Theory of Reasoned Action (Description + Examples)

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Practical Psychology

You're about to learn about a concept that psychologists have pondered, tested, and applied in various ways to understand why people do what they do. It's more than a theory; it's a window into the decision-making process that everyone goes through, consciously or not.

The Theory of Reasoned Action is a psychological framework that explains how individuals make decisions based on their beliefs, attitudes, and social influences.

Developed by Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in the 1960s and 1970s, this theory dissects the reasoning behind choices before they culminate into actions. It suggests that if you want to predict someone's behavior, the best way is to understand their intention, which is shaped by personal attitudes and the perception of social pressure.

History of the Theory of Reasoned Action

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The seeds of the Theory of Reasoned Action were planted in an age of exploration within the field of psychology.

In the 1960s, behavior was often viewed through the lens of direct cause and effect – an assumption that didn't always hold up under scrutiny. Martin Fishbein, a psychologist with a keen interest in understanding behavior, began to form a hypothesis that there was more to the story.

By 1967, Fishbein had introduced the concept that intention was crucial in bridging the gap between attitudes and behavior.

However, it wasn't until he collaborated with Icek Ajzen in the 1970s that the Theory of Reasoned Action was fully developed and articulated. This collaboration sparked a significant advancement in psychological theory, one that would resonate through the decades.

Fishbein and Ajzen built upon the work of earlier thinkers like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, who had focused heavily on observable behavior and reinforcement.

Yet, unlike their predecessors, Fishbein and Ajzen delved into the unobservable realm of personal belief systems and their influence on behavior. They argued that these internal factors could predict human behavior and actions when combined with an individual's perception of social norms.

Their work didn't exist in a vacuum. Other contemporaries, such as Leon Festinger with his Cognitive Dissonance Theory in the late 1950s, and Abraham Maslow, who in the 1940s and 50s developed the Hierarchy of Needs, provided a backdrop against which Fishbein and Ajzen's ideas could be contrasted and compared.

While Festinger's theory focused on the inner conflict that leads to attitude change, and Maslow's work prioritized the motivational aspects of behavior, Fishbein and Ajzen offered a more comprehensive model that included these psychological elements as predictors of actual behavior change.

The Theory of Reasoned Action gained momentum and credibility throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, by which time it had become a foundational psychological model. It offered a new perspective on the decision-making process, a contrast to the behaviorist perspective that had dominated psychology for much of the early 20th century.

The Theory of Reasoned Action has since evolved, leading to further refinement with Ajzen's introduction of the Theory of Planned Behavior in 1985, which added perceived behavioral and control factors into the mix.

These developments not only expanded the scope of behavioral psychology but also paved the way for future research and applications across various fields such as health promotion, marketing, and social psychology.

Fishbein and Ajzen's theory remains a testament to the progress of psychological thought and its practical application in understanding and guiding human behavior.

Core Concepts of the Theory of Reasoned Action

At the heart of the Theory of Reasoned Action are a few key ideas that work together like parts of a machine.

First, we have attitudes. Your attitude is like your personal feeling about whether something is good or bad. For example, if you think that smoking is harmful, that's an attitude.

Then, we have subjective norms. These are the beliefs you have about what others think you should do. If your friends think that smoking is cool, that's a subjective norm. It's the pressure you feel from people around you.

Finally, there's intention. Intention is like a promise you make to yourself about what you plan to do. It's based on your attitudes and what you think others expect from you. If you plan not to smoke because you believe it's bad for you, even though your friends think it's cool, your intention is to not smoke.

These core concepts work together to guide your actions. Let's say you're at a party and someone offers you a cigarette. You'll think about your attitude (smoking is harmful), and your subjective norm (your friends think it's cool), and then form an intention. If your intention is strong enough, it will guide what you do next, like saying no to the cigarette.

Attitudes and Behavioral Intentions

Let's dive a bit deeper into attitudes and how they shape your intentions. Remember, an attitude is what you feel about something, whether you think it's good or bad.

For instance, if you believe eating vegetables is good for your health, that's a positive attitude towards healthy eating. This is formally known as "health behaviors."

Now, these attitudes don't just pop up out of nowhere. They come from your own experiences, the information you've gathered, and the outcomes you expect.

If you've always been told that vegetables are part of a healthy diet and you've felt better when eating them, these experiences reinforce your positive attitude.

Your attitude is like the inner voice that speaks up when you're about to make a decision. It whispers reasons why you should or shouldn't do something. If your inner voice is strong and clear about the benefits of eating vegetables, you're more likely to intend to fill your plate with greens.

But it's not just about what you think is right or wrong. There's another player in this game: your behavioral intention. This is your plan, your mental commitment to following through on what your attitude is nudging you towards.

If your attitude has done a good job convincing you, your behavioral intention is like making a deal with yourself to act on it. It’s saying, “Yes, I'm going to eat vegetables with my dinner because it's good for me.”

These intentions are powerful predictors of what you're actually going to do. If you've set a strong intention, you're on the path to turning that thought into action.

By understanding this connection, you can better predict your own behaviors and also get why people around you do what they do.

Subjective Norms and Decision Making

Now, let's talk about the people around you, your friends, family, and even society at large. These are the sources of subjective norms, which are the expectations they have about how you should behave. Think of subjective norms as the social pressure that can push you toward a certain action.

For example, imagine everyone in your family recycles. You grow up seeing this, and it becomes clear that they value recycling and expect you to do the same. Thus, recycling is an example of normative beliefs.

This creates a subjective norm that tells you, "In our family, we recycle." Even if you're feeling lazy about sorting your trash, this norm can nudge you to do it anyway.

Subjective norms are not just about following the crowd. They're about your desire to fit in and be accepted by the groups you value.

If you care about what your family or friends think, their opinions can be as influential as your own beliefs. So, even if you're not that concerned about the environment, the mere fact that your loved ones are can lead you to adopt recycling habits.

It's important to note that subjective norms vary greatly from person to person and group to group. What's normal in one culture or community might be unusual in another. Understanding subjective norms can help you navigate different social settings and understand why people might act differently when they're with certain groups.

Behavioral Intention

You've got your attitudes and the subjective norms weighing in, but what really sets the stage for action? That's where intention steps into the spotlight. Intention is your personal blueprint for future behavior, the mental preparation for what you plan to do.

Think of intention as the commitment phase of your decision-making process. It's when you say to yourself, "I'm going to study for two hours tonight," or "I'll start exercising three times a week." This isn't just idle thought; it's your mind setting the wheels in motion for action.

If a person decides the action has a positive or negative evaluation, you can predict behavioral intentions based on that person's attitude. Essentially, it's an outcome evaluation.

But here's the thing: the stronger your intention, the more likely you are to follow through. If you're kind of wishy-washy about that study plan, you might find yourself watching TV instead. On the other hand, if you're determined, if that intention is firm, you're far more likely to hit the books.

To form a strong intention, you need to have a clear plan and feel confident about it. You might think about how good you'll feel after getting a good grade or how much healthier you'll be after regular workouts. These positive outcomes bolster your intention.

Intention is like the last piece of a puzzle. Once it's in place, the picture of your future action is complete. Understanding this can help you not just with your own goals, but also in figuring out why others do what they do. If you know someone's intention, you've got a good guess about what they'll do next.

Applications of the Theory


When you understand the Theory of Reasoned Action, you can see it at work all around you. It's like having a set of glasses that helps you see the 'why' behind people's choices. This theory isn't just for textbooks; it's used in many areas of life, from health campaigns to understanding voting behavior.

Let's look at health, for example. Public health officials use this theory to design campaigns that encourage healthy behaviors. They know that to change behavior, they need to influence attitudes and subjective norms.

So, they create messages that not only give information about the benefits of being healthy but also show that lots of people, especially those we look up to, value these healthy behaviors.

In schools, teachers apply this theory to promote positive behaviors like preventing bullying. They help build positive attitudes towards diversity and kindness, and show that the norm among students is to respect each other. When students form the intention not to bully, it's more likely that they will act on that intention.

Even businesses use this theory to understand consumer behavior. Marketers look at the attitudes and norms influencing their customers to craft messages that resonate with them. If a business can align its products with positive attitudes and norms, customers are more likely to intend to buy, and then actually make the purchase.

By applying the Theory of Reasoned Action, professionals in various fields can create strategies that are more likely to lead to the outcomes they want. It's about connecting with the part of us that plans and decides, and it's pretty powerful once you get the hang of it.

Critiques of the Theory of Reasoned Action

Like any theory, the Theory of Reasoned Action isn't perfect. Over the years, people have pointed out areas where it doesn't quite match up with real life. It's important to look at these critiques to get the full picture.

One big critique is that the theory assumes we always make logical, well-thought-out decisions. But you know that's not always how it goes. Sometimes, you make choices on the fly, without much thought at all. In these snap decisions, the careful weighing of attitudes and norms might not play a big part.

Another point people bring up is about habits. The theory doesn't fully account for the power of habits, those things you do almost without thinking.

For example, you might automatically buckle your seatbelt without any deliberate intention. It's just a habit, something you've done so many times that it's second nature.

Lastly, there's the question of control. The theory suggests that if you intend to do something, you'll do it. But what about situations where you don't have full control?

Let's say you intend to save money, but then an unexpected bill comes in. Your intention was clear, but your ability to act on it was out of your hands.

These critiques don't mean the theory is useless, far from it. They simply remind us that while the theory can explain a lot, it doesn't explain everything. It's a tool, and like all tools, it works best when you understand its limits.

Comparison with Other Behavioral Theories

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The Theory of Reasoned Action isn't the only idea out there trying to make sense of why we do what we do. Let's compare it with a couple of other theories to see how they stack up against each other.

First up, there's the Theory of Planned Behavior. This is like the Theory of Reasoned Action's sibling. They're similar, but the Theory of Planned Behavior adds one key thing: perceived behavioral control.

This means it considers whether you feel you can actually do the behavior. It acknowledges that even with the best intentions, if you don't think you can do it, you probably won't.

Then there's the Health Belief Model. This one's all about your health-related decisions. It focuses on your beliefs about health risks and whether you think a certain action will prevent a health problem. Unlike the Theory of Reasoned Action, it emphasizes personal beliefs over social norms.

And don't forget about the Social Cognitive Theory. This theory brings in the power of learning from others. It says that seeing someone else do a certain behavior (and the results they get) can influence your own behavior. This is different from the Theory of Reasoned Action, which doesn't focus as much on learning from others.

Each of these theories looks at behavior from a slightly different angle. The Theory of Reasoned Action is great for understanding the role of intentions, but when you bring in control issues (like in the Theory of Planned Behavior), health beliefs, or learning from others, you get a fuller picture.

When you compare these theories, you can see that behavior is complex, and no single theory has all the answers.

Future of the Theory of Reasoned Action

As we look ahead, the Theory of Reasoned Action still has a big role to play. But like anything that stands the test of time, it will need to adapt and evolve. Let's think about what's in store for this theory in the world of psychology and beyond.

First, technology is changing the game. Social media and the internet have created new social norms and ways to influence attitudes. Researchers might start looking at how online influencers impact our intentions and behaviors. The theory will need to consider the digital dimension of decision-making.

Then, there's the rise of big data. With more information than ever on what people do and why, the theory could become more precise. It might one day tell us not just why groups of people do things, but why you, personally, are likely to act in a certain way.

Lastly, the world is more aware of the importance of mental health now. The Theory of Reasoned Action might expand to include how our mental well-being affects our intentions and actions. It could help us understand the link between how we feel and what we do on a deeper level.

The future of the Theory of Reasoned Action is about being more connected to our changing world. It's about growing to understand the complex web of factors that guide our behavior. And as it grows, it will help us not just to predict what people will do, but to support them in making healthier, happier choices.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1) What is the Theory of Reasoned Action?

The Theory of Reasoned Action suggests that a person's behavior is determined by their intention to perform the specific behavior. This intention is shaped by their attitude towards the behavior and the societal pressures, known as subjective norms.

2) How does the Theory of Reasoned Action work?

The theory works by identifying two key elements that influence behavior: personal attitudes and subjective norms. If a person believes a behavior is positive and feels that important people in their life agree with normative belief, they are more likely to have a strong intention to perform that behavior.

3) Can the Theory of Reasoned Action predict all behaviors?

No, the theory isn't perfect. It doesn't always account for spontaneous actions, deeply ingrained habits, or situations where people have limited control over their actions.

4) How is the Theory of Planned Behavior different from the Theory of Reasoned Action?

The Theory of Planned Behavior is an extension of the Theory of Reasoned Action. It adds one more element: perceived control or behavioral control, which considers whether a person feels they can actually perform the behavior.

5) Why is the Theory of Reasoned Action important?

It's important because it provides a framework for understanding and predicting behaviors, which can be incredibly useful in areas like public health, marketing, and education.

6) How do subjective norms influence behavior in the Theory of Reasoned Action?

Subjective norms are the perceived social pressures to perform or not perform a particular behavior. If people who are important to the individual expect the behavior to be performed, the individual is more likely to have the intention to act.

7) Can the Theory of Reasoned Action be applied to group behaviors?

While the theory is focused on individual intentions, it can be scaled to predict trends in group behaviors by aggregating individual intentions within a group.

8) Is the Theory of Reasoned Action still relevant today?

Yes, the theory is still relevant and widely used, though it continues to evolve to incorporate new understanding of behaviors and the influence of technology and social change.

9) How can the Theory of Reasoned Action be used in marketing?

Marketers can use the theory to craft messages that align with consumers' positive attitudes and the favorable norms of their social groups, which can increase the intention to buy a product or service.

10) What are some criticisms of the Theory of Reasoned Action?

Critics say the theory assumes people always make logical decisions, it doesn’t fully consider the power of habits, and it doesn’t account for lack of control over outcomes, among other limitations.


As you've journeyed through the ins and outs of the Theory of Reasoned Action, you've uncovered a landscape of human behavior that is both intricate and influential.

This theory offers a window into the mechanics of decision-making, laying bare the delicate interplay between attitudes, societal expectations, and the intentions that drive our actions.

It's clear that while the Theory of Reasoned Action has its critics and doesn't capture the full complexity of human behavior, it remains a powerful tool. It helps to unravel the often-invisible threads that tie beliefs to actions, providing valuable insights for those looking to influence behavior for the better.

Looking forward, the theory's principles are bound to be honed and expanded upon, integrating new understandings of technology's role and the digital footprints that shape our modern existence.

The Theory of Reasoned Action will continue to be a guiding force, not just in predicting behaviors, but in fostering positive change across various spheres of life.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, November). Theory of Reasoned Action (Description + Examples). Retrieved from

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