Attitudes and Behavior

We now know that attitudes unquestionably influence behavior, although the influence is more subtle and specific than was first believed. But does behavior have an influence on attitudes?

Jerry W. Lee, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Psychology, Loma Linda University, La Sierra Campus, Riverside, California.

The relationship between faith and works has received considerable attention in recent years. Some have said that we are saved by faith, but that saving faith has no lasting value without subsequent works. Others have emphasized that a true faith will produce works as surely as a well-kept, healthy tree will bear fruit. However, one aspect of this discussion has received little attention: What effect do works have on faith?

The influence on us of our relationships with others is the study of social psychology, a branch of modern psychology. Social psychologists have long been concerned with a problem similar to the relationship between faith and works: the relationship between attitudes and behavior. For many years those who studied such relationships assumed that attitudes control behavior. They believed that a thorough, empirical understanding of the nature of attitudes and how they change would make it possible to predict behavior accurately. Experimental research has since shown that people do not behave according to such a simple pattern. The relationship between attitudes and behavior is more complicated than that. For a while some social psychologists even began to wonder whether there were any causal relationships between attitudes and behavior. More recently a clearer picture has begun to emerge. Attitudes, we now know, unquestionably influence behavior, although the influence is more subtle and specific than was first believed. But behavior clearly has an influence on attitudes as well.

Faith involves our attitude toward God, and clearly works involve behavior. Thus an acquaintance with the research done on attitudes and behavior may contribute to our understanding of the relationship between faith and works. As Ellen White has observed: "Rightly understood, science and the written word agree, and each sheds light on the other."—Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 426. (Italics supplied.)

In 1959, Festinger and Carlsmith con ducted the classic study of the effect of behavior on attitudes. However, a similar, more recent study by Calder, Ross, and Insko (1973) is more useful for our purposes in this article. In this study, the researchers had people engage in a very dull task. After the task was completed, the researchers told them that they were studying the effects of expectancies on task performance and that they should tell the next participants that the experiment was "interesting, exciting, and enjoyable." That is, all the original subjects were asked to lie about the dull experiment, but with this important difference. Some were instructed that their part in the proposed deception was optional: the choice of whether to misrepresent the nature of the experiment was left entirely up to them. The others were told that they must inform the next participants that the experiment was interesting. As a matter of fact, all the original participants complied and lied to their successors. But those who were given a choice in the matter actually rated the experimental task more interesting than those who had been required to misinform the next participant, thus indicating that they apparently believed their lie more than the latter group.

A considerable amount of other experimental evidence suggests that freely chosen unethical behavior has considerable influence on our attitudes (Klass, 1978). In one study (Mills, 1958), researchers asked sixth-grade students a number of questions, including several regarding how cheaters should be punished. The next day a different experimenter held a contest in the same sixth-grade classrooms. The two highest scorers would receive five dollars each. In some cases the contest was arranged so that cheating would appear easy and undetectable. However, the researchers actually had a system to detect any cheating. Later, in a different setting, the children were once more asked a series of questions, again including the questions concerning punishment of cheaters. Before the contest, cheaters and noncheaters alike recommended nearly identical punishments for cheating. After the contest, however, cheaters recommended a more lenient attitude, while noncheaters called for even stiffer punishment.

Other studies have shown that individuals who harm others come to dislike the persons they harm (Legant and Mettee, 1973) unless they manage to make restitution to their victims (Davis and Jones, 1960). In fact, if we simply stand by and watch someone being hurt without doing anything to help, we will come to dislike the victim and attempt to formulate reasons why he deserves such a fate. This is especially true if we believe the other's suffering helps us in some way (Lerner, 1970).

In the Davis and Jones study cited above, participants saw a woman apparently suffering great pain from an "electric shock" while participating in an experiment purportedly concerned with learning. They were asked to judge how much stress she was undergoing supposedly as part of an experiment on recognizing stress. Actually the woman feigned her distress and received no shock. Participants were asked, among other things, to rate their liking of the woman. In general, if the participants thought they could stop the shock they did not indicate dislike of the woman. But if they believed they could do nothing to help her, they registered dislike. Another group heard the woman (according to plan) express reluctance to be shocked. The director responded that if she withdrew from the experiment those who were to observe her (the participants) would lose the credit that they were to earn for the project. With this understanding, the woman agreed to continue, ostensibly for the sake of the other participants. This group ended up disliking the woman more than any other group.

Research has also demonstrated an encouraging aspect of these phenomena. Some experiments show that if we persist in striving for a goal we will value that goal more highly if we endure difficulties in achieving it. In one study (Aronson and Mills, 1959), researchers put volunteers through either a severe or a mild initiation as a prelude to joining a discussion group. Afterward those who had experienced the severe initiation rated the discussion group more interesting and worthwhile than did those who underwent a mild initiation. Another study (Jecker and Landry, 1969) has shown that when we help someone we come to like that person and that when we act on our beliefs we become more convinced of those beliefs (Kiesler, 1971).

Thus, social psychological research seems to support the following conclusions: Our behavior, whether evil or good, influences our attitudes. In the same way it seems likely that our works, either evil or good, influence our faith. Indeed, there is ample Biblical evidence for this.

"'Why do you keep calling me "Lord, Lord"—and never do what I tell you?'" Christ asked in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 6:46, N.E.B.). * He went on to tell of two men. The first laid the foundations of his house on rock; the second built his house on sand. When the flood came, the second man's house was washed away, but the house on the rock remained. According to Christ's own interpretation, the second man represents those who hear His words but fail to act (verse 49). Thus our actions, or works, establish our faith. They are the foundation upon which a strong faith can be built.

Other scriptures attest to this same relationship. "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:21). Investing in something influences our feelings about it. Christ tells us, "For every one that doeth evil hateth the light. . . . But he that doeth truth cometh to the light" (John 3:20, 21). James, speaking of Abraham, said, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" (James 2:22). Paul tells us that "those who live on the level of our lower nature have their outlook formed by it, ... but those who live on the level of the spirit have the spiritual outlook" (Rom. 8:5, 6, N.E.B.). The way we live, our works, influences our outlook and our faith.

Ellen White has made a similar observation: "You have to talk faith, you have to live faith, you have to act faith, that you may have an increase of faith. Exercising that living faith, you will grow to strong men and women in Christ Jesus." —Faith and Works, p. 78. It would seem, then, that while faith in God may lead to good works, works also act upon faith. The two are inseparably entwined.


Aronson, E., and J. Mills. "The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59:177-181, 1959.

Calder, B. J., M. Ross, and C. Insko. "Attitude Change and Attitude Attribution: Effects of Incentive, Choice, and Consequences." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25:84-99, 1973.

Davis, K. E., and E. E. Jones. "Change in Interpersonal Perception as a Means of Reducing Cognitive Dissonance. "Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61:402-410, 1960. Festinger, L., and J. M. Carlsmith. "Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58:203-210, 1959.

Jecker, J., and D. Landry. "Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favor." Human Relations, 22:371-378, 1969.

Kiesler, C. A. The Psychology of Commitment: Experiments Linking Behavior to Belief. New York: Academic Press, 1971.

Klass, E. T. "Psychological Effects of Immoral Actions: the Experimental Evidence." Psychological Bulletin, 85:756-771, 1978.

Legant, M. J., and D. R. Mettee. "Turning the Other Cheek Versus Getting Even: Vengeance, Equity, and Attraction." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 25:243-253, 1973.

Lerner, M. J. "The Desire for Justice and Reactions to Victims." In J. Macauley and L. Berkowitz (eds.). Altruism and Helping Behavior. New York: Academic Press, 1970,

Mills, Judson. "Changes in Moral Attitudes Following Temptation." Journal of Personality, 26:517-531, 1958.

* Texts credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible. © The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970. Reprinted by permission.

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Jerry W. Lee, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Psychology, Loma Linda University, La Sierra Campus, Riverside, California.

June 1981

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