Making change happen

The study of attitude is very popular among social scientists because it significantly determines people’s emotion, cognition and behavior. Countless research support the fact that attitude shapes behavior and its eventual outcomes in other forms of psychological experiences. Because of this, people try to avoid negative attitudes and adopt and live by more positive ones. However, attitude is not as concrete as behavior. It could be equated to belief and faith in a supreme being, making it abstract and intangible.

Attitude cannot be easily quantified. In addition, it cannot be taught and assimilated like other skills we learn in life, primarily because of its subjective, abstract nature. If it was easy to change attitudes, self-help authors and speakers would have gone out of business long ago. On the contrary, the field is flourishing. The main reason being – one has to actively make a choice to change old, negative attitudes and adopt new, positive attitudes. In this sense, attitude and behavior are not directly connected. They only interact when another component exists, which is active choice on the part of an individual.

A matter of choice

While people may think that choices could be environmentally manipulated, it is ultimately a highly personalized experience. In actuality, choices cannot be manipulated unless it comes from the individual himself. There is also another complication – some people may choose not to make choices.

This is the reason why schools’ effort to bring about positive academic and non-academic behaviors by means of employing attitude-change tactics fail. When schools focus too much on changing attitudes, they are fighting a war with the unknown (literally hundreds of unknown personal choices of students). While this may work with some students, the majority may not necessarily feel the need to change.

Alternate approach

For those students who do not respond favorably to attitude-change tactics, there is another approach that might work. It involves the same two variables: attitude and behavior; employed in reverse order. The following diagrams illustrate the difference between the two approaches.


The common approach presupposes that attitude determines behavior (e.g. If my attitude toward a particular food is negative, I avoid that food by all means). On the other hand, the alternate approach assumes that behavior determines and shapes attitudes.


In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment that proved the effectiveness of the alternate approach. The experiment confirmed that people’s attitude does change with changes in behavior and behavioral expectations. College students who participated in this experiment were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards and prisoners (subjects did not have any previous experience in any one of the roles). They were asked to take their roles seriously and behave like actual prison guards and prisoners. The planned two-week investigation into psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the required behaviors were doing to the college students who participated in the situational role-play. Prison guards became sadistic, prisoners became depressed, and everyone showed signs of extreme stress.

Implication for education

Providing an environment for positive changes is more effective than “preaching” to students about it. For example, if teachers want students to become more creative in their approaches to academic tasks, they should first of all model creativity (i.e., ensure creative seating arrangement, assessment tasks, teaching techniques, behavior management, etc.). If teachers want students to be honest with each other, then they need to display honesty with his/her own colleagues, administrators, parents, and students.

In short, academic attitudes can be changed by deliberately manipulating a learning environment and its accompanying behaviors!

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