Attitudes are usually defined as a disposition or tendency to respond positively or negatively towards a certain thing (idea, object, person, situation). They encompass, or are closely related to, our opinions and beliefs and are based upon our experiences. Since attitudes often relate in some way to interaction with others, they represent an important link between cognitive and social psychology. As far as instruction is concerned, a great deal of learning involves acquiring or changing attitudes. Attitude change is especially relevant to management and sales training.

Hovland, Janis, & Kelly (1953) provided one of the first major theories of attitude change, developed in the framework of Hull's learning theory , and oriented towards the effects of persuasive communication. According to the Hovland et al theory, changes in opinions can result in attitude change depending upon the presence or absence of rewards. The learning of new attitudes is no different in nature than any other verbal or motor skill, except that opinions relate to a single proposition whereas other skills involve a series of propositions. The acceptance of a new opinion (and hence attitude formation) is dependent upon the incentives that are offered in the communication.

Heider (1958) developed a balance theory of attitude change that was influenced by Gestalt principles . In Heider's theory, when beliefs are unbalanced, stress is created and there is pressure to change attitudes. The two main factors affecting balance are the sentiment (e.g., liking, approving, admiring) and unity (e.g., similarity, proximity, membership) qualities of beliefs. Balance exists if the sentiment or unity between beliefs about events or people are equally positive or negative; imbalance occurs when they are dissimilar in nature.

Abelson (1968) and others developed theories of cognitive consistency. Cognitive consistency suggests that people will try and maintain consistency among their beliefs and make changes (i.e., accept or reject ideas) when this doesn't occur. For example, if a college student who wants to live in a coed dormitory and also wants to get good grades is presented with the fact that students who live in coed dorms get poor grades, the student will either reject this proposition or change his attitudes about coed dorms or good grades.

Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance is one of the best known and most researched frameworks pertaining to attitude change. According to this theory, attitude change is caused by conflict among beliefs. A number of factors determine the strength of the dissonance and hence how much effort is required to change attitudes. By manipulating these factors, attitude change can be facilitated or inhibited.

Attitudes are one of the five major categories of learning outcomes in Gagne's theoretical framework.


Abelson, R. (1968). Theories of Cognitive Consistency Theory. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Heider, F. (1959). The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: Wiley.

Hovland, C., Janis, I., & Kelley, H. (1953). Communication and Persuasion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Triandis, H. (1971). Attitude and Attitude Change. New York: Wiley.

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