Attitude-Behavior Consistency: Fulfilling the Need For Cognitive Structure

Mark P. Zanna, University of Waterloo
[ to cite ]:
Mark P. Zanna (1989) ,"Attitude-Behavior Consistency: Fulfilling the Need For Cognitive Structure", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 318-320.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 318-320


Mark P. Zanna, University of Waterloo

In answering the question, "why do people have attitudes; of what use are people's attitudes to them?", various theorists have noted that people must hold the attitudes they do because in having and using them they are somehow functional for the individual. To have and to hold attitudes must serve to reduce various psychological needs, to satisfy various motivational drives. Although such needs and drives may be of chronic and enduring concern to the individual, they may also be of acute origin, and it is an examination of people's attitudinal responses to situated needs and motives that is the focus of the present paper. The situated conditions we chose to examine have been conceptualized as ones promoting or inducing the need for cognitive structure.

Following from the similar notion of intolerance of ambiguity, Arie Kruglanski (in press) has characterized the need or motivation for structure as a cognitive need, defined specifically as the desire for clear, certain or unambiguous knowledge that will guide perception, judgment and action, in preference to the undesirable alternative of ambiguity and confusion. When the need for structure is aroused, people will be less likely to generate new ideas or hypotheses about the world as well as less likely to validate their knowledge. Instead, they will tend to "freeze" on their current knowledge and rely upon it to guide them in their perceptions, decisions and behavior.

Evidence has now been generated to support this general notion. Kruglanski and his co-workers, for example, have shown that high need for structure conditions can cause "freezing" on a wide variety of cognitive tasks, inducing effects such as heightened primacy in impression formation and increased numerical anchoring in probability estimation (Freund, Kruglanski & Shpitzajzen, 1985; Kruglanski & Freund, 1983). Moreover, convergent support may be found in other literatures, if manipulation of stress and arousal can be reconceptualized in need for structure terms (e. g., Holmes, Zanna & Whitehead, 1986). The overall conclusions drawn for these studies is that an aroused need for structure causes restrictions in information processing, and the retreat to overlearned or recently activated knowledge.

The question an attitude theorist must naturally ask is whether or not an individual's evaluation of some stimulus object, that is, his or her attitude about that object, is the kind of knowledge that the individual would find at all useful to rely upon in conditions motivating the need for structure. The answer may be that people's evaluative knowledge is, indeed, a particularly efficient guide for sizing up the world. It is efficient because all objects are ordered along a common evaluative metric. What better way to know how to react to an object than to know how one feels about it, to know what one's attitude is about it? In other words, attitudes may fulfill basic needs for clarity and structure when people are confronted with the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the world because they quite simply summarize the basic goodness versus badness of objects, and therefore imply what a person's approach versus avoidance tendencies should be with regard to those objects.

Such an idea is hardly new. Katz's (1960) knowledge function and Smith, Bruner and White's (1956) object appraisal function both asserted that one of the primary functions of attitudes was to impart structure, consistency and understanding to the world. And it would seem that maximum clarity can be achieved by ordering objects along a single evaluative dimension. Thus, theoretical precedents exist for the view that attitudes, one's evaluative summaries of the world, are prime candidates as structures that may be seized upon when situational conditions motivate an acute need for clarity and structure.

Let me now turn to some recent tests of the notion that attitudes may function to well-serve a person's need for guiding organization in situations demanding clarity of judgment, even, I should add, when the norms of the situation suggest that it is inappropriate to let one's attitudes "color" one's judgments. In these experiments, conducted in collaboration with David Jamieson of the University of Manitoba, subjects participated in a decision-making simulation in which they were placed in the role of jurors and asked to render individual verdicts on a series of court cases. The cases were crafted to be fairly ambiguous and to potentially implicate subjects' attitudes about controversial social topics such as affirmative action and capital punishment. We hypothesized that when our subjects found themselves in a situation that aroused a need for cognitive structure, they would increasingly rely on their evaluations of the relevant general issues to structure their perceptions of the specific cases, and to guide their judgments and decision making, even though we made it clear to them that as "jurors" they were to be as "objective" as possible in their deliberations. Because of this clear demand to be "data-driven," attitudes were not expected to relate to perceptions and judgments when the situation aroused the need for cognitive structure to a lesser degree.

Following Kruglanski, we used the pressure of time to manipulate need for structure. In our control or Low Need for Structure condition, subjects were given as much time as they needed to complete their task. In the experimental or High Need for Structure condition, subjects were placed under severe time constraints.

Now, in addition to manipulating need for structure via the induction of time pressure, we also measured the degree of subjects' self-monitoring propensities. We reasoned that the increased reliance on attitudes to structure perception and guide judgments when the need to do so is great might be a process especially characteristic of those individuals for whom attitudes normally serve important functions in the organization of their social worlds. Low self-monitors have been conceived as just such individuals, whose perception, judgment and behavior are most likely to be influenced by internal referents such as attitudes (Snyder, 1974, 1979). High self-monitors, in contrast, tend to prefer external referents such as social norms and situational cues to behavioral appropriateness as their guides for social perception, thought and action.

We, therefore, expected that situational conditions demanding structure and dispositional tendencies to self-monitor might interactively moderate attitude-judgment consistency in our studies, with attitudes exerting their greatest influence on case judgments among low self-monitoring individuals in high need for structure circumstances.


Subjects reported for a study of decision-making in which they were told that their role was to -deliver as fair and objective a decision as they could on a series of court cases; that is, they were instructed to be "involved but impartial decision makers." These normative prescriptions for impartiality were reiterated several times throughout the procedure to insure that attitudes and judgments were generally uncoupled. Subjects in the Time Pressure condition were given little rationale for the constraints of time, save that "sometimes decisions have to be made quickly." They were given an average of just three minutes to read each case and answer its associated questions. Participants in the No Time Pressure condition completed the cases under no time restrictions whatsoever.

The first study (actually three exact replications of each study were conducted, employing a total of 50 to 70 subjects per condition) involved an affirmative action lawsuit which was modelled after materials used by Snyder and Swann (1976). Subjects read about a female biologist who had applied for an academic job at the University of Toronto but who had been passed over in favor of a slightly less qualified male applicant. Subjects read prosecution and defence arguments before recording their perceptions and judgments of the matter on a series of measures which followed.

Correlations of subjects' attitudes toward ''affirmative action in the workplace," (measured in an unrelated, prior context by the semantic differentials: good-bad, desirable-undesirable, acceptable unacceptable, and just-unjust) with an index which combined their perceptions of the unfairness of the University's decision regarding the plaintiff with their reported likelihood of deciding the case in her favor indicated that only the perceptions and judgments of time-pressured, low self-monitors were significantly influenced by their personal attitudes (r = .42; the other correlations were not reliable and ranged in magnitude from -.02 to .21), and this was true despite situational demands for objectivity and impartiality given repeatedly throughout the procedure.

In the second study subjects read about a reputed premeditated murder case that was based largely on circumstantial evidence. The crown had brought a charge of murder against a man following the apparent accidental drowning of his wife while the two were on a camping trip to a secluded lake. Prosecution and defense arguments were again presented before subjects were asked to record their perceptions of the trial and to report how likely they would be to vote the defendant guilty of first degree murder. The correlations between subjects' attitudes toward the "reinstatement of capital punishment" (assessed in the same manner as the affirmative action attitudes) and an index of their capital judgments (comprising their judged likelihood of conviction combined with their actual verdicts) strongly replicated the pattern attained for the affirmative action case. Once again, although both high and low self-monitors were able to make attitude-independent judgments when unpressured by time (r's of .02 and .09, respectively), only high self-monitors were able to do so when time limited (r = .06). In contrast, the attitudes of low self-monitors again seem to have been implicated to a great extent in their judgments (r = .50).


Overall, the results from these two studies indicate that low self-monitors, those individuals characterized by a chronic motivation to rely on attitudinal knowledge in the* transactions with the world, were the very persons who seized upon their evaluations as a way of structuring their perceptions and judgments when the need to do so was strong. The studies illustrate that even in the face of countervailing norms, attitudes can function to provide clarity in situations which motivate a need for structure, and this may be particularly true of people for whom attitudes normally serve important organizing functions.

Now, one potential criticism of our research is that we have manipulated need for structure only by manipulating time pressure, an operationalization that may have invoked other critical causal motivations beyond the need for structure. In response to this problem, we note that Kruglanski and his colleagues (e. g., Freund et al., 1986) have recently reported successful inductions of the situated need for structure by operations other than time pressure, providing needed converging support for the construct. In addition, we have replicated our studies using a recently developed individual difference measure of the extent to which people are chronically concerned with structure (Naccarato, Thompson & Parker, 1988) . High scorers endorse such items as: "It bothers me when something unexpected disrupts my daily routine," "I become quite uneasy when put into an unpredictable situation," and "I like to have a place for everything and everything in its place." Low scorers endorse such items as: 'I enjoy being

spontaneous," "I like to be with people who are unpredictable," and 'I enjoy the exhilaration of being put in unpredictable situations." In this follow-up study, instead of manipulating time pressure in an acute way, we measured individuals' chronic need for structure and then exposed them to our court cases under conditions of no time pressure. The two-way cross classification of subjects by need for structure and self-monitoring provides a conceptual replication of our earlier design. The results indicated that need for structure and self-monitoring do seem to jointly moderate attitude-judgment consistency in the theoretically predicted manner. Collapsed across the affirmative action and premeditated murder cases, only those individuals chronically high in need for structure and low in self-monitoring exhibited attitude-judgment consistency (r = .30 vs. r's which ranged from .00 to .18).

While it will be important to continue to replicate and extend these data with other manipulations of the need for structure construct and to extend the research paradigms into the domain of consumer choice, we believe both that the desire for structure is an important need state that attitudinal processes may serve to reduce, and that there is great empirical and ecological appeal in time pressure as a method for instantiating this situated motivation.


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