February 28, 2014
The psychology of attitudes has made important contributions to knowledge over many decades, but it has tended to cause confusion in the study of social attitudes. From a sociological perspective, attitudes should be defined as prescriptive or evaluative judgements, not as individual predispositions to act in particular ways or to view something favourably or unfavourably. The basic distinction that has been lost is that between personal preferences, tastes or feelings on the one hand and social attitudes on the other. Attitudes also need to be distinguished from beliefs and values. Contrary to the current consensus in psychology, if not actual practice in sociology, attitudes are more usefully regarded as observable characteristics than as latent constructs.
This perspective is applied to survey questions related to attitudes and then both theoretically and empirically to the concepts of tolerance and trust, with the aim of illustrating what might emerge from a more sociological treatment of attitudes. The analysis involves cross-national comparisons using the 2008 European Values Study. Distaste for multiple kinds of out-groups seems to be a better predictor of not wanting a homosexual as a neighbour than disapproval of homosexuality, and similar results are found for other 'others'. With trust, the evidence shows that not only individual but also national differences in the perceived fairness of others have substantial effects. To the extent that trust is rooted in a moral evaluation of people in general, it qualifies as an attitude itself rather than being just a belief about the attitudes of others.
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