The present essay will demonstrate that attitude formation is a complex and dynamic process, with both affective and cognitive factors operating as antecedents. The very existence of multiple antecedents raises questions surrounding the conditions whereby either antecedent influences attitude formation (Crites, Fabrigar, & Petty, 1994; Trafimow & Sheeran, 1998). It is this very concern which forms the basis of the present essay. The premise is adopted that it is improbable that pure affect-based or cognition-based attitudes are formed (Edwards, 1990). It will thus be argued that affect and cognition can jointly influence the course of attitude formation, however, affect has primacy or dominance in the formation of some attitudes (affect-based attitudes), whereas cognition has primacy and dominance in the formation of others (cognition-based attitudes) (Zajonc & Markus, 1982). Firstly, the constituent composition of affect and cognition-based attitudes will be outlined. Subsequently, research literature and examples will be used to illustrate that the primacy and relative contribution of affect and cognition in the acquisition of an attitude varies according to a multitude of conditions. The impact of affective and cognitive-based focus, affective conditioning, mood-congruent attitude biases, subliminal affective priming, utilities of the attitude-object, assimilation and contrast effects and stage of life development, will be addressed in the present essay.
Affect and cogntion-based attitudes
For the purposes of the present essay an attitude is conceptualised as “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favour or disfavour” (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993, p. 1). It is proposed that affect-based attitudes are formed with little cognitive appraisal. The individual is first influenced by a potent affective reaction, such as physical arousal or bodily sensations which operate as the foundation for the attitude, with subsequent cognitive structuring occurring merely to affirm the attitude (Schwarz & Clore, 1988; Wilson, Dunn, Bybee, Hyman, & Rotondo, 1984). Thus, affect has both an arousal and valence component and can be regarded as influencing the valence, emotion, or mood of an attitude under construction (Forgas, Wyland, & Laham, 2006). By contrast to affect-based attitudes, extensive cognitive appraisal precedes affect in the formation of cognition-based attitudes. Information relevant to the experienced attitude-object is first acquired to shape the attitude, with affective processing adopting a minimal role and occurring only subsequent to the initial cognitive appraisal (Schwarz & Bohner, 2001; Wilson et al., 1984).
Affective and cognitive-based focus
In adopting the aforementioned assertion that affect and cognition are distinct attitude components, it follows that one can render one or the other factor a more salient influence the formation of different attitudes. The differential impact of affect and cognition upon attitude formation has been demonstrated, by unobtrusively manipulating participants’ focus to the affective or cognitive dimensions of an attitude-object (Millar & Tesser, 1986; van den Berg, Manstead, van der Pligt, & Wigboldus, 2006). Research has demonstrated that by rendering the affective or cognitive aspects of the attitude-object more salient, it resulted in the respective formation of an affect-based or a cognition-based attitude of the object. Furthermore, the valence of affect-based attitude was congruent with that of the attitude-object. This is indicative that directing an affective or cognitive-based focus onto an attitude-object is a condition which may lead to the respective dominance of affect or cognition in an attitude’s formation (van den Berg et al., 2006).
Attitudes whereby affect has both primacy and dominance in its formation often have biological origins (Zanna & Rempel, 1988). A prototypical affect-based attitude is that of a phobia. A powerful fear reaction (arousal) evoked by the unpleasant experience of a novel object may in turn lead to the formation of an attitude of negative valence towards the object, in the form of a phobia (Hugdahl & Ohmann, 1977). This demonstrates an instance whereby affect directly influences and dominates attitude formation and prevails over cognitions, as the individual is often unable to use cognitive control to relieve the phobia, even when informed of its irrational nature. Thus, once formed this affect-based attitude is likely to persist until the underlying affect of the attitude is altered (Edwards, 1990; Zajonc & Markus, 1982). One may argue however, that cognitive appraisal is necessary to establish the association between the attitude-object and affect in the formation of a phobic attitude, which implies that affect and cognition are both dominant (Clore & Schnall, 2005). Nonetheless, this essay maintains that in this instance cognitive processing operates merely to enliven the existing attitude. Thus, it is proposed that the critical factor with both primacy and dominance in the formation of a phobic attitude is affect (Schwarz & Clore, 1988).
Mood-congruent attitude biases
A direct link between affect and attitude formation is also evident by way of mood-congruent attitude biases, as proposed by the affect as information approach (Schwarz & Clore, 1983). This occurs when one misattributes their affective state as a reaction to the attitude-object (as if the affective state was informative about the object), which in turn influences the valence of the attitude formed towards the object. Hence, one may form more positive attitudes towards an object whilst in a positive rather than a negative mood state and by accord more negative attitudes whilst in a negative mood state (Clore & Parrott, 1991; Schwarz & Clore, 1988). For instance, one may form a positive attitude towards a person which they have just encountered for the first time whilst in a positive mood state. In this manner an attitude can be formed in a mood-congruent manner (Schwarz & Bless, 1991).
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Alternatively, one may also argue that affect and cognition are interlinked in influencing attitude formation under these conditions. As affect is used as information to evaluate the attitude-object, affect may be viewed as operating as a cognition in itself (Laird & Bresler, 1981). However, using this understanding, may still confirm that affect performs a larger contribution to the attitude, as it is the affective experience which still precedes cognitive appraisal (Zanna & Rempel, 1988). Thus, by adopting either interpretation, affect can at the very least be regarded as having primacy in this particular process of attitude formation.
Subliminal affective priming
Evidence which attempts to reduce confounding effects of cognitive factors when investigating the influence of affect on attitude formation, arises from research employing subliminal affective priming (Krosnick, Betz, Jussim, & Lynn, 1992). In one study, participants viewed slides of a woman engaged in everyday activities, such as entering her car. Prior to each slide was a subliminal presentation of an affect-arousing photograph, which was either positive or negative in valence. Participants whom were exposed to positive affect inducing photographs expressed attitudes toward the woman which were more favourable than that by participants whom were exposed to negative affect inducing photographs. These findings suggest that affect may have directly influenced the attitude formed towards the woman, as presentation of the affective prime occurred below the level of conscious cognitive awareness (Krosnick et al., 1992). Thus, this represents a condition whereby affect may exert primacy and dominance in influencing attitude formation, which has implications considering that subliminal priming methods have previously been employed in advertising to subtly induce attitude formation (Clore & Schnall, 2005).
Utilities of the attitude-object
By distinct contrast to affect-based attitudes, cognitive factors have both primacy and dominance in cognition-based attitudes. As such attitudes often serve a knowledge function (Chaiken & Stangor, 1987; Edwards, 1990), a key instance whereby cognitive-based attitudes are formed, is when it is necessary to compute the utilities of the attributes of an attitude-object (Cohen, 1981; Zajonc & Markus, 1982). For example when one is considering the purchase of consumer products, such as a new vehicle. The individual may aggregate relevant information about the attributes of particular vehicles (the attitude-objects) from a plethora of sources, such as car dealerships, car-trade magazines and websites, to rationalise the pros and cons of purchasing various models. The cognitive appraisal of the accumulated information will unfold into the formation of a cogntion-based attitude, of a particular model which has the best fuel efficiency or the lowest carbon dioxide emission levels in the market (Cohen, 1981; Edwards, 1990). Entwined with these cognitions, one may argue is the potential buyer’s positive or negative affect towards particular car models which may influence the formation of the attitude towards a car model (Zajonc & Markus, 1982). However, this essay proposes that the influence of affect is post-cognitive. It is proposed that cognitive appraisal has primacy and dominance, as the attitude is based on the analysis of factual information and utilities of the objective attributes of the attitude-object. Thus, affect associated with a particular car model may be generated only subsequent to the initial cognitive appraisal of its properties, which indicates that cognition has both primacy and dominance in this condition (Cohen, 1981; Edwards, 1990).
Assimilation and contrast effects
A key manner in which cognition is a dominant influence in attitude formation is through the process of assimilation and contrast, evidenced by the inclusion-exclusion model (Schwarz & Bless, 1992). According to this viewpoint, the features of an encountered attitude-object are systematically evaluated utilising recalled (accessible) information from memory, prior to the formation of a mental representation of the object as an attitude. An assimilation effect is likely to occur when accessible information is included in the construction of an attitude representation of an object, whereas, a contrast effect may emerge when accessible information is excluded from the representation of the attitude-object and is alternatively utilised to construct a standard against which the attitude-object is compared (comparison standard) (Higgins, Rholes, & Jones, 1977; Schwarz & Bless, 1992).
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Further evidence exists to suggest that this process is inherently cognitive, as the available information requires further evaluation regarding its representativeness of the attitude-object, prior to the occurrence of an assimilation effect. Research has demonstrated that perceived representativeness may promote assimilation effects, whereas, contrast effects may be obtained when the features of the available information fail to overlap with that of the attitude-object (Herr, Sherman, & Fazio, 1983).
For instance, in forming an attitude regarding the trustworthiness of politician A (the attitude-object), accessible information concerning the trustworthiness of a different politician (politician B) may be perceived as unrepresentative of the attitude-object. Thus, politician B can be used as a standard from which to compare the trustworthiness of politician A. Alternatively, if forming an attitude towards the trustworthiness of an entire political party (attitude-object), available information concerning the trustworthiness of a few of its politician members may be regarded as representative information and included when forming the attitude towards the political party (Schwarz & Bohner, 2001). This clearly indicates a condition whereby cognition has primacy and dominance in influencing attitude formation.
Impact of stage of development
The relative contribution of affect and cognition in attitude formation has further been identified to vary according to the individual’s stage of development. It has been suggested that attitudes formed in infancy and childhood are primarily acquired in affective terms, by means of positive reinforcement, habituation or familiarisation, as the necessary cognitive structures required to scrutinise information deeply are undeveloped (Black-Gutman & Hickson, 1996; Zajonc & Markus, 1982). As children mature, rich cognitive frameworks are developed, which enable the distinction of subtle features of attitude-objects and the conduction of reasoned, rational analyses of it (Edwards, 1990; Zajonc & Markus, 1982). For instance, in a child first encounter with a food, such as pepper sauce, the pungent taste may evoke affect-triggered aversive bodily sensations, which in turn promote the formation of an affect-based attitude towards the pepper sauce that is negative in valence. However, through maturation the child may use cognitive elaboration and available knowledge to establish a cognitive-based attitude towards a food, such as assessing a food’s uses, identifying its nutritional value and evaluating its price. Thus, in the course of development attitudes may increasingly adopt a cognition-based form (Zajonc & Markus, 1982).
This evidence also suggests the primacy of affect in attitude formation due to its early emergence in the course of development, which in turn emphasises the key role of affect in influencing attitude formation (Black-Gutman & Hickson, 1996; Zajonc & Markus, 1982). It is necessary however, that more research is conducted, in order to establish whether affect may have primacy due to its early emergence in development, with cognition exerting dominance when the necessary cognitive abilities are formed in later life.
A plethora of affective and cognitive factors influence the formation of attitudes, with the present essay having outlined several. The role of affect and cognition in attitude formation was clearly demonstrated utilising research literature and numerous supporting examples. However, it is imperative to be mindful that a solely affective or cognitive-based interpretation of attitude acquisition through a social cognitive lens, neglects the key influence of one’s behaviour (Alba & Hutchinson, 1987; Allen, Machleit, Kleine, & Notani, 2005) and also, the complex influences of social group membership which has been demonstrated by prior research on the attitude formation process (Tajfel, 1982). Nonetheless, in light of the aforementioned evidence, this essay has demonstrated that the primacy and dominance of affect and cognition in the formation of an attitude is often contentious, yet, can be identified in some instances. In essence, affect may predominate in the formation of some attitudes, whereas cognition may predominate in the formation of others.