I have come across many studies that assessed participants’ attitudes towards big cats (Hazzah, 2006; Porfirio, Sarmento, Leal, & Fonseca, 2016; Zimmermann, Walpole, & Leader-Williams, 2005). The assumption seems to be that knowing how people perceive big cats will make it easier to predict how they will act towards them. But is this true?
In social psychology, attitudes are defined as the beliefs and feelings one holds towards an object or behavior; and the reactions brought about by those elements (Myers, 2008). At one point they were considered to be the cornerstone of social psychology (Myers, 2008; Wicker, 1969). It was thought that understanding an individual’s attitudes was the key to predicting their behavior (Myers, 2008; Wallace, Paulson, Lord, & Bond, Jr., 2005). There must have been a great deal of head-scratching, then, when several studies found little correlation between participants’ expressed attitudes and overt behavior (Myers, 2008; Wicker, 1969).
Why Attitudes Fail
Further head-scratching revealed that there is a relationship between attitudes and behaviors, but it is not straightforward. First of all, remember that how someone acts is partly determined by situational factors. This means that external forces sometimes prevent us from behaving in accordance with our expressed attitudes (Myers, 2008; Wallace et al., 2005).
Another problem with early attitude studies is that they were measuring explicit, or spoken, attitudes. This is potentially problematic. For one thing, people often say what they think will make them look good: even if this contradicts their actual beliefs (Ajzen & Dasgupta, 2015; Myers, 2008). It is also easy for individuals to be unaware of their implicit (automatic) feelings towards an object or behavior. These hidden attitudes can have a powerful impact on one’s actions (Ajzen & Dasgupta, 2015).
Lastly, early studies often contained mismatches between the specificity of measured attitudes and the expected behaviors (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1977; Myers, 2008; Wallace et al., 2005). For instance, general attitudes towards the environment are poor predictors of recycling. But specific beliefs about recycling correspond to related actions quite well (Schultz, Oskamp, & Mainieri, 1995).
Increasing the Predictive Power of Attitudes
If the above findings are taken into account, attitudes can help predict behavior. One useful tool is the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT measures response times to various pairings of words (e.g. “jaguar” and “good” vs “jaguar” and “bad”) to determine participants’ implicit attitudes. The IAT has proven to be an accurate predictor of specific inter-group behaviors (McConnell & Leibold, 2001), although I am unaware of any studies applying it to large carnivore conservation.
Another option is to use the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) (Ajzen, 1985), which provides a framework for considering how attitudes interact with other forces. It combines attitudes towards a behavior, social norms concerning that behavior, and the perceived level of control over that behavior to determine one’s intentions to perform it (Ajzen & Madden, 1986). There is considerable empirical data to support the TPB (Ajzen, 2014; Wallace et al., 2005). Importantly, multiple studies have successfully applied the TPB to conservation-related domains (Bamberg, Rees, & Seebauer, 2015; Fielding, Terry, Masser, & Hogg, 2008; Marchini & Macdonald, 2012; Mastrangelo, Gavin, Laterra, Linklater, & Milfont, 2014).
Implications for Conservation
If measured carefully, determining participants’ attitudes can help predict behaviors relevant to conservation. Researchers must take care to assess attitudes that match expected behaviors in levels of specificity, and they should account for situational factors through frameworks like the TPB. They might also do well to add measures of social identity to the TPB model, as this has been found to increase its predictive power (Bamberg et al., 2015; Fielding et al., 2008; Marchini & Macdonald, 2012). In addition, it may prove useful to find ways to reliably measure implicit attitudes in remote locations.
Finally, it might be possible for conservationists to work backwards in the attitude-behavior chain. That is, instead of attempting to change behaviors by altering attitudes, they could edit attitudes by changing behaviors. I will explore this more in a future post.
Bamberg, S., Rees, J., & Seebauer, S. (2015). Collective climate action: Determinants of participation intention in community-based pro-environmental initiatives. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 43, 155-165. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.06.006.
Marchini, S. & Macdonald, D. W. (2012). Predicting ranchers’ intention to kill jaguars: Case studies in Amazonia and Pantanal. Biological Conservation, 147; 213-221. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2012.01.002.
Wallace, D. S., Paulson, R. M., Lord, C. G., & Bond Jr., C. F. (2005). Which behaviors do attitudes predict? Meta-analyzing the effects of social pressure and perceived difficulty. Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 214-227. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-26126.96.36.199.