How’s Your Attitude?

The phrase “Positive Mental Attitude” holds a lifetime achievement award in the Academy of Self Help’s Trite Phrases Division.

attitudeNearly anyone who has been exposed to personal development literature has heard the idiom, “positive mental attitude”. It is often learned at the hands of a well-meaning armchair psychologist in the guise of an authority figure, like a teacher, a coach or sales manager. I’ve been advised numerous times by numerous concerned authority figures that a positive mental attitude would serve me well, much as a tourniquet might provide much needed aid to a severed radial artery.

Even those who have never occupied the couch of an unqualified analyst would likely admit to firsthand experience with both positive and negative attitudes and their influence on our willingness to behave in a particular way toward or around an “attitude object” (someone or something that evokes an attitude). Notice the implication in the previous run-on sentence; that attitude affects behavior. And since behavior (or action) produces results it seems prudent to examine and gain an understanding of anything that exerts such influence over the end results we so desire. Let’s look at these critical emotional constructs called attitudes; what they are, why they’re important and how to change them to work for, rather than against us.

I define attitude as “an emotional state resulting from our evaluation of an attitude object”.

Sounds like a “feeling”, eh? Well yes, feelings are parts of attitudes but as you might suspect something as important as attitude is a bit more complex than that.

Elements of Attitude

There are three elements to an attitude:

  1. Affective: how we feel toward an attitude object and the emotions those feelings produce.
  2. Behavioral: how we act toward an attitude object.
  3. Cognitive: our beliefs about an attitude object.

Some psychologists categorize attitudes as having derived from one of the three elements. That is, an attitude is affective, behavioral or cognitive. I believe it would be rare that a person would develop an entire evaluative paradigm based on one parameter. Not only do I see attitudes as containing all three elements to varying degrees, my model of attitude formation and the results they produce follow a linear progression. Let me illustrate.

I’ve just returned from the groomer and want to show off my miniature French poodle

attitude(I like to call her my little “mini-poo”!) to the neighbors. I grab the braided leash and faux diamond studded collar and head out the door with “Oui-Oui”. (My neighbor Joe the plumber calls her “wee-wee”, like urine; I call Joe a redneck hick.) As we reach the end of the court I turn left and there, less than 20 yards in front of us, is another man walking his dog. I hear a thunderous bark from the approaching pair and a tiny “yip” from Oui-Oui–I suddenly have an urge to go wee-wee.

The man is young, of average height with slick dark hair and a slight yet muscular build. He’s wearing baggy jeans, a sleeveless white tee-shirt and a gold chain with a medallion the size of a dinner plate around his neck. At the end of a leash is (go figure) a pit bull. Its attitudeears are closely cropped to his massive head and its eyes bulge menacingly from their sockets. His body strains against the thick leather strap that barely contains his muscular rage and snot is spewing from his nose as he struggles to attack. He is doing his job; protecting his master against the threat of a fat 58-year-old man and his 9 pound canine companion.

The man is of an ethnicity I do not like.

While I’ve had little personal contact with people of his heritage outside of fast food restaurants I have strong beliefs about them. I believe they are violent, lazy and criminally inclined. I believe they dislike Caucasians as much as me and my friends dislike them. My beliefs are based on countless newspaper articles, TV news stories and the opinions of many of my associates, some of whom have had personal, unpleasant encounters with them.

I like dogs, I really do: but not pit bulls.

I’ve heard and read of their marauding and mauling and I’ve see pictures on the Internet of the gory results of their fights. I realize that the violence is often not their fault, that their owners are often the parties responsible for the dog’s vicious behavior. None-the-less, I believe that even the most docile, child-loving bulldog has the potential for extreme violence; I don’t like them, I don’t trust them and there is one approaching me and Oui-Oui.

Two strong beliefs about two different attitude objects headed my way produce a number of feelings. Dislike and distrust are among them but all feelings are subordinate to one; fear. Belief leads to feelings leads to behavior.

The specific behavior that resulted from my attitude toward the man and his dog is irrelevant to this discussion. More importantly, did my attitude serve my best interests? Did it empower me to behave in a way that produced good results and good feelings or was I disempowered and left feeling badly about my behavior?

Herein lies the importance of attitudes; our beliefs and feelings about someone or something drive our behavior toward them, and the results of our behavior make us feel good or bad; and feeling good is, after all, the real objective of any action we take. But what if the references that supported my beliefs, the TV and newspaper accounts, the hearsay from my equally biased friends, were suddenly discredited? What would happen to my attitudes toward the man and his dog if they defied the stereotypes?

“Hey man, don’t be afraid!” cries a friendly voice.

“Um, your dog–he looks like he wants to eat us,” I reply, “and we don’t much feel like being eaten today.”

They’re approaching rapidly now, the man smiling graciously and his dog still struggling to assume his place at the feed trough. My heart is pounding and Oui-Oui’s tiny feet seem welded to the tarmac.

“Don’t worry, Lucy just wants to say ‘hello’. She’s new to the area and doesn’t have many friends yet!”

In seconds the pit bull is standing in front of me and I watch helplessly as Oui-Oui bravely steps toward the jaws of death.attitudeA massive head bends to feed and a tiny ball of fur reaches up to meet it. The two dogs are nose-to-nose and after an agonizing few seconds of mutual investigation, Oui-Oui rises up on her hind legs and begins pawing at the face of the T. Rex in front of her. Lucy responds to Oui-Oui’s advances by pawing back at her with a single foot the size of Oui-Oui’s head; there will be no massacre today, only a game of canine pat-a-cake.

The violent, lazy, criminally inclined young man extends his hand and introduces himself.

“Hi, my name’s Joe. I’m sorry if we frightened you but I do understand your caution. Dogs like Lucy have a pretty bad reputation.”

“So do guys like you,” I think to myself.

“Not a problem; we were just going to say hello to a friend on the other side of the street,” I lied. “You said Lucy is new to the area–you too?”

“Yeah, we just moved into town a week ago. I’m a chemical engineer and got a job with Eli Lilly (the pharmaceutical giant). I’m working on a team that’s trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease!”

His enthusiasm for his new position is obvious as are his intelligence and overall pleasant demeanor. I feel embarrassed for pigeon-holing him based on his ethnicity and mutter sheepishly, “Please hurry!”

A belief is not a certainty; it is confidence in the truth of a thing.

And the degree of confidence is determined by the number and strength of the references that support that belief. And when those references are refuted the strength of the belief wanes. When a belief is discredited the resulting feelings and attitudes supported by the belief are subject to change, too. Am I now ready to approach every bulldog I meet with the enthusiasm and abandon I might afford an aging Golden Retriever? Not hardly.

And folks like Joe; will I invite them to my church, study their culture so as to better understand them, ask them to join the Secret Order of Aardvarks with me? Highly unlikely. Has my attitude softened toward bulldogs and Joes’? Yep, I’ll admit to a chink in the armor. Is that a good thing? I think so. Prejudice toward anything is usually closed-minded and counterproductive. Let’s recap…

  • Attitudes are formed by beliefs and feelings about an attitude object.
  • Attitudes drive behavior.
  • Attitudes can be positive or negative.
  • A positive attitude will empower us and cause us to behave in a way that results in good feelings.
  • A negative attitude will disempower us and cause us to behave in a way that will lead to bad feelings.

It is evident from the statements above that maintaining a positive attitude is in fact crucial to our happiness. But how, in the face of so much negativity in the world, can we possibly maintain an upbeat state of mind? To paraphrase Charles Swindell “…we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day…we are in charge of our Attitudes.”

“Attitude” and “Mood”

Before going any further I’d like to make a distinction between “attitude” and “mood”. They are often used interchangeably, albeit incorrectly. However, the two produce similar “symptoms” so I think it makes sense to investigate their differences.

Earlier I referred to attitudes as “constructs”. From there we discussed the three elements that built, or “constructed” an attitude. Think of an attitude as a house. It is comprised of thousands of different parts and while common, houses are complex structures. It takes months to construct and dismantling it would involve a high level of effort and money. By contrast, a mood is a tent. A piece of fabric, a couple of poles, a zipper and some stakes fit in a little bag you can carry on your back. Pitch it in a matter of minutes, tear it down and pack it away equally as fast. A house is built to provide permanent shelter; a tent is temporary refuge.

Despite their differences mood and attitude can affect our behavior in similar ways. That is, bad ones typically yield bad results and good ones yield good results. Here’s an entry from my journal that illustrates “mood”.

“After several weeks of livin’ large and feeling real good about myself I found that I’m inexplicably in a funk and I gotta ask–why?”

“On my drive to work I listened to a CD of my band’s rehearsal the previous Friday night. I’d already suffered through the five songs I’d recorded several times and I’m not sure what I was expecting to change; in retrospect I’d done a masochistic thing. Nothing did, of course, and hearing the dreadful singing and awful mix made me feel that working with this group of guys was never going to provide me with anything but frustration. I’d really like to be part of a band that did everything exactly as I wanted it done and consequently made wonderful music. The CD convinced me that would probably never happen with this group of guys so a predisposition created by excessive alcohol consumption manifested itself as a sour mood.”

attitude“When I got to work I overcooked my eggs, then listened to my sales manager offer to surrender all the profit I’d held on a sale in order to lessen the damage of an overly generous appraisal a day earlier. I’d worked harder than usual to put this transaction together and I couldn’t believe how quickly my boss became willing to reduce my commission to a $100 “mini”. It turned out that we kept the profit but then we began getting “declines” from potential lessors due to too much outgo and too little income from the customer. At my urging she returned to my office to hear the disposition regarding the car of her dreams. When I explained to this attractive, well-educated young homeowner that no one wanted to lend her money she became quite indignant and left my office in an accusatory huff. What chance does an attitude stand under such a barrage of negative input?”

Despite my question in the last sentence I was not experiencing a bad attitude; it was a bad mood. Everything I was paying attention to that day was affecting my mood in a negative way. (Think of “mood” as a short-term, predominantly affective-based attitude.) But I knew that as soon as I grew tired of wallowing in self pity I could pack up my tent and move on to a more productive and enjoyable emotional state–here’s how.

Part II:  How to Change Your Disempowering Attitudes

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