Towards a Technical Definition of Attitude

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

Having a technical definition of attitude is going to be crucial to putting it on an objective scientific basis.

"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one'’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one'’s own way."

    Viktor Frankl, Man’'s Search for Meaning

My Quest For A Definition of Attitude

In my work in education I came to the conclusion that Viktor Frankl was absolutely right about attitude.

Attitude is the single most powerful tool that anyone has in any situation.

But the power can be used in a variety of skillful and unskillful ways with a commensurate variety of outcomes.

For teachers a student with a good attitude is the holy grail and a student with a bad attitude is simply obscene.

A good attitude can overcome all barriers and a bad one can defeat every advantage.

My work in education has focused on attitude because I chose to largely ignore the traditional instructional management approach to put my attention on understanding the holy grail for teachers.

Literal or Metaphorical Definition of Attitude

What is this phenomena that we call attitude?

Of course, there are the literal definitions of attitude regarding various orientations in space (1, 3, 4, & 5 from the definition on my general definition of attitude page), but that is not what Frankl is really getting at in his famous statement about attitude.

Objective analysis of the concentration camp situation fails to account for the cause of the remarkable behaviors Frankl observed, so it may be useful to see if there are some clues to their behavior in the people themselves.

Is there an internal quality, a quality of mind, that those people possess that could cause such behavior?

Technical Definitions of Attitude

In the technical realms of biology, psychology and sociology they have had to come up with precise ways of defining the term attitude for scientific purposes.

In lay terms we simply mean the whole constellation of beliefs, behaviors, desires, and other internal processes that seem to determine our behavior.

Scientists, however, need a more precise definition to work with so here is one from "An enduring, learned predisposition to behave in a consistent way toward a given class of objects, or a persistent mental and/or neural state of readiness to react to a certain class of objects, not as they are but as they are conceived to be."

So, what can we say about those people in the concentration camps based on this technical definition?

Did the concentration camp comforters have an enduring, learned predisposition to provide comfort to others in situations of extreme deprivation?

Did they have persistent mental and/or neural states of readiness to react to life in concentration camps?

Actually, the important part of this definition is the final bit.

The key to understanding the power and influence of attitudes for both good and ill is properly exploring the relationship between objects "not as they are but as they are conceived to be."

We all easily understand the basic gist of the definition of attitude: an attitude is basically the disposition we have for relating to our world, or to specific things in it.

But without some sophistication in the technical details of fields like neurobiology, neuro-psychology, and other cognitive sciences then most people are likely to dismiss this last phrase in the definition as merely technical hedging or some kind of odd doublespeak that can’t possibly be that important.

In fact, it makes a world of difference.

Maps and Mapmaking

The difference between the way things are and how they are conceived to be is exactly like the difference between the terrain that is represented by a map and the map itself.

We human beings do not, contrary to popular opinion, perceive the world directly.

What we normally understand as our "perceptions" of the world, are really accomplished through the imposition of a vast set of neurological assumptions upon the actual sensory data that our organs receive from the world.

What we come to "perceive" is almost entirely based on our expectations for how the world is supposed to be, rather than how it actually is.

All those neurological assumptions are a map of the world.

The world is simply not available to us directly, and that is actually a really good thing.

The amount of information that is available to be perceived in every single moment of our existence is so astronomically huge that we would be totally overwhelmed if we had to deal with all of it all the time.

If you had to re-perceive the most basic elements of what makes up each of these letters each time you see each word you would take hours to decode each sentence and books would be useless.

The fact is that you have a very large number of assumptions about how letters and words are put together to make sentences and generate ideas, and all those assumptions allow you to proceed quite rapidly from word to word, or even paragraph to paragraph if you speed read, without even giving a single thought to individual words or letters.

You have a map of writing and language that allows you to navigate my ideas without even thinking about how I am conveying those thoughts.

What separated the comforters from the non-comforters in the concentration camps was not the objective facts of their situation, it was the ways that they conceived of their situation.

The map of the world that they used to navigate their experiences was different than the maps of those who did not behave in those ways.

What kind of map could the compassionate and dignified people possibly have that would be any different from that of their fellow camp mates?

First, let’s understand the metaphor in detail, then I will apply it to that situation.

Maps are representations of space.

When you want to drive from Portland to Seattle then you want to know what to expect along the way.

Before you even get a map you need to know exactly what you mean by Portland, Oregon or Maine?

Since we specified driving we commonly mean operating an automobile along highways and roads on land, therefore, it would do you no good to get nautical charts.

It would also not be nearly as useful to get topographical maps as it would to get a basic highway map.

Notice that there are a diversity of kinds of maps that can represent the relationship between Portland and Seattle.

By definition every map has a purpose that defines what is relevant and what is irrelevant to the use it is expected to serve.

Thus, it is fundamental to both the use and creation of a map to define the purpose that it will serve.

Attitude is a Moral Issue

What purpose is served by a person’s conception of the world?

Remember that we are embedded in the world, therefore it is not a simple matter of assuming a simple set of purposes.

In order to understand what purposes are served we have to look both up and down from our individual level of existence in the world in which we are embedded.

We serve purposes that are cellular, individual, communal, social, and ecological.

But there is a simpler way to conceive of this, it’s the way that man has dealt with his total well-being for ages immemorial; morality.

What we know as morality is a conceptual mapping of how to behave appropriately.

Morality Maps

Morality is, in a broader sense, how we deal with the totality of our well-being.

In simple terms that which is detrimental to well-being is bad, that which serves to enhance our well-being is good.

If you are in a purely subjective reality then you think of morality as whatever feels good.

If you have learned to live in various forms of objective reality you might think of morality as being whatever is good for your family, your tribe, your nation or even your species.

If you are exploring embedded reality then you are challenged to think of how you can create goodness through the alignment of all the different levels of living beings, from cells to ecologies.

Wisdom traditions the world over consistently teach that to achieve moral ends you must practice compassion and respect for all of life.

The key to success in every instance is the same: practice.

Practice means doing something over and over again.

Making Moral Choices

It is a reasonably established fact in the cognitive sciences that our conceptions of the world determine our behavior, which means that making a "choice" presumes that the individual choosing has a conception of the world that includes alternatives to choose from.

For instance, when I asked my Mom why she didn’t home school me and my brothers she replied that it never even occurred to her as an option.

She did not make a choice not to home school, she merely responded within the framework of reality as she knew it, which did not include home schooling as an option.

In the same way, how many of the people who worked in concentration camps had any concept that there was a choice to be made?

Probably very few.

The concept of a choice of behaviors was probably even smaller amongst the inmates.

But what, then would drive some to still act with compassion and dignity as Frankl observed?

There were probably two types of people who behaved with compassion and dignity.

Those who could not conceive of behaving in any way other than with compassion and dignity and those who occasionally saw and took opportunities to choose compassion and dignity over cruelty and depravity.

There are two practical points I draw from my re-reading of Fankl’s classic;

  1. develop the habit of making independent judgments of your situation and
  2. practice compassion and respect so they will be strengthened as behavioral responses to your circumstances.

Attitude is The First of The Human Freedoms

The lesson for education is to focus on the quality of the relationships.

Teachers are responsible for using their authority to promote a healthy dialogue about the appropriate balance between the different needs of individuals and the group.

While teachers may value certain attitudes in their students, they have no control over them.

On the other hand, they have the ultimate control over their own attitude, if they are willing to put in practice and strengthen appropriate habits of mind.

While Viktor Frankl thought of attitude as the last of the human freedom’s I think of it as our first.

Attitude is the Center of Success

In my martial arts training we learned about moving from your center.

The center is the place of your greatest power; where you are balanced, able to respond to any attack, able to attack when it suits you and able to move in any direction you choose.

Attitude is the center of all individual power in the world.

If you develop a good attitude and consistently practice acting in the world from that place of strength, then you will succeed regardless of what occurs in the world.

P.S. The University of Minnesota has put together a list regarding the definition of attitude in psychological literature.

Here are the UMN definitions of attitude:

  1. COMPREHENSIVE DEFINITION An attitude is a mental or neural state of readiness, organized through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence on the individual's response to all objects and situations to which it is related (Allport, 1935).
  2. SET [An attitude] denotes the general set of the organism as a whole toward an object or a situation which calls for adjustment (Lundberg, 1929).
  3. READINESS TO ACT [Attitudes connote] a condition of readiness for a certain type of activity (Warren, 1934).
  4. PERMANENCE [Attitudes represent] a more or less permanently enduring state of readiness of mental organization which predisposes an individual to react in a characteristic way (Cantril, 1934).
  5. AFFECT Attitude is the affect for or against a psychological object (Thurstone, 1931).
  6. EVALUATIVE NATURE An attitude is a tendency to act toward or against something in the environment, which becomes thereby a positive or negative value (Bogardus, 1931).
  7. LEARNED NATURE An attitude, roughly, is a residuum of experience, by which further activity is conditioned and controlled ... We may think of attitudes as acquired tendencies to act in specific ways toward objects (Krueger & Reckless, 1931).
  8. PREDISPOSITION An attitude is a predisposition to experience, to be motivated by, and to act toward, a class of objects in a predictable manner (Smith, Bruner, & White, 1956).
  9. UNI-COMPONENT Attitudes are likes and dislikes (Bem, 1970).
  10. FUNCTIONAL DEFINITION Attitudes are summary judgments of an objector event which aid individuals in structuring their complex social environments (Fazio, 1986).
  11. RECENT DEFINITION Attitude is a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993).