Social Judgment Theory

Carl Hovland

Social judgment theory seeks to explains how an audience processes messages. The new information is compared to existing beliefs and a decision to accept or reject the information is made. The beginnings of social judgment theory can be traced to early experiments on attitude and persuasion in social psychology but it was first given its foundations with the work of Muzafer Sherif and Carl Hovland in 1961. Sherif is considered one of the founders of social psychology, and is recognized for his research on realistic conflict theory. His most prominent experiment was the Robber’s Cave experiment, in which he took groups of well-behaved boys to a camp and pitted the groups against one another through various challenges (Stock, 1999). Hovland is best known for his work on attitudes and social communication. Like many other early communications theorist, he worked with the U.S. War Department during World War II to study the effectiveness of persuasive films and audience resistance to those films.

Sherif and Hovland explored social judgment theory further in their 1961 book, Social judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude. The development of the theory is what makes it unique, and why Sherif & Hovland’s seminal work is still cited in social judgment theory research today. This theory came about during a time in which, according to Carolyn Wood Sherif, “Communication researchers were becoming aware that degree of involvement is critical in practical problems of attitude change” (1981). Sherif and Hovland’s research found people’s attitudes “serve as judgmental anchors” upon which they assimilate or reject information presented to them (Eagly, 1992).
Muzafer Sherif

Fundamentals of Social Judgment Theory
Social judgment theory claims that there are two internal elements present within each person that shapes how messages of persuasion are perceived. The first element is our anchor points or attitudes are internal references with which we compare the information that we process. These anchor points are always present and influence decision making.
Characteristics of attitudes are:
  • Stronger attitudes have more influence on the decision to accept or reject information.
  • Attitudes can be positive or negative and not all attitudes have equal weight, for example, political views are stronger attitudes than preference of shampoo brands.
  • Attitudes are unique to each person and can varying greatly making them difficult to predict.
  • Behavior does not always reflect attitude.
The second element at play in social judgment theory is ego involvement. In decision making, the more personal investment that we have to an issue; the more ego involved we become. It is based on deeply held beliefs that are central to who we are such as politics, religion, and relationships. Individuals with increased ego involvement are far less willing to accept a message. When combined, attitudes and ego involvement help shape our affiliation with others as we seek to associate with like minded individuals. Users of Apple products are an example of a social assembly of similarly minded individuals. Due to this sense of belonging they are far less likely to accept an idea that goes against the accepted attitudes of the group. When the Android technology was introduced a competitor of the iPhone, Apple fans were quick to dismiss and criticize its adoption.
People tend to group attitudes and beliefs about particular issues, resulting in the formation of individual lattitudes.
Latitudes are clusters of attitudes that determine how we will receive a message based on levels of commitment or sacrifice.
  • Latitude of Acceptance – options that are most likely to be welcomed or accepted.
  • Latitude of Rejection – options that are most contrasting with our attitudes and most likely to be rejected.
  • Latitude of Non-commitment – options that we have neutral or no feelings toward.
Sherif also identified two key behaviors to social judgment theory that occur mostly in more ego involved individuals: assimilation and contrast. He offers that assimilation occurs when an idea is similar to a person’s current attitudes and therefore the information is manipulated into being more alike than it may be in actually. Conversely, contrast occurs when an idea is present that is not similar to their own and therefore distorted into seeming that there is a greater discrepancy present.
However, when a message falls almost perfectly into our lattitudes, this concept is considered maximum influence. A message able to achieve maximum influence is thought to be one of the most persuasive messages.