8.3 Attitudes and Behavior - Social Processes, Attitudes, and Behavior

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

8.3 Attitudes and Behavior
Social Processes, Attitudes, and Behavior


After Chapter 8.3, you will be able to:

· Recall the three components of attitude

· Describe the four functional areas of the functional attitude theory

· Identify the roles of central route and peripheral route processing in the elaboration likelihood model

· Recall the three interactive factors of Bandura’s triadic reciprocal causation

Social cognition focuses on the ways in which people think about others and how these ideas impact behavior. Our attitudes—the ways in which we perceive others—impact the ways we behave toward them.


An attitude is the expression of positive or negative feeling toward a person, place, thing, or scenario. Attitudes develop from experiences with others who affect our opinions and behaviors. Even prior to meeting someone, past experiences and information from others can influence your attitude toward a person.

There are three primary components of attitude: affective, behavioral, and cognitive. The affective component of attitude refers to the way a person feels toward something, and is the emotional component of attitude. Snakes scare me and I love my family are both affective expressions of attitude. The behavioral component of attitude is the way a person acts with respect to something. For example, avoiding snakes and spending time with one’s family would reflect the behavioral component of the attitudes described earlier. Finally, the cognitive component of attitude is the way an individual thinks about something, which is usually the justification for the other two components. In the snake example above, knowing that snakes can be dangerous (and sometimes poisonous) provides a reason to be afraid of snakes and to avoid them.


Components of Attitude: ABC

· Affective

· Behavioral

· Cognitive


The functional attitudes theory states that attitudes serve four functions: knowledge, ego expression, adaptation, and ego defense. The knowledge function can be summarized as follows: attitudes help provide organization to thoughts and experiences, and knowing the attitudes of others helps to predict their behavior. For example, one would predict that an individual who cares about political action would vote in an upcoming election. Attitudes facilitate being ego-expressive, allowing us to communicate and solidify our self-identity. For instance, if a person strongly identifies with a sports team, she may wear a hat that helps identify her as having a positive attitude towards that team. Adaptive attitude is the idea that expressed socially acceptable attitudes will lead to acceptance. For example, a person declaring to a social group that they enjoyed a popular movie can help to build social bonds. Lastly, attitudes are ego-defensive if they protect our self-esteem or justify actions that we know are wrong. For example, a child who has difficulty doing math may develop a negative attitude toward the subject.

Learning theory posits that attitudes are developed through different forms of learning. Direct contact with the object of an attitude can influence attitude towards that object. For example, children form a positive attitude toward sweets almost immediately after tasting them. Direct instruction from others can also influence attitudes. For instance, a child who is taught by her parents not to use curse words can form a negative attitude toward curse words and, indirectly, a negative attitude toward those who use curse words. Our attitudes can also be influenced by others’ attitudes. For example, a teenager may begin to have a positive attitude toward smoking if he notices that all of his friends smoke. Finally, attitudes may be formed through classical conditioning, operant conditioning, or observational learning, all of which are discussed in Chapter 3 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.

The elaboration likelihood model is a theory of attitude formation and attitude change that separates individuals on a continuum based on how they process persuasive information. At one extreme are those who elaborate extensively, that is, those who think deeply about information, scrutinize its meaning and purpose, and draw conclusions or make decisions based on this analysis. Deep thinking in this manner is referred to as central route processing. When an attempt to influence attitudes uses information that appeals to central route processing, this attempt is said to be using the central route to persuasion. A scientific paper would be one example of an attempt to influence attitudes that uses the central route to processing. At the other extreme are those who do not elaborate and focus instead on superficial details such as the appearance of the person delivering the argument, catchphrases and slogans, and credibility. This type of processing is known as peripheral route processing. When attempts to influence attitudes appeal to peripheral route processing, these attempts are said to be using the peripheral route to persuasion. An advertisement with just a logo that contains a visually appealing image is one example of an attempt to influence attitudes that uses the peripheral route to persuasion. To contrast these two types of processing, consider two voters watching a well-informed and charismatic politician speak: One voter might be swayed by the cogent arguments made by the politician, and this illustrates high elaboration, central route processing. The other voter might be swayed by the perception that the speaker is likable and a good person, illustrating low elaboration, peripheral route processing. Most individuals fall in the middle of this continuum, and the degree to which we elaborate on information can vary depending on the specific situation.

Key Concept

· Central route processing (high elaboration)—scrutinizing and analyzing the content of persuasive information

· Peripheral route processing (low elaboration)—focusing on superficial details of persuasive information, such as appearances, catchphrases and slogans, and credibility

Social cognitive theory postulates that people learn how to behave and shape attitudes by observing the behaviors of others. According to this theory, behavior is not learned by trial-and-error, but develops through direct observation and replication of the actions of others. This learning is influenced by personal factors (such as thoughts about the behavior) and the environment in which the behavior is observed. These three factors—behavior, personal factors, and environment—are not independent concepts, but influence each other, as shown in Bandura’s triadic reciprocal causation in Figure 8.9. For example, the work ethic of employees in a company (behavior) is affected by how hard their colleagues work, their previous attitudes toward hard work (personal), and the systems and infrastructure of the company (environment). Reciprocally, this behavior may create a change in the employees’ attitude toward work (personal) and the systems within the company (environment).

ImageFigure 8.9. Bandura’s Triadic Reciprocal Causation

MCAT Expertise

MCAT passages tend to describe an experiment or a scenario and drop in sentences or even short phrases that hint at related scientific content that is then used in questions. The better you are at recognizing this content, the more ready you will be to answer these questions quickly and correctly. But don’t feel like you need to scour each passage for every single concept that could appear in the question set.

Behavioral Sciences Guided Example With Expert Thinking


Expert Thinking

Corporate researchers conducted a longitudinal study of gym members at ten locations in the second week of January for five consecutive years. Participants engaged in a short series of physical activities and measurements assessing physical fitness, then responded to questions about attitudes and fitness. Participants who were present for at least three of the five years and received consistent, low scores in physical fitness measures were associated with the following: lower self-reported gym attendance, lower perceived value of exercise, and low expressed regard for those who attended the gym with a frequency greater than five visits/week. These participants also reported high levels of seasonal motivation (New Year’s resolutions).

This is giving me context on a specific set of beliefs involving consistent behavior over time. With a consistent social behavior (high motivation and low adherence) I'm expecting questions about social psychology.

In response to these data, gym owners established a social media group devoted to creating small local workout groups meeting 3—4 days per week with regular check-ins for their members and invited gym attendees within this demographic set to join.

Social psychology: it sounds like the gym owner is trying for positive peer pressure.

How might the group who received consistent low scores in physical fitness measures respond to the new initiative if they choose to participate? How do the results of the five year study inform predictions of their adherence to the 3—4 day per week workout plan?

The writers of the MCAT will hint at a concept in the passage or question stem and then ask us a question about recognizing or applying that concept to the situation described. We’ll want to be familiar enough with the content that when the question tells a story or mentions some specific example, we can say to ourselves “Oh, that’s _______!”

In order to answer this question, we're going to have to dive into the scenario and identify factors that will influence behavioral outcomes. In the first paragraph, these gym members have maintained the same low level of fitness and low gym attendance for five years, which should remind us of attribution theory: consistent behaviors tend to have dispositional rather than situational explanations. Despite the finding of high seasonal motivation to engage with exercise, it’s likely that this group of individuals aren't already in shape because of their attitudes towards themselves or working out, (“I’m nervous people will judge me at the gym,” or “I just don’t enjoy lifting weights,”) rather than situational barriers (“My preferred gym is being renovated,” or “I’m just super busy this year.”). In other words, such attributions are about who “they are” instead of “what has happened to them.” We also get a hint in this direction with the finding about low regard for people who attend the gym very regularly. The cause/effect relationship for this set of findings and past behaviors is difficult to assess with the information provided, and may differ between participants. It could be that for some, the thoughts on gym enthusiasts influence their avoidance of the gym in an effort not to adopt similar behaviors. But for others, it could also be that their inability to get to the gym regularly might be influencing their attitudes about those who do in order to protect their egos.

Things are different this year, thanks to the creation of the new fitness group by the gym owners. Some subset of this group of participants have now joined a group of people who will be going to the gym together and will hold each other accountable. We should identify a specific social phenomenon as soon as we read that sentence: peer pressure!

Now that we've identified the important information in the scenario, we should return to the question itself. The question asks how the information we already have about this group of participants might predict their behaviors, which are the three factors of social-cognitive theory. Social-cognitive theory says that all of these things influence one another. If we put together everything we’ve learned, we see that the attitudes expressed in this group make it less likely that they’ll stick to working out, but they’ve also taken steps to change their environment by opting to join a new peer group for themselves, which makes it more likely that their behaviors may change. While it’s impossible to tell which of these influences will win out over the other, it is possible that putting themselves into this new environment and changing their behaviors will in fact change their attitudes over time to be more accepting of those people (now including themselves!) who go to the gym often.

In short, our answer is: the data on this group indicates a possible disposition that makes it less likely they will consistently go and work out at the gym. However, there is now a competing influence to go to the gym that applies to them based on peer pressure from their new group.

MCAT Concept Check 8.3:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. What are the three components of attitude?




2. What are the four functional areas of the functional attitudes theory?





3. What are the routes of processing used to explain the elaboration likelihood model? Which is associated with high elaboration?



4. What are the three interactive factors of Bandura’s triadic reciprocal causation?