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3.4 The importance of understanding attitudes

One of the most important phenomena for a social marketer to understand is that of ‘attitudes’. Having said this, this is not a straightforward issue as there is much disagreement about the nature of attitudes, how they are formed, and how they determine our behaviour. Attitude theory research is a key focus for consumer behaviour theorists and derives from the field of psychology.

There are many definitions of attitude, for example, ‘the predisposition of the individual to evaluate some symbol or object or aspect of his world in a favourable manner’ (Katz, 1970).

There are also differences of opinion as to what comprises an attitude. The three main elements on which theorists focus are:

  • Cognitive component (beliefs/knowledge).
  • Affective component (feelings).
  • Conative component (behavioural).

In other words we believe/know (cognitive component) something, for example, recycling is good for the environment. We also believe that looking after the environment is a good thing. This forms our positive feelings (affect) towards recycling behaviour. We are therefore more likely to intend to engage in recycling behaviour (conative factor) and ultimately to engage in the behaviour itself.

Differences of opinion relate to which of the three components are actually part of attitude, i.e.:

  1. Some (e.g. Fishbein, 1970) view attitude as a relatively simple unidimensional construct referring to the amount of affect for or against a psychological object (in other words the feeling element only).

  2. Others (e.g. Bagozzi and Bunkrant, 1979) describe attitude as a two dimensional construct including the cognitive and affective component.

  3. Others (e.g. Katz and Stotland, 1959) describe attitude as a complex multi-dimensional concept consisting of an affective, cognitive and behavioural component.

In one sense the above distinction does not matter too much since all approaches recognise the three components; it is important, however, when we come to measure attitudes to be clear as to what exactly is being measured. The most important issue for us at the moment is to be aware of the three components and how they combine to determine behaviour. Most of the research in this area is based on Fishbein and Ajzen's (1985) theory of reasoned action described in the model below.