Values, Beliefs, and Attitudes

Human beings are complex, multifaceted creatures. Psychologists and sociologists have written thousands of pages of text attempting to explain what makes human beings “tick ” in order to better understand why individuals behave as they do. Why does one person laugh off an insult while another feels the need to punch the offender? Why do some cultures value the uniqueness of the individual while others believe that the group working as a whole is more important? What makes one person persevere while another gives up? In one small section of this chapter, we certainly cannot hope to comprehensively cover all that comprises human psychology, but we do need to identify a few key terms that have relevance in our study of communication and speech. For our purposes, the terms values, beliefs, and attitudes are especially important as you attempt to analyze your audience. These terms are defined for you in the table below.

Values

The underlying principles or standards of desirable or ideal behavior that we use to justify our beliefs and attitudes

Beliefs

Ideas we express about subjects that may explain our attitudes towards them

Attitudes

A frame of mind in favor of or opposed to a person, policy, belief, institution, topic, etc.

Let’s look at an example at how these terms work together to form a person’s belief system. For example, you might say that you value freedom. You might also concede that you believe it is sometimes necessary to police-or even invade-other countries or nations to protect freedom. Your beliefs naturally correspond to the values you hold dear. Furthermore, as an extension of this value, you are appreciative of those who serve in the military to protect your rights. You honor veterans and give to charities that support them. Your overall positive attitude towards veterans and veteran issues is a direct reflection of your belief that freedom is crucial.

On the other hand, what if you have a friend who says she places great value on her health but refuses to exercise or watch her calories? Or perhaps she smokes? Her actions and attitude do not support what she says she believes. Perhaps she argues that she would be healthier if there weren’t so many delicious snacks and treats available, or that it’s not her fault that smoking is so prevalent in our society. In his book Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief , Lewis Wolpert found that most of us like to blame our behavior (especially negative behavior) on outside forces-our situation or circumstances. In other words, when we fail to act or behave as we state we believe, it’s not our fault (15).

Keep in mind, however, that humans are extraordinarily complex, so it follows that our belief systems are equally complex. It might help us to understand these concepts better if we look at attitudes, values, and beliefs through an illustration. Visualize a house or a building. Your values can best be represented as the foundation, or perhaps the basement, of the home. This is the overall support of the structure and as such acts as a scaffold for all the other features that will be added to the home-walls, rooms, roof, etc. Our beliefs are formed from the foundation of our fundamental values. Just as walls cannot be expected to remain upright if the foundation caves in, beliefs that are not supported by a strong value system are generally transient beliefs-they don’t last. Let’s end by adding attitudes into this visualization. Much as we utilize our windows and doors to look out upon the world, attitudes are the tendencies we have to view the people and places around us in either a positive light or a negative light.

As a public speaker, you have a limited amount of time to present your facts and evidence, so knowing how an audience thinks and what they value will assist you as you determine which beliefs can potentially be changed and which are “set in stone, ” as the old saying goes. In other words, some beliefs are fixed, and some are variable. Fixed beliefs are fundamental core beliefs, typically ingrained since childhood. These beliefs are not easily shaken or altered. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change fixed beliefs. For instance, if you are adamantly opposed to the death penalty or abortion, you are probably responding to one of your fixed, core beliefs, “It is wrong to kill. ” You have probably fashioned much of your life and how you choose to live it around this fundamental belief. If so, it is unlikely that a ten-minute speech will change your opinion.

On the other hand, some of our beliefs are less rigid; we can be convinced to change what we believe. These types of beliefs are variable beliefs . Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve never given much thought to a vegetarian lifestyle. You eat meat, but have no problem with your friends who are vegetarians. However, a speech by a classmate reveals some factors that you’d never considered: the health benefits of a vegetarian diet and the inhumane treatment of livestock being raised for slaughter. Suddenly, you’re rethinking your lifestyle and diet. You begin considering the moral and health issues advocated in the speech. What’s happening? Your classmate has touched on a variable belief. You could be persuaded to become a vegetarian after hearing the facts and arguments presented. This belief was never fundamental to the way you saw yourself or viewed the world. Now that you have new evidence, you reconsider.

So why is this knowledge of belief systems important to you as a speaker? Knowing as much as you can about how your audience members think, believe, and view the world gives you “insider ” information that will assist you as you choose your topics, your examples, and your evidence. As you attempt to persuade listeners, you will certainly need to be aware of which beliefs are fixed and which are variable. It might also help if you realize how persistently we humans hold on to our beliefs, often even after we are presented with evidence that clearly contradicts them. This can make your attempt to convince your audience more difficult. Wolpert states that “when examining evidence relevant to a given belief, people are inclined to see what they expect to see and conclude what they expect to conclude ” (7-8). We often see only what we want to see. We focus on the evidence that supports our already established beliefs and disregard other conflicting evidence because it doesn’t fit how we view the world. It doesn’t fit into our belief system. You must be prepared to combat that human tendency.

Knowing what individuals in your audience value and believe can assist you in all phases of your speech preparation and presentation. How can you gather this information from them? First, you will need to know what questions to ask and what types of data to collect. One of the first places to start is with the collection of demographic information.