Formation of Attitudes and Opinions Behavioral studies in the field of politics - Funding Problems series 3


The Formation of Attitudes and Opinions Behavioral studies in the field of politics have long recognized the need for a thorough understanding of the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. These disciplines often present an array of competing positions but their synthesis offers a basis to more accurately examine attitude research (George, 1958).

 Specifically, how does attitude affect the general disposition of a superintendent or legislator to take action in a certain way? George (1958) stated that the notion that political man is a purposive being, engaged in instrumental behavior and exercising reason in attempting to choose his course of action wisely is, of course, a traditional and highly respected idea in political science. 

This notion, has long served as the basis for interpreting and accounting for political action by means of the so-called “rational hypothesis.” (p. 21) Karl Popper has chosen to interpret political action by means of the rational hypothesis, the “logic-of-the-situation” type of explanation (Popper, 1952). Those individuals choosing to “act” are assumed to choose among alternative courses of action based on their assessment of logic of the situation that they are confronting. For example, if an inner city school is labeled as a failing school, a legislator may perceive it is a result of poor teaching and a lack of proper administration. 

However, the school may have far more challenges than other schools, in that there may be many more socioeconomic barriers preventing the school from succeeding. One study (George, 1958) claimed that “one takes account of the actual and programmed use of these three functions— ‘object appraisal,’ ‘social adjustment,’ and ‘externalization’” (p. 21). All of these factors apply motivational forces in forming opinions. Likewise, “reality testing,” “reward and punishment,” and “ego defense” are three additional motivational contexts of attitudes (Saruoff & Katz, 1954). Researchers have validated that no single factor forms opinions or shapes attitudes. 

Social Influences The process of opinion change is greatly affected by social influence. In a study on opinion change by Kelman (1961), he identified processes of social influences that guide all opinion changes: compliance, identification, and internalization. Compliance can be said to occur when an individual accepts influence from another person or from a group because he hopes to achieve favorable reaction from the other. He may be interested in attaining certain specific rewards or avoiding certain specific punishments that the  influencing agent controls (Kelman, 1961). 

For example, he stated that “some individuals may compulsively try to say the expected thing in all situations and please everyone with whom they come in contact out of a disproportionate need for favorable responses from others” (Kelman, 1961, p. 62). The individual learns to say or do the expected thing in special situations, regardless of their private beliefs. The second social influence that guides the development of opinions is identification. Identification can be said to occur when an individual adopts behavior derived from another person or a group because this behavior is associated with a satisfying, self-defining relationship with a given person or group. It contributes to a person’s self image. In accepting influence through identification, an individual has a way of establishing or maintaining the desired relationship to the other party. Opinions formed through identification may take all or part of the role of the influencing agent. He or she defines their role in terms of the role of the other (Kelman, 1961). An example of this may include political party affiliation or caucus membership. An individual’s opinion is influenced by a desire to maintain affiliation with the group and often embraces the opinion of the group whole heartedly to maintain acceptance. The third social influence that affects opinion formation of an individual is that of internalization. It is said to occur when an individual accepts influence because the induced behavior is congruent with his own value system. The individual adopts it because he finds it useful for the solution of a problem or because it is congenial to his own orientation or that is demanded by his own values (Kelman, 1961). Compliance, identification, and internalization are, in effect, tools needed to influence or internalize change.

Core Beliefs and Values An individual’s core beliefs and values represent the basic fiber of an individual as he or she enters the arena on the first day of political interaction. To some extent, policies and actions are often judged right or wrong because of their implications for deeply held values (Rokeach, 1973). A set of widely shared beliefs, values, and norms concerning the relationship of citizens to their government and to one another in matters affecting public affairs is often recognized as political culture (McCloskey & Zaller, 1984). Three widely shared beliefs that tend to define the core values of an individual are (a) a belief in equal opportunity, (b) support for economic individualism, and (c) support for the free enterprise system (Devine, 1972). All three of these are major components of what Devine identified as the basis of American public opinion and have been argued to be central to the way in which people in the United States think about politics. Economic individualism, the belief which people should get ahead because of their own hard work, is a core element in accounts of American values and beliefs. Some of the earliest European settlers brought with them a commitment to the work ethic already entrenched in industrialized Britain (Feagin, 1975). Evidence of a widespread belief in the work ethic is still apparent in opinion surveys today. The companion belief to work ethic is equality of opportunity. Despite obvious discrimination against minorities and women, the United States was the first nation to acknowledge that formal equality is a right of all people (Lipset, 1979). Americans have interpreted equality as formal or political equality rather than equality of results. Its value was meant to be interpreted in terms of advancement rather than as an asset in itself. The third belief that serves as a core value is that of the strong support to the free enterprise system. The free enterprise system can be seen as the economic side of the individualistic social system. Support for the free enterprise system has typically been accompanied by a distrust of big government (Lipset, 1979). The support for capitalism and free enterprise forms one of the basic elements of the American political culture. Core beliefs are not uniformly distributed within the public or in the ideals of politicians or superintendents. To the extent that differences exist, these beliefs can account for variations in policy preferences, political evaluations, and candidate preference (Feldman, 1988). Take for example the belief in equal opportunity for all. To one legislator that may be interpreted as the need to propose policy language that has very little restrictions on government interference, while another legislator may interpret equal opportunity for all to include nondiscriminatory language in any proposed legislation.

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