Throughout the history of social psychology, the attitude construct has played a central role in the explanation of social behavior. Attitude is defined as a disposition to respond favorably or unfavorably to an object, person, institution, or event. An unobservable, hypothetical construct, attitude must be inferred from measurable responses that reflect positive or negative evaluations of the attitude object. People can be asked to express their attitudes directly, by judging the object of the attitude as good or bad or by rating their degree of liking for it. Alternatively, attitudes can be inferred more indirectly from cognitive responses or beliefs (reflecting the individual's perception of and information about the attitude object); affective responses (feelings toward the object); and conative responses (behavioral intentions, tendencies, and actions with respect to the object). For example, attitudes toward an ethnic group can be inferred from beliefs (whether valid or biased) that attribute certain traits, abilities, opinions, and lifestyles to members of the group in question; from such affective or emotional responses as expressions of admiration or contempt for the ethnic group; and from intentions or overt actions that reflect tendencies to approach or avoid members of the group under consideration.

Although people are generally aware of their attitudes, research has shown that conscious or explicit attitudes can be accompanied by evaluatively discrepant implicit attitudes. Thus, when well-established attitudes change, the old implicit attitude is not necessarily replaced but may coexist with the new explicit attitude, and for such socially sensitive topics as racial prejudice, an explicit liberal or egalitarian attitude toward a minority group can coexist with a more negative implicit stereotype. Subtle response latency measures are used to uncover such implicit attitudes.

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