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Attitude Behavior Gap

A durable and puzzling result from Social Psychology is the Attitude-Behavior Gap. If situationism refers to how behavior is strongly context-dependent, the attitude-behavior gap refers to the disconnect between what we say about our attitudes and what we actually do. Although this has been studied most with moral behavior, where we often do one thing and say another, in this wiki we use the concept more broadly to describe any persistent mismatch between Story and behavior.

The Puzzling Case of the Chinese Guest

Attitudes toward racism are one place where we find this gap. Recent research has emphasized that most people who claim not to be racist still have racist implicit attitudes and still tolerate or fail to perceive racism. Interestingly, the area was founded by the observation that in a time and place where racism was accepted (the US in the 1930's), people failed to be racist in an everyday situation, even though (on being asked) they claimed to be racist. See Attitude-Behavior Gap.


The attitude-behavior gap is puzzling. Is this proof of yet another failure to live up to our ideals of rationality? Our spin is different. We take an evolutionary perspective to behavior, starting with an assumption that however we do behave is likely to be adaptive, meaning it has tended over the ages to aid human success in life, leaving more descendants. Simply being puzzling (not being consistent with a well-known Story) is not enough to prove that a behavior is not adaptive.

In example linked above of a motel clerk checking in a guest (even if he happens to be Asian), this is his job, and we would normally never question that doing his job is adaptive. So, behavior adaptive: (✓).

Then, later on, the clerk answers a question about how he would treat an Asian guest. Whatever he happens to say, this mouthing of words is a distinct behavior, under different selective pressure. Speech is fundamentally a social act. There is quite a bit of evidence from social psychology that we are continuously adjusting both our behavior and our reported attitudes according to subtle social cues which we are almost certainly not consciously aware of. See for example Dirty Liberals!.

We suspect that the largest single source of attitude-behavior gap is that many attitudes are adopted for social reasons (see membership_badge), and are therefore mainly guides about what to say in a particular social context, rather than rules for actual practical decision making. In our day-to-day life we hardly ever have cause to refer to our attitudes. For the clerk, back in the 1930's, in the rural US, having racist attitudes was indeed likely to be adaptive. Certainly his attitude did not seem to do him any harm. Tentatively, then, another adaptive behavior (✓).

Headline: clerk consistently behaves adaptively in multiple situations. Where has the puzzle gone?

The Advantages of Doing one thing and Saying Another

The puzzle lies in this flexible opportunistic behavior not being consistent with the socially approved stories of moral behavior. Saying one thing and doing something else is called hypocrisy. Because language exists for social coordination, we have to rely on people speaking accurately about what they have done, about what they intend to do, and about what goals they think would be best for the group as a whole. Speaking inaccurately is called lying, and is a moral offense because it does undermine effective social coordination.

Freed from this restriction, the advantages of doing one thing and saying another are quite obvious. The surprise is that normal law abiding, morally upstanding people do this kind of thing all the time, in carefully calibrated and subtle ways. This is not at all surprising from an evolutionary perspective–it is in fact exactly what we would expect people to do. See individual/group conflict. We also argue in Representational Opacity that it just so happens that the human mind is constructed in a way that we can't report entirely reliably why it is that we behave as we do. It is hard know how much attitude-behavior gap is due to opportunistic hypocrisy and how much simply due to our failure to correctly understand ourselves (and the social necessity of denying that this problem of incomplete self-awareness even exists.)

Social Conformity and Scripts

The ambiguity of the clerk's particular situation, with the unexpected challenge of a Chinese guest, is clearly also an important factor, since the clerk's racism likely originated in discrimination against African heritage. Even so, it seems likely that the vast majority of these clerks had never actually had to turn away any black (simply because they weren't around), and even if presented with dark brown skin and frizzy hair, would quite likely either check the guest in like always, or go seek someone else for guidance about what to do. And if this clearly black person sent “white” signals in their dress and way of speaking, failing to conform to stereotype, then the clerk would be even more cautious about deviating from the default “customer” script. In situations that could have serious consequences, even if a strong signal does evoke an attitude, people will seldom “wing it” when they don't have a script. After being presented with an unexpected challenge it is indeed common to be upset and to work on deciding “what I'd do next time”, that is making up an actionable behavioral script. The failed racism study doesn't rule out the possibility that the next Chinese guest might be turned away. See Conformity Bias.

See also

analysis/social/attitude_behavior_gap.txt · Last modified: 2014/04/26 19:42 by ram