Predicting behavior accurately takes the right kind of measurement

Unshockingly, you have to ask the right questions to get the right answers.

A lot of research has gone into trying to predict whether someone will do something based on their attitude towards it. Intuitively, it feels like if you’re interested in whether someone will, say, recycle their newspaper, knowing their attitudes toward environmentalism should tell you.

It doesn’t. It’s too broad a measure.

If you ask someone about their attitudes toward environmentalism or “green” behaviors, you actually do find out something useful. Across a broad span of green behaviors, someone who says they support environmentalism will do more of them. But it doesn’t tell you accurately if they’ll engage in a certain one. If you want to predict if someone is going to recycle their newspaper, ask them about their attitude towards recycling newspapers. Better still, ask them about their attitude towards recycling their newspaper. Best, ask them about their attitude towards recycling their newspaper in the next two weeks.

Make sure they have a subscription to the newspaper first.

If you want to know generally whether people will do a certain type of behavior, ask generally, but if you want to know about a specific one, don’t beat around the bush. Further, keep in mind two things:

  1. An attitude can be positive, negative, both (ambivalent), or neither (indifferent). It’s not a single good/bad continuum.
  2. No matter whether that attitude is good, great, horrible, or *shrug*, this attitude content is different from attitude strength. Stronger attitudes make better predictors. Keep in mind that when you want to influence someone’s attitude subtly — like putting a lab coat on someone in a car commercial. This kind of indirect influence is weak and short-lived. If you want to get a strong attitude, make people think a lot about your product. The more you think, the stronger it gets.

If you’re interested in the psychology of what makes people more likely to think about their attitudes, read up on the Elaboration Likelihood Model.

If you still want to go after an attitude indirectly, try telling a story. But why that works is a story for another day.

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