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Theory of Reasoned Action

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Theory of Reasoned Action

In trying to determine the differences between intention and behaviour, Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) came up with the theory of reasoned action, suggesting behaviour results from the individual’s intention to perform that specific behaviour. Most individuals decide their intention towards a behaviour well in advance, and that intention is the most accurate predictor of whether or not the individual will carry out that behaviour.

What would be the example of the theory of reasoned action? And what would the the theory of planned behaviour be in comparison? Let's find out.

Theory of reasoned action: definition

In the theory of reasoned action, two main factors determine the intention to perform a behaviour:

  1. Attitude refers to the judgement of whether or not a behaviour is good. Two behavioural beliefs further determine it: (a) beliefs about the outcome of the behaviour and (b) evaluation of the expected outcome.

    Someone may have an attitude that exercise is good for them. Keeping this in mind, the belief behind this could be ‘exercise can keep me healthy and help prevent ailments’, and the evaluation could be ‘I want to be healthy and not develop any medical problems’.

  2. Subjective norms refer to the individual’s beliefs about their social world; if they think the people important to them (e.g., family, friends) want them to perform the behaviour. These norms further rely on the individual’s motivation to comply with these opinions (e.g., ‘do I want to do what they want me to do?’). To explain this further, let’s take this example:

An individual may believe that exercising to be healthy is appropriate behaviour. This belief can have stemmed from the belief that ‘my friends and family believe that I should exercise’ and ‘I value their opinion, so I want to follow their advice’.

Application of the theory of reasoned action


The theory of reasoned action states that the above-mentioned factors (attitude and subjective norms) work together to produce intention, which ultimately leads to behaviour. Taking the same example of the theory of reasoned action as above, the individual’s beliefs generated the attitude that exercising is healthy, which is likely to create an intention for the individual to perform said behaviour.

On the other hand, if the same individual had negative beliefs about exercise such as, ‘exercise is inconvenient and I will probably injure myself’, ‘I don’t have time to exercise’, and ‘most of the people I know also don’t exercise’, then the intention will not be created, and therefore, the behaviour will not be performed.

While the basis of this theory is that intention precedes behaviour, other factors may intervene before the intention is realised. These are:

  1. Time gap refers to the time gap between the expression of intention towards the behaviour and the actual behaviour; the bigger this gap is, the less likely it is for the intention to be expressed, as other influences and distractions can cause a change in attitudes and priorities.

    An individual may intend to exercise after work but might have a conversation with colleagues and end up going to the pub instead.

  2. Specificity refers to how specific one’s intention is. If an individual has a general attitude that they should exercise, it is more likely this won’t translate into behaviour. Whereas, if the attitude is specific, i.e., signing up for a gym class at a specific time is likely to be a good basis for predicting the behaviour.

The theory of reasoned action diagram below will give you a better overview:

Theory of Reasoned Action diagram StudySmarterTheory of reasoned action diagram, Wikimedia Commons

Theory of reasoned action: planned behaviour

The success of this theory relies on volitional control, i.e., whether or not the individual can exercise a large degree of control over the behaviour under question. Since the theory of reasoned action does not consider this, Ajzen (1985) adapted the theory to include perceived behavioural control, which then became the theory of planned behaviour.

This ‘adapted’ theory states achieving a specific behaviour is not only dependent on one’s intention towards it, but also on whether a person believes they can do the behaviour.

Theory of reasoned action [+] theory of planned behaviour diagram [+] StudySmarterTheory of planned behaviour diagram, flixr.com

Perceived behavioural control refers to the extent to which we believe we can perform the behaviour. It is dependent on two main factors, (a) internal factors (one’s ability and determination towards the specific behaviour) and (b) external factors (the resources and support available to that individual).

When discussing exercise, the internal factors could be ‘I can start exercising’ or ‘I am strong enough to exercise’, and external factors could be ‘I have a gym membership’ or ‘I have access to a home workout guide’.

This added component can further impact our behaviour in two ways:

  1. If we believe we have greater control over our behaviour, we will form a stronger intention to engage in it.

  2. If we believe we have greater control over our behaviour, then we will work longer and harder to succeed.

Perceived behavioural control thus can not only feed intention for a specific behaviour and impact it directly.

Theory of Reasoned Action - Key takeaways

  • The theory of reasoned action suggests that behaviour results from the individual’s intention to perform that specific behaviour.
  • Two factors determine intention: attitude (the judgement of whether or not a behaviour is a good thing to do) and subjective norms (the individual’s beliefs about whether their social circle wants them to engage in the behaviour).
  • Other factors can intervene before realising the intention. These are time gaps (the time that lapses between the expression of intention towards the behaviour and the actual behaviour) and specificity (how specific one’s intention is).
  • A criticism of the theory of reasoned action was that it did not consider volitional control (whether or not the individual has control over the behaviour), and a component of ‘perceived behavioural control’ was added. The adapted theory is the theory of planned behaviour.
  • The theory of planned behaviour states that achieving a specific behaviour depends not only on one’s intention towards it but also on one’s ability to undertake it.
  • Perceived behavioural control within this theory is again dependent on internal factors (one’s ability and determination towards the specific behaviour) and external factors (the resources and support available to that individual).

Frequently Asked Questions about Theory of Reasoned Action

The theory of reasoned action suggests that an individual’s intention to perform a certain behaviour determines their actual behaviour. Their attitude toward the behaviour and subjective norms determine this intention. 

According to the theory of reasoned action, if individuals evaluate the behaviour as positive (their attitude towards the behaviour), and if they believe that others want them to carry out their behaviour (subjective norms), they will have a higher intention to perform that behaviour.

It is used to explain and predict behaviour based on attitudes, norms, and intentions.

Suppose an individual has a positive belief about exercise (their attitude) and has friends and family who encourage them to participate because it is good for health (subjective norms). Their intention to exercise will be higher, and they will be more likely to engage in this activity.

There are two. The first, known as the theory of reasoned action, takes into account an individual’s attitude and subjective norms that contribute towards intention and then behaviour. However, after adaptations, the theory of planned behaviour came about with an added component – perceived behavioural control, which refers to how an individual believes that they can perform the behaviour.

Final Theory of Reasoned Action Quiz

Question

What is the theory of reasoned action, and who was it proposed by?

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Answer

Fishbein and Ajzen (1975) proposed the theory of reasoned action, suggesting behaviour results from the individual’s intention to perform that specific behaviour.

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Question

What are the two factors that determine 'intention’ in this theory?

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Answer

1. Attitude, which is an individual’s judgement of whether or not that behaviour is a good/advantageous thing to do and,

2. Subjective norms are individuals’ beliefs about their social world, such as friends, family, and/or society.

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Question

In what situation will behaviour not be carried out?

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Answer

Suppose an individual has negative beliefs (either their or of their society) towards the behaviour they want to undertake. It is less likely for them to create the intention, resulting in the behaviour not being carried out.

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Question

What factors can intervene with an individual’s ability to realise intention, and how?

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Answer

  1. Time gap refers to the time gap between the expression of intention towards the behaviour and the actual behaviour; the bigger this gap is, the less likely it is for the intention to be expressed, as other influences and distractions can cause a change in attitudes and priorities.

    An individual may intend to exercise after work but might have a conversation with colleagues and end up going to the pub instead.

  2. Specificity refers to how specific one’s intention is. If an individual has a general attitude that they should exercise, it is more likely this won’t translate into behaviour. Whereas, if the attitude is specific, i.e., signing up for a gym class at a specific time is likely to be a good basis for predicting the behaviour.

Show question

Question

How is the theory of planned behaviour different from the theory of reasoned action?

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Answer

The theory of planned behaviour has an additional component of perceived behavioural control, which refers to the extent to which someone believes they can perform the behaviour.

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Question

Discuss (with examples) the factors that contribute towards perceived behavioural control.

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Answer

Two factors contribute towards perceived behavioural control:


(a) internal factors (one’s ability and determination towards the specific behaviour) and (b) external factors (the resources and support available to that individual).


When discussing exercise, the internal factors could be ‘I can start exercising’ or ‘I am strong enough to exercise’, and external factors could be ‘I have a gym membership’ or ‘I have access to a home workout guide’.

Show question

Question

What two behavioural beliefs further determine ‘attitudes’?

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Answer

Beliefs about the outcome of the behaviour and evaluation of the expected outcome.  

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Question

What further determines 'subjective norms’?

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Answer

The individual’s motivation to comply with the opinions of their social world.

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