formation.

One would expect to find the cumulative results of research concerning such problems summarized in the textbooks and theoretical literature. Such summaries, however, are almost totally lacking. What little there is is likely to take the form of statements sometimes platitudinous, sometimes of doubtful validity, and practically never based upon any rigorous empirical research.


The emission of research conclusions from textbooks and theoretical literature reflects the marked neglect by research of the important problem of the nature of attitudes. In the literature of research there are very few reports devoted to the study of attitudes as attitudes. Students of research do not seem to be directly concerned with the problem. As a result of this neglect, social psychological research seems to have very little to report with regard to the nature of attitudes.

This paucity of verified knowledge points to the generally unfounded or unverified character of contemporary attitude theory. In view of the fact that verified knowledge is so meager, it is unlikely that the various definitions of attitude offered in the literature can be composed of more than unfounded or unverified hypotheses.

It is possible to point, in fact, to several conceptions or views implied in definitions of attitude, which are unfounded or unverified. For example, a number of social psychologists view attitudes as having always a rather fixed and settled character. They ignore so completely the possibility of rapid change of attitudes that stability is made to appear an essential feature of all attitudes (5, 8, 12, 14).

Another questionable conception of the attitude is that which views the attitude as a psychological element; that is, as a basic unit for use in scientific causal analysis. There are some psychologists who think of the attitude as an element which can be employed in causal analysis in much the same fashion as chemical and physical elements are used in unraveling chemical and physical causations (2, 10, 13, 11). In the scheme of causal analysis which employs the notion of "clement," one seeks to explain the occurrence of an event by describing the "interaction" of elements. The method consists essentially in analyzing the event which sets the problem into constituent elements, and then explaining this event by describing the relationships which hold between the elements. This conception when carried over to the attitude is not based upon actual fact: nowhere in the literature has the author found an instance of the attitude used as a genuine psychological element in unraveling causation. Attitudes, it is true, are used to "explain" behavior in the same sense that common sense explains behavior-"His attitude of curiosity prompted him to go to the window"-but this is not genuine causal explanation as the older sciences know it. And since the concept is not today used as a psychological element, the view that conceives of the attitude as an element is based upon an erroneous conception of the attitude's function in actual research.

A third questionable conception implied in many definitions of the attitude

(333) is that which think of the attitude as a specific psychological concept, different from and exclusive of other established psychological concepts. Various psychologists have distinguished, for example, between "attitude” and concepts such a "interest,” "wish," "belief," "desire," "impulse" (1, 6. 4, 7). By distinguishing the attitude from other psychological categories various students have indicated that attitudes- are not to be identified or confused with wishes, impulses, opinions, and the like. Actually this differentiation of the attitudes front other concepts is unwarranted. An examination of the actual concrete use of the term by local psychologists-theorists and research students alike-shows very clearly that attitudes are not distinct and apart from wishes, desires, beliefs; rather sonic attitudes can be pointed to as wishes, some as impulses, sonic as opinions, some as beliefs. In fact the number of kinds of psychological terms under which different attitudes can he classified is very great: tile limit depends apparently upon the limits of one's psychological vocabulary-impulse, plan, demand, desire, decision, belief, faith, preference, wish, urge, tendency, longing, hunger, general perspective, philosophy of life, outlook, and so on. Consequently the attempt to set up the attitude as a concept independent of such concepts as the above does not seem justifiable.

The fact that these three views briefly discussed above are questionable indicates the non-empirical character of definitions in which these views are incorporated. Since these unverified views arc shared by various social psychologists, they constitute further evidence that many definitions of the attitude are not empirically grounded.


This in turn suggests that research employing the concept is not effectively guided by attitude theory. That there exists this relative divorce of research and theory can be demonstrated.

In the first place students rarely state in their research reports any definition of attitude which guided their investigations. This omission suggests strongly that this research, although employing the concept of attitude, is not linked with attitude theory. It is probable that if definitions formulated by psychological theorists served to guide research then investigators would riot take the concept for granted, so to speak, in their researches.

Moreover, examination of these research reports yields no evidence that special formulations of the attitude usually guide research.

The validity of this assertion can be made more convincing than its bare assertion by noting the different manner with which theorists and research

(334) students treat attitudinal causation. Practically every psychologist who has defined the attitude has conceived of the attitude as entering into the causation of behavior. Attitudes are thought to lie behind and "precipitate," "determine," "condition," or "cause" overt behavior. Since attitudes are so generally conceived to enter into the causation of behavior one would expect to find this conception guiding research. Use of the attitude to unravel the causation of behavior should be frequent in empirical inquiries.

That research students use the notion of attitude to explain behavior is apparent even in a casual survey. However this research use of attitudes to account for causation is a common sense rather than a technical procedure. It bears no closer relation to scientific causation than does common sense "explaining" in general. Common sense explanation is a device for setting behavior into an understandable context; for finding "reasons" which account plausibly for the act; for predicting behavior by means of judging how a person feels about certain objects. Common sense explanation is not genuine causal explanation. There is no effort to formulate a closed system of forces in such a way that reciprocal influences resulting in an effect can be accurately determined and rigorously checked.

The fact that psychological research does not use attitudes to explain behavior in a genuine causative fashion is additional indication of the divorce of research from attitude theory. Practically every theoretical formulation of the concept states that the attitude enters into the causation of human acts. Yet research derives so little guidance from these theoretical formulations that it does not--or cannot--use the concept to genuinely explain human acts.


If research employing the concept of attitude is not intimately linked with attitude theory, the question arises: what then is the character of the concept which is being used by research students? An answer is that the research concept of attitude is not a technical psychological concept but a common sense concept. Students are employing the same concept of attitude that is in everyday lay use.

This identity of research and lay concepts can be demonstrated by noting that students in reporting research invariably use the word attitude in a fashion identical with the common ordinary use of the word. Examples taken at random from research literature differ in no way from examples chosen at random from lay sources.[3] Indeed, in view of the divorce of

(335) attitude theory from research and the meagerness of verified knowledge about attitudes, it seems very unlikely that research students could be employing anything other than a common sense concept.


The fact that psychologists are using a lap concept in their research poses the problem of "usefulness." Is it possible that the research use of a concept as imprecise and naïve as this commonsense notion of "attitude" must necessarily he can eventuate in valuable results? Are psychologists correct in believing that the attitude is exceedingly useful?

We have noted that psychologists are not concerned generally with studying the referent of "attitude" as such. Rather, psychologists use attitudes as instruments for studying something else in which they are interested. They use attitudes as tools for studying various areas of social life---such as the organization of groups, relations between groups, organization of personalities, and relations between persons. In the study of these areas of social life, the concept of attitude is used as a device for gaining an understanding of the specific subject tinder investigation. By looking for and observing attitudes, or by correlating attitudes with some category, the investigator is enabled to lean something about the organization of the group or persons being studied and the, relations between it' and other groups (or persons). It is almost certainly because the concept is such a convenient device for the study of diverse areas of social life that the attitude is held by psychologists to be such a useful tool for research.

The convenient and useful character of the attitude can be accounted for also upon somewhat different grounds.

In the first place the concept is used in an over-all fashion to refer to a great number of diverse "inner" psychological activities: wishing, desiring, wanting, believing, demanding, being interested in, deciding, realizing, and so forth. These psychological activities go on in many of the areas of human behavior which interest psychologists. Consequently this sprawling concept of attitude serves to focus inquiry upon various forms of "inner" psychological behavior without the necessity of psychologists having to make clear what particular kind of psychological activity they are dealing with at any specific time. The word "attitude" is, in fact, so convenient that it can be used usually without designating what kind of activity it refers to other than the presumed one of "having an attitude."


In the second place the term "attitude" provides students with a convenient labeling device whereby they can depict or describe psychological activities in very short hand fashion. Such phrases as: a clinging attitude; a vindictive and almost cruel attitude; a very sentimental and affectionate attitude-these point very concisely to relationships between a person and an object. Similarly attitudes can also be used as labels in conjunction with extended adjective and descriptive phrases to demarcate rather subtlety one or more psychological activity.

Finally psychologists with very different backgrounds and schemes of interpretation can use the notion of attitude because attitudes cannot be seen, because attitudes are internal and have to be interpreted from external acts and gestures. Thus an observer interested in class structure may interpret various acts as being expressive of attitudes like class-conscious attitudes or attitudes typical of some given social class. An observer of human behavior who is interested in personal relations is likely to detect attitudes more like: an attitude of uncritical adulation, or, a very sentimental and affectionate attitude. Similarly attitudes expressed by acts can be interpreted (and labeled) psychiatrical or psychoanalytically or anthropologically.

These are ways in which overt acts can be interpreted and the "underlying" attitude inferred. It is no Wonder then that psychologists, though adhering to different' (and often conflicted) schemes of interpreting behavior, can use the notion of attitude and find it a useful instrument in inquiry.


In the light of the role which the concept of attitude plays in research its convenient and useful character can scarcely be denied. It is important to remember, however, that while this concept serves as a convenient tool it is nevertheless a common sense concept.

It follows that students engaged in research involving the concept arc using an extremely crude instrument. Common sense concepts are notoriously vague, unrefined, and imprecise. However valuable they may be for lay purposes they are not formulated neatly enough for scientific use. Scientific inquiry demands concepts whose referents can be clearly denoted and isolated.

The use of the common sense concept of attitude by psychologists is probably equivalent to chemists using the common sense (17th century) concept of "burning" to study chemical behavior, or physicists using such crude notions as "speed" to study physical behavior.


It would seems clear that as long as social psychologists rely upon a concept which is no more definitive, refined, and sophisticated than that same concept as it is used by laymen, then research involving the concept is going to be handicapped.

The question arises: if research is handicapped because of the employment of a crude concept, and yet one does not wish to discard that concept because it performs a seemingly worthwhile function, how can it be rendered more precise and scientifically usable? The crudity of the attitude and its usefulness together make evident the need for critical revision of the concept.

One path by which this objective might be attained is suggested by the identity of the common sense usage and the research usage of the word "attitude." One might study the usage of the word in common ordinary discourse to see if it is possible to isolate the referent (or referents, perhaps) to which this usage points. By careful examination, analysis, and comparison of uses, it might lie possible to discover some solid "core" (or cores) which is pointed to etch time the word is used.

If one could discover an identical referent pointed to by each use of the word, lie would be on the road to making the concept more precise, definite, tangible, sophisticated, and consequently more scientifically usable. Moreover, one could expect as a result of this effort to discover additional leads toward the further refining of this referent.

This kind of referent analysis could go hand in hand with intimate study of concrete human behavior. Such study would be expected to yield clues relevant to the study of attitudes qua attitudes. Hypotheses could then be raised about the nature of the attitude which in turn could be checked empirically by careful study of human behavior.

An example of Ions- such interaction between empirical data ;nut attitude analysis might be carried on is suggested by such a notion as: attitudes which arc linked intimately with the personality organization are much more resistant to change than are those attitudes which see more peripheral to the personality organization. There might be two "types" of attitudes and attitude change. Concrete empirical study might verify or invalidate this statement about attitudes; the notion of attitude might tints lie refined, and he brought-to bear again upon further empirical study of attitudes.

In this way uric might expect to attitude, eventually, some knowledge about the phenomena pointed to by the term "attitude" and thereby trace the relations between attitude and other psychological phenomena. One might

(338) hope also to get the working relation between theory and research that does not exist today.


Despite its key position in social psychology the concept of attitude is marked by considerable confusion. There is a diversity of meanings attached to the term by different theorists. Probably these meanings differ because the concept is made to play different rôles in the different psychological schemes. Attitude theory is not generally grounded upon empirical research -as is shown by the paucity of knowledge about attitudes, and by the unverified views of attitudes incorporated into many definitions. Attitude research is divorced from attitude theory as is evidence by lack of reliance upon attitude theory by investigators and lack of effective guidance of research by the body of theory. Investigators are employing a concept of attitude identical with that of common sense. Consequently, although the concept is very useful, research employing it is handicapped. A method is suggested for refining the crude research concept and getting a working relation between attitude theory and research.


l. ALLPORT, G. Attitudes. In (C. Murchison, ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology. Worcester: Clark Univ. Press, 1935.

———. Personality; a Psychological Interpretation. New York: Holt, 1937.

3. BAIN, R. An attitude on attitude research. Amer. J. Social., 1928, 33, 940-957.

4. BIRD, R. Social Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century, 1940.

5. BROWN, L. G Social Psychology New York: McGraw-Hill, 1934.

6 .DEWEY, J. Human Nature and Conduct. New York: Modern Library, 1930.

7. FARIS, E. The Nature of Human Nature. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.

8. KRUEGER, E., & RECKLESS, W. Social Psychology. New York: Longmans, Green, 1935.

9. MURPHY, G., MURPHY, L., A NEWCOMBE, T. Experimental Social Psychology. (Rev. Ed.). New York: Harder, 1937.

10. PARK, R., & BURGESS, E. W. Introduction to the Science of Society. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1921.

11. REUTER, E., & HART, C. Introduction to Sociology. New York: McGrawHill, 1933.

12. SHERIF, M. Experimental study of attitudes. Sociometry, 1938, 1, 90-99.

13. THOMAS, W. T., & ZNANIECKI, F. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. New York: Knopf, 1927.

14. VOELKER, Quoted in (Sherman, M.) Theories and measurement of attitudes. Child Devel., 1932, 3, 15-28.

15. WARREN, C. Quoted in (Young, K.) Social Psychology. New York: Crofts, 1931.

16. YOUNG, K, Social Psychology. New York: Crofts, 1931.

Department of Sociology
Lawrence College
Appleton, Wisconsin


  1. Received in the Editorial Office on January 30, 1945, and published immediately at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Copy right by The Journal Press.
  2. Comparable to the study of referents of concepts like combustion, atom, cell, osmosis, public opinion, memory, learning.
  3. A similar result is reached by comparing lay samples with examples taken from the writings of psychological theorists, wherever the latter persons are not actually defining the word "attitude."

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