As far back as Allport, attitudes have frequently featured in psychology research and literature, emerging from which are differing theories with regards their formation and function (Katz, 1960). Despite the differing ideas of their origins and formation mechanisms, many theories are similar in their emphasis on likes and dislikes, or preferences towards forming a definition of attitudes (Bem, 1970; Fishbein & Azjen, 1975). To the degree that an object is viewed favourably or unfavourably in this way, is often suggested to be primarily by means of cognitive processes or the ideas and beliefs an individual has regarding the object to be evaluated (McGuire, 1969). The role of affective processes such as emotions (McGuire, 1969), however, has also been suggested as being highly influential (Aaker & Williams, 1998). In the following essay I will outline the different positions held regarding the importance of affect and cognitive processes in influencing attitudes.
It has been widely acknowledged through many studies that cognitive processes have a role to play in attitude formation. The debate surrounding this topic is whether or not these ideas and beliefs are the sole governors of attitudes, which has been suggested by a number of researchers (Fishbein & Azjen, 1975, 1980). This line of theory maintains that attitudes are based on logical reasoning manifested from previous experience. For example, if an individual is presented with a new brand of herbal tea it would be thought the initial attitude towards the product would be neutral. However, if he has heard of the brand before and acknowledged that herbal tea is good for oneaa‚¬a„?s health, he may reason that this product is good. He may also associate herbal tea with being a feminine drink, in which case he may not hold such a favourable attitude towards it. Many researchers have often shown how attitudes towards a product can be formed in such a way (Nagashima 1970; Haugtvedt, Petty, & Cacioppo, 1992) as well as a number of other domains such as evaluations of others (Abreu, 1999). Attitudes in this way are based on ideas and beliefs the individual holds regarding the information he has relating to the object. The attitude is also dependant on which pieces of information regarding the object are salient at the time of assessment as individuals can only process a particular amount of beliefs pertaining to an object at a given time (Kaplan & Fishbein, 1969). In this way, priming for particular ideas and beliefs is often shown to influence attitudes (Katz & Glen, 1988; Kawakami, Dovidio, & Diklsterhuis, 2003). Over all, the basic theory suggests that attitudes are based on previously learnt associations which one evaluates in reference to the given object.
In contrast to the idea that attitude is solely based on cognitive reasoning, is the influence of affect on attitudes whose importance as a mechanism for attitudes has been debated across studies. For instance, earlier findings suggest affect is managed by cognitive functions (Azjen & Fishbein, 1970) but more recent research suggests it is in fact an influential factor on its own independent of the cognitive role (Trafimow & Sheeran, 1998; Edwards, 1990). The role of affect can be shown in relation to the emotive influences used in a number of domains such as fear inducing shock tactics in road safety and health related campaigns aimed at attitude and behaviour change (Dahl, Frankenberger, & Manchanda, 2003). Individuals may realise the dangers in their behaviour but their attitude towards the behaviour is often neutral until faced with these emotion inducing tactics which can result in attitude and consequently behaviour change. This then highlights how at different times, the evaluation being formed can determine which process, whether affective or cognitive, may be more influential.
Apart from influencing attitudes towards differing objects more effectively, cognitive and affective processes may also be shown to influence attitudes regarding the same object through different ways. For example in political campaigns, affect based techniques are often incorporated in order to win votes and support (Brader, 2005). These campaigns frequently use emotion invoking tactics, but the level of information held by the individual regarding the attitude to be formed may highly influence which process, whether affective or cognitive based, will be more influential on this attitude formation (Cacioppo, Petty, & Morris, 1983). Those with high levels of understanding relating to the issue are less likely to be as easily influenced as those with little understanding, as they will draw from logical reasoning to evaluate the message being construed. For these individuals, well structured arguments are more likely to be influential on attitude formation as the individual can examine each premise of the argument logically, however, for those with weaker beliefs or less information regarding the object, affective based cues may be more likely to induce a change in attitude (Petty & Caccioppo, 1981). This is an example of how cognitive or affective processes can be more influential in different domains. More so, recent studies have been carried out which similarly examine how the origin of the attitude can determine which process, whether cognitive or affective, will be more influential in that focus on affective or cognitive based processes has been shown to lead to the formation of different attitudes (Van den Berg et al., 2005).
From the above, the reviewed literature has outlined that cognitive and affective processes may work separately and more effectively in different contexts. Affective based attitudes are more strongly impacted by affect and cognitive attitudes are more strongly impacted by cognitive based influences. Recent studies have also shown that in certain circumstances, both cognitive and affective processes are required. In Witte and Allenaa‚¬a„?s study (2000), in relation to public health appeals it was found that the strongest attitude and behaviour change was exhibited when the individual had a high belief in their ability to change, as well as a high emotion related priming effect, in this case fear. Another example here can be that of charitable donations. If one reasoned that their donation is unlikely to make a difference, then it is less likely they will donate money. If an emotion evoking advertisement accompanies the campaign in which the individual feels guilt or pity for the individuals suffering, then they are more likely to donate, but some amount of belief in how beneficial their donation will be.
Based on the research outlined above, it appears that neither affect nor cognitive processes are the primary influencer of attitudes and that instead, both at times are more influential which is determined by the form of object being addressed or to the level of information held by the individuals at the time of attitude formation. Also, in some instances, both may be equally important at time of formation.