In our last post, we clarified what attitudes are and what it means for some attitudes to be “strong.” As a quick recap: Strong attitudes are ones that are durable and influential. They withstand persuasion and the sands of time, and they guide our thinking and behavior.
For example, I like a cup of coffee in the morning, which means I have a positive attitude toward morning coffee. If that attitude is strong (vs. weak), it means you can’t convince me to give up my habit, I’ll have the same opinion a year from now, and my actual morning routine is consistent with my pro-coffee position.
But how can we tell which attitudes are strong and which are weak? Psychologists have uncovered many indicators of an attitude’s strength, but we’ll focus on just one of them here: the attitude’s “accessibility.”
What is an “Accessible” Attitude?
To illustrate what we mean, try this quick exercise: Read through the following topics and, as quick as you can, decide whether you think each one is “good” or “bad.”
- Ice Cream
If you’re like most people, you were pretty quick to call pollution “bad” and ice cream “good.” But maybe “rain” and “tofu” gave you pause. Maybe you took just a few milliseconds longer to settle on whether they were “good” or “bad.”
That’s accessibility. The closer a topic and its evaluation are stored in our memory, the more “accessible” the evaluation is, and the quicker we’re able to make a judgment when we encounter the topic. Importantly, even if some responses are just a few milliseconds quicker, they tend to reflect stronger attitudes (i.e., the attitudes are more durable and impactful).
Quick Attitudes are Durable
To examine whether accessibility is actually a good indicator of an attitude’s strength, researchers will carefully time how quickly people can provide their opinion and see whether that response time is correlated with our critical features of strong attitudes.
For example, in a study led by John Bassili, researchers called hundreds of students to ask their opinions on issues like pornography and hiring quotas. After they asked each question, a computer would time how long it took before the person answered. Then researchers waited two weeks, called everyone back, and once again asked for their opinions on the same issues. The quicker people were to give their opinion on the first call, the more likely they were to give the same answer on the second call.
In other words, quicker responses indicated more long-lasting opinions.
Quick Attitudes are Influential
Even though more accessible attitudes tend to stick around longer, would they also be more likely to guide a person’s behavior? To test this, Russel Fazio and Carol Williams asked for people’s attitudes months before the 1984 presidential election. Just like Bassili’s study, they measured how long it took for people to answer a series of questions about the candidates. Then, after the election, they asked people whether they voted and who they voted for.
The quicker people responded to the phone survey months earlier, the more likely they were to vote for the candidate they said they preferred. Once again, accessible attitudes were stronger.
Indicators of Strong Opinions
So just because people say they support a political candidate doesn’t necessarily mean that their opinions are reliable. But how quickly they give their opinion can communicate how strongly people connect the candidate to a sense of “good” or “bad,” and how strong that opinion is likely to be.
Of course, response speed isn’t the only reflection of an opinion’s strength. We can also get clues about an attitude’s strength from how confident people are, how conflicted they are, and how important they find the issue. But those are questions for another time.