Social Judgment Theory: Perception and Persuasion

Social Judgment Theory

Social judgment theory (SJT) describes a persuasion and judgement approach in which a concept is perceived and evaluated in relation to current views. According to SJT, an individual weighs each new concept and compares it to their current point of view to determine where it should fall on the attitude scale in their head.

The psychophysical principle here is that when a stimulus is farther away from one’s judging anchor, a contrast effect is more likely; when the stimulus is close to the anchor, an assimilation effect is probable. Social judgment theory is thus an attempt to apply psychophysical judging principles and discoveries to social judgment.

Attitude change is the primary goal of persuasive communication. Social judgment theory attempts to specify the conditions under which this change occurs and predict the direction and extent of the attitude change, while also attempting to explain how likely a person is to change their opinion, the likely direction of that change, their tolerance for other people’s opinions, and their level of commitment to their position.

History of Social Judgment Theory

Psychologist Muzafer Sheriff developed social judgment theory; Carl I. Hovland and Carolyn W. Sheriff were additional were key figures in establishing it. SJT evolved from social psychology and was founded on laboratory findings from experiments.

These investigations investigated the mental evaluation of physical items, known at the time as psychophysical research. Subjects were instructed to compare one aspect of an object, such as weight or color, to another, distinct object.

The researchers discovered that when a standard was offered for comparison, participants categorized the objects based on the standard’s features. SJT focuses on the framework’s conceptual structure and tracks its evolution from Brunswik’s probabilistic functionalism to its current form.

For example, if a very heavy object is used as the standard for determining weight, the other objects will be assessed to be relatively lighter than if a very light object is used as the standard. The standard is known as a “anchor”.

Initial research by Sherif and Hovland focused on how individuals have a range of positions on a particular issue — known as a latitude of acceptance, latitude of non-commitment, and latitude of rejection — which are instrumental in attitude formation and change. The latitude of acceptance is the range in which people will accept ideas as reasonable or worthy of consideration, while the message falling in the latitude of rejection will be immediately dismissed.

Muzafer Sherif and his spouse, Carolyn Sherif, further detailed the theory’s mechanisms, integrating social psychology aspects to explain that people’s judgments are influenced by their underlying values, experiences, and attitudes.

This development was marked by meticulous research that aimed to go beyond the mere description of attitudes. Carl Hovland’s part in the development of the theory was through research at Yale University, where the focus was gauging the effects of persuasive communications.

The Sherifs, along with Hovland, investigated the intersection of attitudes and ego-involvement, positing that the higher the ego-involvement, the smaller the latitude of acceptance. This brought new insights into the complexities of social judgment and attitude change.

Core Aims

One of the aims of SJT is to explain how attitudes or positions on an issue are expressed, judged, and transformed. A judgment occurs when a person compares at least two inputs and forms a decision about them.

Judgment processes for social stimuli take into account both past experiences and current conditions. Muzafer Sherif, Carolyn Sherif, and Roger Nebergall (1965) defined attitudes as “the stands the individual upholds and cherishes about objects, issues, persons, groups, or institutions”

Researchers must infer attitudes from behaviours. The conduct can be in response to either predetermined or naturally occurring stimuli. True attitudes are vital to self-identity and complicated, making them difficult to modify.

Ego-involvement is the degree to which an issue is central to an individual’s self-concept. High ego-involvement typically correlates with:

  • A wider latitude of rejection.
  • A narrower latitude of acceptance.
  • Stronger reactions to contrasting messages.

As ego-involvement increases, attitudes tend to become more resistant to change, and the individual more readily engages in assimilation and contrast to maintain their preexisting beliefs. This critical aspect of social judgment underscores the personal investment and intensity associated with certain issues or beliefs.

Social Latitudes

Social judgment theory also shows how people compare their personal perspectives on various concerns to those around them. Aside from their personal opinions, people have broad ranges of what they consider to be acceptable or objectionable in general for the views of others.

Social attitudes are not cumulative, particularly when they are extreme. This indicates that a person may not agree with less radical positions relative to his or her own, even if they are in the same direction.

Furthermore, even if two persons appear to have the same opinions, their “most preferred” and “least preferred” options may differ. Thus, a person’s overall attitude can only be understood in terms of what other perspectives he or she considers acceptable or objectionable, in addition to his or her own.

People’s attitudes toward an issue can be divided into three categories based on their latitudes: rejection, acceptance, and non-commitment.

Latitude of Acceptance: This is the range of ideas that a person sees as reasonable or worthy of consideration. If a new idea falls within this latitude, it is more likely to be accepted.

Latitude of Rejection: The range of ideas that a person finds unacceptable or objectionable falls here. Information within this latitude is often robustly opposed.

Latitude of Noncommitment: This zone encompasses ideas that a person feels indifferent about. These ideas are neither accepted nor rejected immediately.

People’s attitudes play a pivotal role in determining the size of these latitudes. The latitude of acceptance shrinks as ego-involvement increases, meaning that a person with strong opinions on a subject is less likely to accept conflicting viewpoints.

Assimilation and Contrast

Contrast occurs when people see a message inside their rejection latitude as being further away from their anchor than it actually is. Assimilation, the inverse of contrast, is a perceptual error in which people mistake messages that fit within their acceptance latitude for being less dissimilar to their anchor than they actually are.

These latitudes determine the chances of assimilation and contrast. When a divergent opinion is expressed in a communication message within the person’s latitude of acceptance, the message is more likely to be assimilated or interpreted as being closer to the person’s anchor, or his or her own viewpoint, than it is.

Persuasion is improbable when the message is considered to be significantly different from one’s anchor and hence falls inside the rejection latitude, due to a contrast effect. The contrast effect occurs when the message appears to be further away from the anchor than it actually is.

Attitude Change

To alter an attitude, we must first understand the individual’s attitudes. Positive attitude change increases as the disparity grows. Then one can examine how it links to listeners’ perceptions of persuasive messaging.

It is also necessary, according to SJT, to determine how close or distant one’s position is. The next phase is to adjust one’s stance in reaction to the argument presented.

Once a person has determined that a new position falls within his or her acceptance latitude, he or she modifies his or her attitude accordingly. If someone perceives that message to be within his or her rejection range, they will modify their attitude, but in the opposite direction of what they believe the speaker is advocating.

An attitude shift is not always intentional. In the boomerang effect, an attitude shifts in the opposite direction of what the message promotes—the listener is driven away from, rather than pulled to, an idea.

This explains why appeals to fear in advertising frequently fail to elicit an audience response. People will likely to do the opposite of what is urged as the perceived threat grows and the ability to have the desired result decreases.

Attitude shifts can also be impacted by the surrounding social context. In the interpersonal sphere, people tend to change their attitudes to match those of their significant partners. The overall picture of social influence remains one of conformity and aligning attitudes.

The “latitude of acceptance” notion is crucial to this process. Individuals are more likely to change their attitudes when they see a new stance falling within this range. Conversely, if a message is assessed to be within the “latitude of rejection,” the listener may still experience an attitude shift, but in the opposite direction of the recommended position.

social judgment theory implies that successful persuasive communications must be finely adjusted to the receiver’s acceptance range and strategically differ from the anchor position. Even in circumstances of successful persuasion, the expected improvements in attitude may be minimal. Furthermore, the theory indicates that persuasion is a continuous process, with views potentially altering over time as a result of exposure to different messages.


In the realm of persuasion and communication, SJT posits that people have varying levels of acceptability for ideas presented to them. This range is often depicted in a continuum of positions, characterized by the zones of acceptance, noncommitment, and rejection. Insight into these latitudes guides communicators to tailor messages that are more likely to be persuasive.

The domain of attitude change is intrinsically connected to how persuasive messages are perceived. The theory describes that for attitude change to occur, a persuasive message should not be too discrepant from the individual’s anchor position, or else it may shift to the latitude of rejection, thereby failing to induce change. This fine balance is critical; effective persuasive communication should present stimuli that are seen as credible and within a person’s latitude of noncommitment, nudging them towards a new attitude incrementally.

Regarding behavior and social influence, SJT illustrates that individual behavior often aligns with attitudes shaped through social influence tactics. A persuasive message that successfully causes an attitude change is likely to influence subsequent behavior.

Political Persuasion

In the realm of politics, SJT provides insight into how candidates sway voters. It suggests that individuals’ political judgments and potential to change align with how close political messages are to their existing beliefs.

For instance, messages falling within a person’s latitude of acceptance are more likely to incite a shift in stance. This has a profound effect on campaign strategies, orienting around core values and ideas that resonate most effectively with targeted demographics.

Marketing and Advertising

SJT is notably relevant in marketing and advertising, where understanding consumer attitude is crucial. Marketers leverage this theory by crafting messages that align with the target audience’s attitudes towards products or brands.

Successful campaigns intersect with the audience’s latitude of acceptance, where promotions of a new product might focus on attributes that consumers find highly relevant and attitudinally congruent, enhancing the likelihood of attitude change.

Critiques and Expansions

The theory has at times struggled with the prediction of specific behaviors based on the latitude of acceptance and rejection. Rejection of a message, for instance, does not always equate to a predictable behavioral response. Moreover, critics argue that SJT’s focus is too narrow, leaving out important social and cognitive processes such as memory and specific individual differences.

Another issue raised in critiques of SJT pertains to the values individuals hold. Values are central to the formation of attitudes, and some argue that the theory does not fully account for how deeply held values might resist change or influence the interpretation of persuasive messages.

As with all theoretical models, a clear understanding of these limitations is necessary for the accurate application of SJT in practical situations.

Modern scholars have extended SJT to encompass a broader range of applications, addressing some of the criticisms it has faced. Acceptance and noncommitment regions are now understood to be fluid, influenced by a variety of factors including the medium of message delivery and the social context of the audience.

One such extension of the original statement of social judgment theory examines the causal role of social judgments in attitude change. The authors – Gian Sarup, Robert W. Suchner and Gitanjali Gaylord – conclude that the theory can indeed be enriched to provide more nuanced predictions.

Modern relevance is found in the application of SJT to online behavior and social media engagement. Aghbolagh and colleagues’ Balance Seeking Opinion Dynamics model based on SJT illustrates the theory’s applicability in understanding how people engage with content they like or dislike on social platforms. This comparison between older theoretical assumptions and new-age information dissemination has revitalized SJT, making it a potent framework for studying persuasion in the digital age.

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