Why are attitudes so hard to change?

I once attended a debate between a professor of philosophy and a spokesman for a religious organization, on whether abortion ought to be made illegal. Perhaps a hundred men and women had gathered in the university lecture hall, some college-aged, some in middle age and older. Before beginning his arguments, the professor asked those in attendance a question: who expected to change their opinion? Not a single person raised their hand. Why are attitudes apparently so difficult to change—particularly when the stakes are high, when the issue is important and polarizing?

Attitude change has been the subject of decades of research, yet examples of dramatic alterations in attitude outside of the lab remain few and far between. Petty and Cacioppo (1986) proposed an Elaboration Likelihood Model, which remains central to the psychology of persuasion. People are more likely to give an argument considered reasoning when the issue at hand is relevant to them. When an issue is of personal relevance, people evaluate the quality of an argument, but otherwise rely upon more heuristic assessments — the prestige of the arguments’ source, the quantity of arguments presented, and their own emotional state. This model fits with the notion of humans as “motivated tacticians,” conserving resources by using heuristics when an issue is not of personal relevance, and deploying one’s full cognitive capacities only when an issue is sufficiently important.

Following the Elaboration Likelihood Model, arguments about important issues are likely to be subject to thorough reasoning and evaluation. This partially explains why opinions on important matters are difficult to change; arguments about such issues are more thoroughly scrutinized, and as such only the most compelling arguments avoid rejection. However, even in the face of well-reasoned arguments, important attitudes remain resistant to change.

Kurt Lewin, often regarded as the father of contemporary social psychology, wrote that people’s experiences could be understood in terms of forces in their life space. A person’s behavior is a product of the multitude of psychological forces acting on him or her at a given time—some originating from within the person, and some from the external environment (Lewin, 1951).

While behavior change can be demonstrated in the lab, it remains difficult to achieve in the real world. It may be that the individual forces affecting attitudes, which psychologists have isolated in the lab context, are simply not powerful enough outside of that controlled space. These forces exist, they are demonstrable in the lab, but they may often be of little significance in the real world, where they are lost in the currents of countless forces acting on a person at any given time.

It may be that changing attitudes on important issues requires a broader change in a person’s experiences—in their life space—one which may only be achievable through significant change in his or her environment. History offers many examples in which public attitudes on important issues—universal suffrage, slavery—shifted only following significant institutional change. On such important issues, the forces exerted by an argument, no matter how persuasive, may not be enough to change peoples’ attitudes. Broader changes at the institutional level may be necessary in order to effect sufficient change on one’s life space to precipitate shifts in important attitudes.

 

References:

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science . New York: Harper.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in experimental social psychology, 19(1), 123-205.