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Consumer Markets & Buyer Behavior

Theories of Attitude Formation & Change

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Through the years, multiple theories of how attitudes are formed have been offered in the literature.  Two major theories tend to predominate: the tripartite and uni-dimensional theories. 

The Tripartite Theory of Attitudes

The most traditional view of how attitudes are structured is called the tripartite, or three components, theory of attitudes. According to this theory, our attitudes consist of three distinct components: a cognitive component, an affective component and a behavioral component.

The Cognitive Component

The cognitive component is also known as the knowledge or the beliefs components. From a marketing perspective, we can visualize the cognitive component as consisting of our simple beliefs about the characteristics or attributes of a product.

The Affective Component

In contrast, the affective component, also referred to as the feeling component, reflects an emotional response toward specific characteristics of the product or towards the product as a whole. The affective component of an attitude is reflected in statements such as, "I like Maxwell house coffee," or "Maxwell house coffee tastes great." Both of these statements are expressions of emotions or feelings toward Maxwell House coffee. Notice that the affective response can relate to a single characteristic of a brand, such as its taste, or it can imply an overall response to the brand.

Behavioral Component

The third component of attitude is a behavioral or behavioral tendencies component. This behavioral component is multi-faceted. "Behaviors" can consist of the actual purchase of the product, a sample trial of the product, recommending the product to someone else, or even something as simple as discussing with someone the pros and cons of a particular brand. These example 'behaviors' all reflect both the cognitive and the affective components of attitudes i.e. they are the end result of the consumer's cognitive and affective responses to the product.

This last point illustrates a very important implication of the tripartite theory of attitudes:

All three components of your attitude tend to be consistent with one another. A change in one attitude component will produce related changes in the other components. A change in beliefs, for example, that lowers your perceptions of product quality is likely to lower the level of positive affect attached to the product and reduce any behavioral tendencies that may lead to purchase.

This necessary consistency between attitude components suggests that marketing strategies directed at changing one component of an attitude can impact the other components as well. For example, advertisements aimed at improving consumers' perceptions of the quality associated with the product (a change in cognitions) may produce positive changes in affect and, ultimately, produce a greater likelihood of positive behavioral tendencies (such as purchase).

Exhibit 1
Oui Perfume

OuiPerfume1.jpg (18020 bytes)

OuiPerfume2.jpg (16946 bytes)

Similarly, advertisements that are heavily loaded with imagery, such as many of the lifestyle-oriented ads we have looked at in this and earlier modules, can produce direct changes in the affective or feeling component of attitude. These changes, in turn, can influence both cognitions and behavioral tendencies. For example, the lifestyle-oriented ad for Oui perfume in Exhibit 1 may stimulate positive emotions because of the attractive imagery.  This emotion may, in turn, lead directly to positive beliefs about the quality of the product's ingredients, it's scent, and its value. The point here is that any one of the three components can be the target of marketing strategies. Successful attempts at changing any of these attitude components can produce changes in the others, as well.

The Uni-Dimensional Theory

Exhibit 2
The Uni-Dimensionl 

wpeE.jpg (31615 bytes)

A somewhat more modern view of attitudes places the emphasizes on affect. Your attitude is your affective or emotional response to the attitude object. With this modern view, the beliefs component (cognitions) and the behavioral intentions component are separate constructs. However, there is still an implied causal relationship between all three components, as shown in Exhibit 2. Cognitions (beliefs) about attitude objects (e.g. products, brands, companies, etc.) are typically formed first. These beliefs then contribute to your formation of an attitude (affective response) toward the attitude object. In other words, your attitudes are formed based on your beliefs about things. Then, in turn, your attitude toward the object causes some behavioral response with respect to that object.

The strategic implications for the uni-dimensional view of attitudes are the same as discussed for the tripartite view:


  1. Shaping consumers' beliefs can lead to changes in attitude (affect).  By first structuring appropriate 'beliefs' about a product's performance and fit with the consumer's needs, a positive attitude may result. 
  2. Directly stimulating a positive attitude (affect) can lead to a change in beliefs.  By first inducing a positive attitudinal response (affective response), as in the case of classical conditioning, beliefs consistent with this attitude may follow.

An excellent example of changing consumers' beliefs about products to ultimately facilitate the formation of positive brand attitudes is provided by the Miller "Lite" campaign from the 1970s: "Tastes great, less filling."  Consumers' perceptions of light beer prior to this campaign were those of a lower quality, weak, watered-down beer.  Miller initiated the "tastes great, less filling" series of ads to restructure beer drinkers' fundamental beliefs about light beers in an attempt to improve attitudes and, ultimately, sales.

Attempting to first structure beliefs for products is essential for new product categories or new brands.  For example, "Beano" is a relatively new digestive aid for 'gas' relief.  The sample ad for Beano employs a humorous appeal and applies the principle of iconic rote learning to create brand name awareness and link the name to the key benefit provided by the product.


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Page last modified: January 23, 2001