Attitudes in Psychology

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Practical Psychology

Have you ever heard someone tell you that you’ve got a bad attitude? Or a good attitude? Or just an attitude? Let's talk about it. 

What Is Attitude in Psychology?

We often use the term "attitude" to describe someone as being sassy or as being a team player. It’s a vague term. Psychologists have a more clear definition of "attitude," and they use it to look at the ways we communicate, defend ourselves, and make judgments about the world. 

Let’s get started.

Definition of Attitude

How do we define attitude? This is what the Encyclopedia Britannica has to say: 

“Attitude, in social psychology, a cognition, often with some degree of aversion or attraction (emotional valence), that reflects the classification and evaluation of objects and events. While attitudes logically are hypothetical constructs (i.e., they are inferred but not objectively observable), they are manifested in conscious experience, verbal reports, overt behavior, and physiological indicators.” 

This is a pretty fancy way for us to say that attitude is the process of evaluating and classifying stuff. This “stuff” includes objects (a chair,) groups (Eagles fans,) or symbols (the cross.) We have learned a process for developing attitudes against people, places, things, and events. These attitudes are often favorable or unfavorable. 

Our attitude toward different things in the world can shape the way we behave, who we associate ourselves with, and how we go about our lives.


Three Components of Attitude 

Attitude isn’t just what we feel about stuff. That’s one component of attitude. 

Attitude is made up of three components that form the “ABC model” of attitude. These three components are:

  • Affective 
  • Behavioral 
  • Cognitive

The affective component is how we feel when we think or encounter something. How does it feel to be around your cat? How do you feel when you think of Eagles fans? These emotions often influence the other two components of attitude. 

The behavioral component is how we behave when we encounter or interact with something. How do you behave when you see your cat? What about when you think about success? 

Lastly, the cognitive component is made up of our thoughts and beliefs about something. Do you believe your cat is the best cat in the world? What do you believe about a marathon?

There is a lot that goes into forming an attitude toward something. The factors that influence our attitude could come from an immeasurable amount of sources! 

Is Attitude Innate?

Attitude is a learned process. The way we grow up and the way we learn to see the world have a direct influence on how we form judgments and behave around something that evokes certain feelings. 

How to Change Attitude 

If, for example, you are taught to keep an open mind, you may not be so quick to form an attitude against a group of people or something that you haven’t tried. Someone who is taught to rely on logic rather than emotions is going to behave differently than someone who “goes with their gut” or relies on their intuition. Our attitudes about “following the rules” or behaving in a certain way may also have a big impact on the behavioral component of attitude. 

The most basic factors that influence attitude include:

  • Experience and observation
  • Culture and social norms 
  • Lessons from school, authority figures, etc. 
  • Conditioning 

It’s Can Be Hard to Change Your Attitude 

The factors that influence our attitude may be repeated over and over again. The lessons you learn in school or from your parents may strengthen how you feel or what you think you know about a certain subject. 

Often, these attitudes become stronger without our awareness. When was the last time you took in new information or consumed media and thought, “This is really locking in my attitude toward ____?” 

How Attitudes Are Strengthened, Whether We Are Aware or Not 

Take the beauty industry. We are constantly seeing thin, white, attractive women on TV as models, hosts, and influencers. When we only see these women in the media, we may start to form an attitude toward them (or women that don’t look like them.) Our feelings about average women may be influenced by the slew of model-thin women that we are exposed to. 

child watching models on TV

In this way, we are conditioned to have an attitude toward different types of women. We may hold a certain set of beliefs about who is “fit” for television or to be a celebrity. When we see a woman in a commercial that fits these standards, we may be more likely to believe that they are endorsing a glamorous product than if an average woman were featured in a commercial. 

The same conditioning happens when we watch the Oscars and only see men in directorial roles. We may be conditioned to believing that a woman is an unusual choice for a director. Or we may believe that a man is more fit to be a director and a leader on set. 

These beliefs are not easy to change if they have been ingrained in our minds for a long time. If we are raised to believe that a certain group of people are more capable of something than others, it may be hard to let that belief go. Our attitude about that group of people may stay with us. 

a child comparing herself to a woman on TV

Cognitive Dissonance 

Attitudes help us make judgments about the information we take in. By already having an attitude in place, we can easily predict what is going to happen or process information faster. Our mind doesn’t want anything to challenge an attitude that makes thinking more convenient. When we encounter information that challenges our current attitude, our minds feel uncomfortable. This cognitive dissonance often continues to strengthen the attitude that we are trying to change.  

Awareness Helps to Form More Productive Attitudes

It’s not easy to challenge or change the attitudes that have been cemented in our minds since we were born. But you’re taking the first steps toward opening your mind and adjusting your attitude. When you can evaluate your attitudes and how they are formed, you can start to unravel harmful attitudes and replace them with more productive and open-minded ones. Form an attitude about your attitude, and use it for good!

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, February). Attitudes in Psychology. Retrieved from

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