Exploring the Social Bases of Attitude Strength

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This experiment was fielded as part of a TESS telephone survey. Data and materials for all the studies included on this survey is available here.

Principal investigator:

Penny S. Visser

University of Chicago

Email: pvisser@uchicago.edu

Homepage: http://psychology.uchicago.edu/socpsych/faculty/visser.html

Sample size: 354

Field period: 08/13/2004-08/23/2004


Our previous research indicates that people in heterogeneous social networks (comprised of people with a diverse range of attitudes) exhibit more attitude change in response to a persuasive message than those in attitudinally congruous networks. Here we explored the process by which this attitude change occurs. We speculated that people in heterogeneous networks may be motivated to carefully scrutinize new information in order to form attitudes about which they are more certain and less conflicted. Alternatively, people in heterogeneous social networks may find it uncomfortable to think carefully about the controversial issue. When confronted by a relevant message, they may instead look to simple cues within the persuasion context to determine what attitude to adopt. We found that people in heterogeneous networks were much more persuaded by strong than by weak arguments, suggesting that the observed attitude change occurred via thoughtful processes.


First, we expected to replicate our prior finding that increases in network heterogeneity are associated with increased attitude change in response to a persuasive message. Additionally, we expected that the relation between network composition and attitude change may be moderated by argument quality. Specifically, if network heterogeneity leads to greater attitude change via thoughtful processes, we expected to see a strong effect of argument quality: people who received compelling arguments should exhibit much more attitude change than people who received weak arguments. On the other hand, if network heterogeneity leads to attitude change via nonthoughtful processes, argument quality should not moderate the relation between network composition and attitude change: participants in heterogeneous networks should be equally persuaded by strong and by weak arguments.

Experimental Manipulations

We manipulated the quality of the arguments contained within a persuasive message: some participants were exposed to arguments that are strong and compelling, whereas others were exposed to arguments that are weak and specious. Greater argument quality differentiation implies deeper cognitive processing of the persuasive message.


Attitude change

Summary of Results

As expected, argument quality moderated the impact of network composition (i.e., the degree of general political disagreement in the network) on attitude change. When network disagreement was low, there was little argument quality differentiation, but as disagreement crept into the network, argument quality differentiation increased.


Attitudinal diversity within one's social network seems to motivate people to carefully scrutinize attitude-relevant information. When a counter-attitudinal persuasive message contains strong, compelling arguments, attitude change occurs. When the message contains weak, specious arguments, on the other hand, people in heterogeneous networks are no more vulnerable to persuasion than are people embedded within attitudinally congruous networks.


Visser, P. S. and R. R. Mirabile. 2004. Attitudes in the social context: The impact of social network composition on individual-level attitude strength. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 87:779-795.