Fishbein's Attitude

R. Johnson Spring 2002

            Attitudes are some of the most misunderstood aspects of our personalities.  How we develop our attitudes and what impact they have on our behavior is equally a mystery. Scientists have in the past tried to explain attitude and behavior, but have used definitions that were too general or that really only fit their specific situation, which can lead to confusion and misunderstanding about attitude and behavior prediction.  With ambiguous results that don't have a specific definition the results are useless. 

Fishbein is one of the best known and respected information-integration theorists (Littlejohn 2002).  Fishbein and Ajzen found two problems with the traditional views of attitude and communication; first the term attitude has been defined too generally.  The traditional view did not differentiate between attitude, belief, subjective norms, behavioral intention and behavior.  Fishbein and Ajzen felt that these key terms should be separated because each had a separate, but key role in both the prediction of actions. They have been defined too "loosely" and the results have been inconsistent and often contradictory with each other (Bright et al. 1993).  The second problem Fishbein found with the traditional view is that the researchers seemed to ignore the receiver.  He felt that they were only looking at the message and were treating the receiver as a "passive recipient of information" and consequently gave the credit of attitude almost entirely to the quality of the message and the number of the arguments (Bright et al. 1993).  These problems needed to be corrected.

            Fishbein and Ajzen decided that the first step in counteracting these problems would be to create a specific definition of attitude separate from beliefs, subjective norms, behavioral intention and behavior allowing each term to have its own separate role in his theories.  He corrected the second problem by treating each receiver as someone able to process information in a systematic manner forming opinions and comprehending and not just as a passive listener convinced entirely by the eloquence of the delivery or the number of arguments the sender has to share (Bright et al 1993). 

            Fishbein's attitude theories give us a basis to understand attitude and predict behavior. Research in this aspect of communication will increase our understanding of persuasion and motivation by preparing belief-targeted messages and testing their effectiveness on our target audiences.  His theories also help us to understand the development and formation of attitudes and belief, helping us find the most effective modes of persuasion and motivation; if we understand how attitudes are formed we are better equipped to mold them. 

            Lets start with a definition of attitude; attitude is "an accumulation of information about an object, person, situation or experience...a predisposition to act in a positive or negative way toward some object" (Littlejohn 2002).  Attitude is essentially information we have obtained about someone or something that we form an opinion or predisposition about.   In creating this definition Fishbein wanted to make a concrete definition with little room for interpretation or misunderstanding, he wanted to make sure that there was no ambiguity for anyone who chooses to research his theories and methods. 

            Fishbein's views on attitude can be broken down into three theories.  First we have his information and integration theory, which focuses on how we accumulate and organize information. According to this theory all information has the potential to affect attitude based on two variables valence and weight (Littlejohn 2002). Valence is how the information compares to our attitude.  All statements have a positive or negative valence based on whether or not we agree with them.  A statement with a positive valence is something we already agree with and a statement with a negative valence is something we already disagree with.  The effect information has on our attitude is also determined by the weight it has.  Statements with a lighter weight regardless of their valence are not going to have much of an impact on our attitude.  A statement that we believe has a great deal of weight is going to have a more significant impact on our attitude regardless of its valence.  This theory also holds that most of the time one statement regardless of the weight we assign it will not have a significant impact on our attitude because our attitudes usually consist of a number of ideas that will counteract the new information. 

            Fishbein's second theory is his expectancy-value theory.  He states that there are two kinds of belief, first belief in something and then belief about something.  An example of this used by Stephen Littlejohn is euthanasia for example if you believe in the existence of pain and suffering late in life   you could also have a belief that people who are suffering might rather die than continue to live in pain, your belief in pain and your belief about pain may lead you to vote in favor of euthanasia.  According to this theory our beliefs vary from our attitudes because attitudes are evaluative.  Beliefs and attitudes together motivate you towards an attitude object, in the case of the above beliefs that object would most likely be voting in favor of euthanasia.  According to Fishbein a general attitude could be predicted based on a specific one, someone with a general belief about euthanasia will have several specific attitudes about life, death, individual rights, and pain and suffering (Littlejohn 2002).

Fishbein created an equation to predict attitude toward a behavior.  To predict their behavior you need to multiply the person's evaluation of each behavior's consequences by the strength of her belief that the behavior will lead to those consequences and then adding of the products of each.  In his book Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior    Fishbein uses a woman's choice to use birth control pills to illustrate this.  He used five consequences of using birth control pills rated them with either a positive of negative valence and then rated each with a weight.  The valance was rated with Table A. The respondent was asked to rank possible consequences based on how favorable she thought they were.  The respondent was then asked to rank how likely she thought each consequence would be. The scale she was asked to use is listed as Table B.  The results from Tables A and B are shown on Table C (see Appendix).   The researcher would then put the variables in to the equation.    is equal to the attitude toward object o,  is equal to the strength of belief I about o,  is the evaluative aspect of B and N is the number of beliefs. An attitude toward and object equals the sum of each belief about that object times its evaluation.  In this case the woman's attitude toward using birth control pills appears to be slightly positive.  People usually believe that their behavior will lead to both positive and negative consequences and their attitude is based on how favorable the total set is (Fishbein & Ajzen 1980).  According to this theory information can have three effects on attitude change: first information can change the weight of a particular belief, second information can effect the direction or valence of a particular belief and third information can add new beliefs (Littlejohn 2002). 

The third theory has to do with how attitudes from the first two theories influence behavior; this theory is called Theory of Reasoned Action.   In this theory Fishbein and Ajzen argue that "behavior results in part from intentions and from complex outcome of attitudes" (Littlejohn 2002).  In other words you behave based on your attitude and how you believe others would have you act.  How each of these effects your actions is based on how much weight you give both your attitude and others opinions, that weight will often vary based on the specific situation.  This theory is called the theory of reasoned action because they believe that our actions are mostly rational and based on a systematic evaluation of the information available to them.  Fishbein believed that people consider the implications of their actions and act based on a reasonable assessment of those implications.  According to this theory intentions are a result of the persons judgment that performing the behavior is good,  their attitude toward the behavior  the plus the social pressure put on him to perform the behavior or the subjective norm.  Going back to the birth control question before, the woman's attitude toward the use of birth control pills may be favorable, but the pressure put on by family and friends or the subjective norm may be against using them.  If she puts more weight on the subjective norm or that pressure her intention will be to not use the pills even though her personal attitude favors them.  The equation used to illustrate this is .  In this formula BI is the behavioral intention, A is the attitude toward the behavior, W is the weight of beliefs 1 and 2, and SN is the subjective norm.  Therefore the behavioral intention is a function of the attitude toward the behavior times the strength or weight of that attitude plus what others think times the strength of their opinion.  This formula will predict the behavior of an individual but it may not predict their actual behavior.  This is because people do not always do what they intend to.  There maybe factors that will cause them to go against their good intention.  Littlejohn uses the example of someone who knows they should not smoke and intends to quit but is unable to because of their addiction.  This theory is very useful in understanding human behavior. 

I have selected six criteria for evaluating these theories; first, I will look at his theoretical scope and how far these theories reach.  Second, I will look at their heuristic value, that is I will focus on how much excitement they create, do they inspire other scientists to look into his theories and use them in their own work.  Third, I will look at their validity, do these theories explain what they set our to explain or did they simply miss that mark.  Fourth, I will take a look at their parsimony; are they simple and short or are they wordy and hard to understand.  Fifth, are they useful, if these theory did not have a use then what is the point of studying them, I will determine if they have any real use. Finally I will also talk about if they are testable and whether or not someone else could verify Fishbein and Ajzen's work.

The theoretical scope of this theory is far reaching.  This theory is about people in general and is not limited to any one specific situation.  This theory covers a few phenomena, the creation of attitudes and the decision making process are the two prominent phenomena of this theory.  This theory while limited in the phenomena it explains is not limited in the explanation of the phenomena it does work for.  This theory will be able to explain these phenomena in almost and situation.  This theory also has a very strong Heuristic value.  The ideas Fishbein has presented in this theory have helped him and others to move into new areas. 

Third I would like to look at the validity of this theory, did Fishbein and Ajzen explain what they set out to explain and define.  When he began his research Fishbein noticed that there were many different definitions being used for theories explaining attitude and behavior.  He saw that this led to "confusion and ambiguity surrounding the attitude concept" (Fishbein & Ajzen 1975).  He also said, "our ultimate goal is to predict and understand an individual's behavior" (Fishbein & Ajzen 1980).  Both of these goals were achieved.  He made a clear definition that is used by many others and has developed a theory that explains and leads to an understanding of attitude and behavior.  Fourth, I looked at the parsimony of this theory.  This theory was understandable and I believe that it was not over wordy.  The authors were concise and clear in their explanation of this theory. 

The fifth criterion I looked at was the usefulness of this theory.  This theory can be used for many purposes; it could be used to determine the attitudes and predict the behavior of voters, or used by advertisers to better understand what kind of marketing will work best on different people.  This theory most importantly allows us to study the way attitudes are formed and their relationship to behavior with room to move into other areas.  This theory can be used as a springboard to look into other areas.  Finally, I looked at the testability of this theory and have found that it would not be difficult to test the reliability of this theory.  The methods used to do the research were clear and can be replicated, in fact this theory was tested by the National Recreation and Park association and the results were used to "develop a belief-targeted message and investigate their effectiveness in changing the publics' perception of a recreation or natural resource management policy" (Bright et al. 1993).  The results were successful; Fisheye's theory withstood the test and his results were duplicated. 

Fishbein gave us a solid definition of attitude and behavior that we can work with to avoid the "confusion and ambiguity" of past theories.  He set groundwork for more uniform study of attitude and behavior.  Fishbein sought out a way to not only predict behavior but to also understand its relationship with attitude and he did an excellent job.





Works Cited

Bright, Alan D., et al. "Application of the theory of reasoned action to the national park service's controlled burn policy." Journal of Leisure Research. v25 (1993): California State University, Fresno Expanded Academic ASAP. Summer 1993.

Fishbein, Martin, and Icek Ajzen. Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Fishbein Martin, and Icek Ajzen. Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. California: Addison-Wesley, 1975.

Littlejohn, Stephen. Theories of Human Communication. California: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.