Commitment to pro- versus counter-attitudinal behavior and the dynamics of social representations

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This research uses the counter-attitudinal essay paradigm (Janis & King, 1954) to test the effects of social actions on social representations. Thus, students wrote either a pro- or a counter-attitudinal essay on Higher Education. Three forms of counter-attitudinal essays were manipulated countering respectively a) students' attitudes towards higher education; b) peripheral beliefs or c) central beliefs associated with this representation object. After writing the essay, students expressed their attitudes towards higher education and evaluated different beliefs associated with it. The structural status of these beliefs was also assessed by a “calling into question” test (Flament, 1994a). Results show that behavior challenging either an attitude or peripheral beliefs induces a rationalization process, giving rise to minor modifications of the representational field. These modifications are only on the social evaluative dimension of the social representation. On the other hand, when the behavior challenges central beliefs, the same rationalization process induces a cognitive restructuring of the representational field, i.e., a structural change in the representation. These results and their implications for the experimental study of representational dynamics are discussed with regard to the two-dimensional model of social representations (Moliner, 1994) and rationalization theory (Beauvois & Joule, 1996).

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