Behaviour and Attitudes

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Understanding human behaviour and attitudes has long captured the attention of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and researchers. Do attitudes influence our behaviour, or does behaviour form our attitudes?

What is behaviour?

Definitions of behaviour include:

“Behaviour is the total response, motor and glandular, which an organism makes to any situation it faces”.
- Drever.

“Behaviour is the observable output of a system.”
- Ashby

Most definitions emphasise that behaviour is observable — that you can see it. In this way, it differs from Attitudes or Personality, which cannot be observed directly — only inferred from a person’s behaviour.

A simple definition of behaviour is:

“An observable unit of performance.”

Examples of behaviour:

Because behaviour is observable, it is much easier to measure than attitudes or personality. It is also easier to change.

What is an attitude?

Psychologists disagree about the precise definition of attitude. Drever defines an attitude as:

“A more or less stable set or disposition of ’ opinion, interest or purpose involving expectancy of a certain type of experience and readiness with an appropriate response.”

Triandis thinks that an attitude is:

“A predisposition to respond consistently to presented situations.”

A simpler definition of attitude is:

“A collection of consistent opinions which a person holds.”

Older definitions suggest that attitudes cause behaviour, so changing a person’s attitude would change their behaviour. Research (by Fishbein, Breer & Locke and Triandis) suggests that the link between attitude and behaviour is very complex and that attitude change frequently fails to result in behaviour change.

It is generally agreed that attitudes have:

The Relation between Behaviour and Attitude

Is behaviour the result of attitudes, or are attitudes the result of experienced behaviour? Triandis, in his book ‘Attitude and Attitude Change’ discusses this as follows:

“One way of answering why people have attitudes is to argue that they need to give meaning to their behaviour. People ‘explain’ their behaviour to themselves by convincing themselves and others that the social objects that benefitted from the behaviour are intrinsically good and worthy of ‘such positive action. For example, a business person may support a particular political programme because he feels that this support will increase the number of his clients. Having done this, he convinces himself and tries to convince others that the political programme has great merit. In the process, his attitude gradually becomes positive towards this programme.

“Traditional thinking about the direction of causality in attitude theory has assumed that attitudes cause a person’s behaviour. The view just described postulates the opposite direction of causality — the behaviour causes the attitude.

“Breer and Locke (1965) present extensive laboratory evidence supporting their theory that task experiences determine people's beliefs, attitudes and values. If members of a given culture receive rewards in situations in which they act as individuals, their ‘individualism’ will increase; if they receive rewards in situations in which they act as group members, their ‘collectivism’ will increase.

“Similarly, if they frequently succeed in tasks where there is a leader, they will tend to become more ‘authoritarian’, and if they frequently succeed in tasks where there is no leader, they will tend to become ‘equalitarian’. After experiences of the first kind, the subjects of Breer and Locke’s experiment showed a significant unfavourable change in their attitudes toward ‘discussion groups’ and ‘groups in general’; after experiences of the second kind, the subjects showed a significantly favourable change in their attitudes towards these two attitude objects.

“By exposing some subjects to greater frequencies of success than others, Breer and Locke were able to change some of the attitudes and values of subjects toward the effort, luck, control, fatalism, time and mastery over nature.”

Changing Attitudes versus Changing Behaviour — A Case Study

Attitude change does not necessarily produce behaviour change, as the following study of safety training in the British Steel Industry illustrated.

Twenty-one trainees attended a traditional safety training course to change their attitude toward safety, consisting of videos and a lecture-type approach. Another group of 16 trainees spent the same amount of time on an assignment where they were responsible for investigating the safety hazards in a section of the works similar to their own and writing a report on the action required. This second group was unaware that this was being used as a training method. Attitudes to safety were tested before and after for both groups of trainees. The number of job changes in their section and affected safety was also recorded.

The result showed a clear advantage for the ‘project’ group over the ‘attitude’ training group regarding subsequent job changes: 34 changes were made by the attitude group — 1.6 per person — and 143 by the project group — 8.9 per person. Immediately after the training, the attitude changes were +4.7 points for the attitude group and only +1.0 for the project group. Six months later, the positions had reversed regarding favourable attitudes, and the project group were even further ahead regarding job changes.

Comparison of the Effect of Attitude and Behaviour Training

 * Rackham/Bird Attitude Safety Scale. American Journal of Safety Engineering (1968)




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