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The OCR Glossary

Reasoned Action Theory

Karen Freberg

The theory of reasoned action has its scholarly roots in previous efforts to understand how attitudes are formed and changed, such as Norman Anderson’s information integration theory. According to this approach, a persuasive message has value (favorable or unfavorable) and weight (important or irrelevant). This entry provides an overview of the theory of reasoned action; then it discusses key concepts associated with the theory and how the theory can be applied in reputation management situations.

The perceiver combines value and weight with prior attitudes and existing information to produce the final attitude. Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen extended this theory by adding the concept of behavioral intention. Note that intention falls between an attitude and the actual performance of a behavior, yet intention can be predictive of actual behavior. Ajzen and Fishbein (1980) pointed out that individuals do not make decisions without thinking, but rather, they “consider the implications of their actions before they decide to engage or not engage in a given behavior. For this reason, we refer to our approach as a ‘theory of reasoned action’” (p. 5). Reputation managers engage in strategies that influence audience attitudes, but they also need to understand how those attitudes might or might not map onto subsequent audience behaviors.

According to the theory of reasoned action, intent to behave results from the interaction of two key elements: attitudes and subjective norms. Attitudes consist of a person’s thoughts about doing a behavior. Subjective norms consist of the social pressure to do the behavior experienced by a person. In turn, each of these elements has its own antecedents. Attitudes result from the product of behavioral beliefs and outcome evaluations, and subjective norms result from the product of normative beliefs and the perceiver’s desire to comply with those beliefs.

The model can be expressed by the following equation:


The variables are defined as follows: BI = behavioral intention, AB = attitudes toward the performance of the behavior, W = weights, and SN = subjective norms regarding the performance of the behavior.

For example, a person’s behavioral intent (BI) to enter a smoking cessation program is influenced by attitudes (“Attending the smoking cessation program will help me quit smoking” [AB] × “Quitting smoking is good” [W1]) and subjective norms (“My family and my physician tell me I should quit” [SN] × “The opinions of my family and my physician are important to me” [W2]).

When the theory of reasoned action is applied in reputation management situations, it can provide further insight into how an individual’s attitudes may influence his or her overall behavior, particularly in cases involving ethical behavior and how it aligns with the corporate vision and reputation among key audiences. For example, a corporate employee or reputation manager may feel that by attending workshops for ethical training and corporate social responsibilities, he or she would be more of a corporate citizen by practicing ethical behavior. This action would be connected to his or her subjective norms, which would refer back to what his or her colleagues feel about attending these workshops and their endorsement that these events are rewarding and needed for the position.

In later work, Fishbein and Ajzen recognized that behavioral intent interacts with the ability to carry out the intended behavior. For example, the person considering the smoking cessation program might not believe that he or she has the necessary willpower to succeed or the time available to attend meetings regularly. This observation led to the introduction of a third variable contributing to intention: perceived behavioral control. The model incorporating perceived behavioral control was named the theory of planned behavior.

One of the strengths of the theory of reasoned action, which is shared with the theory of planned behavior, is the ease with which researchers can construct instruments for applying the theory to a particular question. Using focus groups, the researcher identifies the most frequently perceived advantages and disadvantages of performing a target behavior. Next, the researcher identifies the most important people who might have an opinion about performing a target behavior and constructs a survey. Evaluating the results of a theory of reasoned action or a theory of planned behavior questionnaire can be accomplished through the use of regression or structural equation modeling.

Meta-analyses and formal evaluations of the theory of reasoned action have produced generally positive effects. Research in diverse domains from health behaviors to voting behaviors to consumer behaviors is supportive of the theory’s predictions. A person’s intent to behave is clearly predicted by his or her attitudes and perceptions of subjective norms. This body of research provides a firm foundation for reputation managers wishing to evaluate an audience’s behavioral intentions in reliable ways.

Outcome research shows, however, that of the two antecedents of behavioral intention, attitudes play a more significant role than do subjective norms. Some reputation managers might find that the inclusion of subjective norms in a model acts as a complication with little added value. In addition, reputation managers might find the theory of planned behavior more relevant to their research questions.

In one meta-analysis, the perceived behavioral control variable, which is included in the theory of planned behavior but not in the theory of reasoned action, accounted for a significant amount of variance in intention and actual behavior, independent of the influences of attitudes and subjective norms. (The perceived behavioral control variable refers to a person’s perception of how much individual control he or she actually has over his or her behavior.) Consequently, reputation managers using the theory of reasoned action or theory of planned behavior should expect to see a reduced influence of attitudes, norms, and control on real outcomes.

In spite of the inevitable weaknesses inherent in any theory and the possible superiority of the later theory of planned behavior, the theory of reasoned action still contributes to our understanding of why a person’s attitude does not necessarily result in a particular behavior as we might otherwise expect.

Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Armitage, C. J., & Conner, M. (2010). Efficacy of the theory of planned behavior: A meta-analytic view. British Journal of Social Psychology, 40(4), 471–499. doi:

Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention and behavior: An introduction to theory and research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kurland, N. B. (1995). Ethical intentions and the theories of reasoned action and planned behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(4), 297–313.

See Also

Research Methods in Corporate Reputation; Theory of Planned Behavior

See Also

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