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Attitude certainty

Dr. Simon Moss


Sometimes, individuals are not certain of their attitudes. They are not sure whether they support or oppose affirmative action, euthanasia, gun control, abortion, capital punishment, and many other issues.

Attitude certainty can affect many consequences. Individuals who are uncertain of their attitudes are more susceptible to persuasion, even if these attitudes are extreme. Furthermore, individuals who are uncertain of their attitudes often experience doubts about themselves as well.

Determinants of attitude certainty

Many factors determine whether or not individuals feel certain about their attitudes. First, although attitudes tend to represent personal evaluations, the extent to which individuals feel these cognitions are supported by peers does affect certainty (e.g., Fazio, 1979& Festinger, 1954& Visser & Mirabile, 2004). That is, individuals feel more certain of their attitudes if their peers express similar opinions, called consensus.

Second, attitudes, after being repeated aloud, tend to become more certain (e.g., Holland, Verplanken, & van Knippenberg, 2003). That is, the attitude become more accessible, and this accessibility seems to promote certainty.

Third, if individuals have acquired direct experience with some object or event, their attitudes towards this issue tend to be more certain (Fazio & Zanna, 1978& Wu & Shaffer, 1987). If individuals have worked in an organization in which affirmative action was implemented, their attitudes towards this policy are often more certain.

Fourth, attitudes that have been maintained, even after someone else has attempted to persuade individuals to adopt a different position, also tend to be more certain. That is, attitudes that seem to resist alternative arguments are regarded as more certain (e.g.,Tormala & Petty, 2002).

Taken together, these findings imply that attitudes are more certain if they are accessible as well as able to accommodate many sources of information or feedback, such as peer perceptions and counterarguments. Indeed, many other factors also affect attitude certainty, all consistent with these propositions (see Bizer, Tormala, Rucker, & Petty, 2006).

Some other antecedents of attitude certainty have been suggested recently. Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007), for example, predicted that individuals might feel more certain towards their attitudes if their explicit and implicit attitudes align with other (for information about this distinction, see Wilson, Lindsey, & Schooler, 2000& Dual process models of attitudes). In particular, according to these authors, if explicit and implicit attitudes diverge, individuals experience a subtle state of tension (Petty, Tormala, Brinol, & Jarvis, 2006), and this state might imply their attitudes are not certain. Specifically, the clarity of attitudes should diminish& individuals might not know whether their attitudes towards some issue are positive or negative.

Consequences of attitude certainty

The consequences of certain attitudes diverge from the consequences of uncertain attitudes. First, attitudes are more likely to affect the behavior of individuals if they are certain rather than uncertain (e.g., Bizer, Tormala, Rucker, & Petty, 2006& Rucker & Petty, 2004& Tormala & Petty, 2004). Individuals, for example, who express positive attitudes towards charity may be more likely to donate money if these attitudes are certain rather than uncertain.

Second, attitudes that are certain are more enduring. That is, these attitudes seem to last over longer durations (e.g., Bassili, 1996) but also are more resistant to counterarguments (e.g., Tormala & Petty, 2002& Wu & Shaffer, 1987).

Third, certainty about individuals has also been shown to affect certainty about the self (Clarkson, Tormala, DenSensi, & Wheeler, 2009). That is, in the study conducted by Clarkson, Tormala, DenSensi, and Wheeler (2009), participants engaged in activities that affect the certainty of their attitudes. Some participants were instructed to repeat their attitudes, for example. When attitude certainty was enhanced, individuals reported fewer doubts about themselves. That is, they experienced more self certainty.

Dimensions of attitude certainty

Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007) distinguished between two facets of attitude certainty: clarity and correctness. In particular, clarity refers to the extent to which individuals feel they know whether their attitudes are positive or negative. In contrast, certainty refers to the degree to which individuals feel their attitudes are accurate or correct.

Indeed, Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007) developed a measure to distinguish attitude clarity and attitude correctness about capital punishment. Four items gauged attitude clarity, such as "To what extent is your true attitude toward capital punishment clear in your mind?". Three items gauged attitude correctness, including "To what extent do you think other people should have the same attitude as you on this issue?".

Confirmatory factor analysis confirmed this distinction (RMSEA = .08) even though the correlation between the two factors was reasonably high at .44. Furthermore, alpha reliability for clarity and correctness was .97 and .82 respectively (Petrocelli, Tormala, & Rucker, 2007).

Furthermore, as Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007) showed, clarity and correctness are shaped by different factors. Repeated exposure to attitudes increases clarity but not certainty. In contrast, consensus increases correctness but not clarity.

Finally, Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007) demonstrated that both attitude clarity and correctness, as manipulated by repetition and consensus respectively, was related to resistance to persuasion. That is, attitudes that were perceived as clear and correct did not change, even after participants received information that contradicts their opinions. These relationships persisted even after attitude ambivalence was controlled.

Related concepts

Attitude certainty is related to, but distinct from, other manifestations or correlates of attitude strength. Specifically, several manifestations or correlates of attitude strength have been characterized, such as attitude accessibility, importance, extremity, intensity, and ambivalence (for discussions, see Fabrigar, MacDonald, & Wegener, 2005& Franc, 1999& Visser, Bizer, & Krosnick, 2006). All of these measures determine attitude strength-- the extent to which attitudes are persistent as well as shape the decisions and behaviors of individuals (Krosnick & Petty, 1995& Krosnick & Schuman, 1988).

Although related, attitude certainty is not equivalent to these other measures or determinants of attitude strength. Visser, Krosnick, and Simmons (2003), for example, showed that attitude certainty is distinct from attitude importance. Similarly, Petrocelli, Tormala, and Rucker (2007) showed that two facets of attitude certainty--clarity and correctness--predicted resistance to change afrer controlling attitude ambivalence.

Complexity of knowledge

Attitude certainty may be related to the complexity of knowledge that underpins an attitude. Fabrigar, Petty, Smith, and Crites (2006) showed the complexity of knowledge, like certainty, can also moderate the relationship between attitudes and behavior. Specifically, some attitudes are derived from a single dimension of knowledge. Other attitudes, in contrast, are derived from many dimensions of knowledge. Whether or not individuals appreciate affirmation action could have evolved solely on their knowledge about the percentage of women in management. Alternatively, these attitudes could have evolved from other sources of knowledge as well, such as the tendency of executives to select individuals who are similar to themselves (see Scott, 1969).

Previous research has shown that attitudes that have evolved from many sources of knowledge, called complex knowledge, tend to be less extreme (e.g., Judd & Lusk, 1984& Linville, 1982& Millar & Tesser, 1986). Few studies have examined whether knowledge complexity affects the relationship between attitudes and behavior, however.

Fabrigar, Petty, Smith, and Crites (2006) undertook a study to redress this shortfall. In their study, participants received evaluations of two retail stores. The knowledge was either complex--that is, several departments in the store were evaluated--or simple--that is, only one department in the store, which sells cameras, was evaluated. Next, participants reported their attitudes towards these stores as well as which store they would visit to purchase a camera.

Attitudes were more likely to be related to behaviors when several departments were described. This finding is intriguing because participants were interested in only one of the departments while reaching a decision. The description of other departments, however, increased the complexity of attitudes towards the stores. Presumably, individuals felt their attitudes, therefore, were more diagnostic or informative if these evaluations were derived from several sources of information.

Interestingly, as Fabrigar, Petty, Smith, and Crites (2006), the complexity, but not the amount, of information influenced by association between attitudes and behavior. That is, in one condition, participants received many pieces of information, but only about one department. In other words, the amount, but not the complexity, of information was elevated. In this condition, the association between attitudes and behavior was not especially pronounced.

Conceivably, complexity of knowledge, and thus attitude certainty, might be related to integrative complexity--which is the capacity to reflect upon issues from multiple perspectives and then to assimilate the ensuing insights (e.g., Tetlock, 1985). Nevertheless, this association has not been the focus of significant research endeavors (see Integrative complexity).


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