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Most assume that our attitudes determine our behavior. However, according to the theory of planned behavior, there is more to predicting behavior than just knowing one’s attitude. In this lesson, we discuss this theory and its usefulness in predicting actual behavior.

Theory of Planned Behavior

We have already discussed a number of ways that others try to influence us and attempt to change our attitudes. The biggest reason they want to change our attitudes is because of the assumption that it will also change our behavior.

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For example, a salesman wants to change our attitude about his product so we will actually buy it.It is true that attitudes are a good way to predict spontaneous, unplanned behavior. However, our attitudes don’t always correctly predict our deliberate behavior – at least, not on their own. Attitudes, combined with perceived control and norms, actually predict our intentions. This is the basis of the theory of planned behavior, which is used to predict deliberate and planned behavior.

Using Intention To Predict Behavior

According to this theory, when people have time to plan how they are going to behave, the best predictor of that behavior is one’s intention. In other words, to predict what people are going to do, you need to know what they intend to do.

This may seem obvious – after all, if you intend to do something, you’ll definitely do it! Right? Well, not necessarily. Intention doesn’t always accurately predict behavior when there is a reflex or conditioned response involved. For example, someone with a phobia may intend to stay calm and collected when faced with their fear, but may end up having a panic attack instead.

Still, the vast majority of our planned behavior – eating out, watching a movie, reading a book, playing a game, and so on – doesn’t involve an involuntary response, so intention is still the best overall predictor. But, again, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. The equation below shows all of the important pieces of the theory of planned behavior. As previously mentioned, intention is believed to be determined by three things: attitude, perceived control, and subjective norms.

Let’s go over each of these in more depth.

Equation illustrating the theory of planned behavior
Planned Behavior Theory Equation

Determining Intention

First is one’s attitude toward the behavior. Attitudes can be defined as evaluations of ideas, events, objects, or people.

Attitudes are generally positive or negative. Let’s say you were considering going to a particular dance club. Do you think going would be fun? Or, would it be boring? Would it make you feel good or bad?Second is one’s perceived control of the behavior. Perceived control refers to the belief of the amount of direction one has over the environment. It suggests if the task will be easy or difficult to accomplish. How easy would it be to go to the club? How much effort is involved? Do you have transportation? Will there be traffic? Is it far away?Third is one’s subjective norms. Norms are attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical, or average.

They determine others’ approval or disapproval of the behavior. What would others think if you went to the club? Is it considered taboo? How would your reputation be affected?In the end, your answers to all of these questions will, together, determine the strength of your intention to go to the club. If we know how you would likely answer these questions, we could predict your intention, which would then predict your behavior. For example, if we think that you have a positive attitude toward going, think it will be easy, and think others would approve, then your intention to go would be strong, and we would predict that you would probably go. On the other hand, if we think that you have a negative attitude toward going, think it will be difficult, and think that others would not approve, then your intention to go would be weak, and we would predict that you would probably not go.

Lesson Summary

In summary, the theory of planned behavior can be used to predict deliberate and planned behavior. According to this theory, when people have time to plan how they are going to behave, the best predictor of that behavior is one’s intention.

Intention is determined by three things: attitude, perceived control, and subjective norms.Attitudes, which are evaluations of ideas, events, objects, or people, are generally positive or negative. Perceived control refers to the belief of the amount of direction one has over the environment, and it suggests if the task will be easy or difficult to accomplish. Norms are attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical, or average, and they determine others’ approval or disapproval of the behavior.If we know where people stand in regard to these three factors, we can predict their intention, which, in turn, will predict their behavior. If someone feels positively toward a behavior, believes it to be easy, and believes others will approve, then that person’s intention will be strong, and he will likely perform the behavior. If someone feels negatively toward a behavior, believes it to be difficult, and believes others will not approve, then that person’s intention will be weak, and he will be unlikely to perform the behavior.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Tell what the theory of planned behavior can be used for
  • Explain why intentions do not always accurately predict behavior
  • Discuss the three factors that are believed to determine intention
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