Social Judgment Theory

Social Judgment Theory
For Me or Agin Me

Almost every teacher can tell you a story about that parent, you know, the one that was thrown out of the building during an argument in a parent-teacher conference. Or the parent that had to be escorted from the gym after a “bad call” in a basketball game. Or the parent who sued the school district over the dress code. It is hard to understand what gets into peoples’ minds sometimes.

The best theory which addresses just how difficult people can be in these and other situations is Social Judgment Theory. This theory is quite useful for three primary reasons. First, it explains why people get so agitated. Second, it explains why persuasion is so difficult to accomplish. Third, it offers a good common sense plan for doing persuasion in the real world.

The Theory can be described in five basic principles. After we learn these principles, we will apply them to our teaching experience. Then maybe we’ll share stories about wild parents.

Principles of Social Judgment Theory

There are five key principles in Social Judgment Theory. The principles are straightforward and have a lot of common sense in them.

Principle 1. We have categories of judgment by which we evaluate persuasive positions.

Consider this example. The topic is ” Should We Increase Teacher Pay?” The range of positions one could take on this topic might look something like this:

  1. It is absolutely essential from all considerations that teachers’ pay should be increased.
  2. It almost certain from many angles that teachers’ pay should be increased
  3. It is highly probable that things would be better if teachers’ pay was increased.
  4. It is possible that it would be better if teachers’ pay was increased.
  5. It is difficult to say whether teachers’ pay should be increased.
  6. It is possible that it would be better if teachers’ pay was not increased.
  7. It is highly probable that teachers’ pay should not be increased.
  8. It is almost certain from most angles that teachers’ pay should not be increased.
  9. It is absolutely essential from all consideration that teacher’s pay not be increased.

These nine statements appear to express a reasonable range of pro- to anti- positions a person could take on this topic. Now, according to Social Judgment Theory, we can categorize each position into one of three zones:

  1. the latitude of acceptance (zone of positions we accept);
  2. the latitude of non-commitment (zone of positions we neither accept nor reject); and
  3. the latitude of rejection (zone of positions we reject).

Within the latitude of acceptance is contained all the positions on a particular topic that we find acceptable. For many teachers the first two or three statements in our example are probably acceptable and hence would fall into their latitude of acceptance. Within this latitude there is one special position called the “anchor.” This is the single position that a person finds the most acceptable of all. It may be the most extreme position (“absolutely essential”), but the anchor could also be a milder position (“highly probable”).

At some border point, we no longer accept some position, but we don’t reject it either. We are now in the latitude of non-commitment. This contains things about which we have no real opinion. With our example, it is probable that many teachers would rate the middle position (“difficult to say”) as being in their latitude of non-commitment. Perhaps one surrounding statement might also fall into this latitude. These are simply the positions that are neutral for the person.

As we move out of the latitude of non-commitment, we reach the second border. As we cross this border we begin to enter the latitude of rejection. This contains the positions on an issue that we reject. In our running example, most teachers would doubtless find the “anti” pay raise positions as unacceptable and place them in the latitude of rejection.

The next question is, how do we use these categories?

Principle 2. When we receive persuasive information, we locate it on our categories of judgment.

Quite simply, we determine which category a given position belongs in. When we read an editorial that advocates a teacher pay raise, we will first determine which latitude it belongs in. Most teachers would probably find this editorial to be agreeable and would put it in their latitude of acceptance.

The implication of this principle is direct. Judgment is crucial to persuasion. If you offer positions that people judge as “reject,” you are not going to be persuasive. And, according to the theory, this judgment happens very rapidly. People do not passively take in information, then make judgments. No, instead, people are making these judgments as they receive the information.

Thus, how people judge is the key first step in the persuasion process. Judgments of rejection make influence extremely difficult. Judgments of non-commitment and acceptance offer the only chance for change.

If you think about this, an important implication arises. All other things being equal, it is easier to influence someone with a larger latitude of acceptance than a larger latitude of rejection. From a simple statistical viewpoint, you have more chances to influence someone with a larger latitude of acceptance. The odds are better that you will express a position that the receiver can live with. By contrast, with a large latitude of rejection, what can you do? There are only a limited number of things this receiver would accept and you have to be careful. There are a lot of things you could say that would be extremely offensive.

The next question, then, is what affects the size of the latitudes?

Principle 3. Our level of “ego-involvement” affects the size of our latitudes.

Ego-involvement means how important the issue is to our self-identity. An ego-involving topic is one that defines who we are and addresses critical aspects of our selves. For example, the quality of life our children have is a critical issue. We want our kids to be safe, happy, and productive. Anything that affects them is of vital interest to us. Thus, issues revolving around the lives of our children are likely to be ego-involving. Now, what happens to our categories of judgment as we become ego-involved in the topic?

Consider this example. A claim is made that, “social security payments must increase to cover the cost of living each year.” Now, compare how each of these two different people would rate that claim: A young adult just entering the work force and someone surviving completely on social security benefits.

For the person whose income depends exclusively upon social security, you can bet that there will be only one acceptable position. It is absolutely essential that those social security benefits be protected. All other positions, even more moderate ones, are likely to fall into the latitude of rejection.

It is not surprising that as we become ego-involved in an issue, our latitude of rejection gets larger and our latitudes of acceptance and non-commitment get smaller. Chances are, because the topic is so important to us, we have already done a lot of thinking about, decided what we think is the “correct” position, then built our self-concepts around that position. We have the Truth on this one and everything else is wrong. Thus, according to Social Judgment Theory, ego-involved people will think in terms of “for me or agin me” with sharply defined categories of judgment.

Principle 4. We tend to distort incoming information to fit our categories of judgment.

I’m sure you’ve had this kind of experience. You are sitting in your house during the winter and you are feeling somewhat cold. Later, you do some light housecleaning. Afterwards, the house feels more comfortable. Even though the real temperature has not changed during day, we can have very different ratings of it. What is going on here?

The answer is quite simple. Our judgments of “hot” and “cold” are comparative judgments. When we have been just sitting around the house and our body temperature is a bit lower, then the room feels colder. We warm up when we do housework and thus the room now feels more comfortable.

Interestingly, people make judgments about persuasive topics in much the same way they make judgments about hot and cold. The Theory holds that we will distort incoming information depending upon the “anchor position” we hold on a given issue. You recall that the anchor is the one position in our latitude of acceptance that we find to be the most acceptable.

Now, follow closely here. If incoming persuasive information falls within the latitude of acceptance and it is close to the anchor position, then people will “assimilate” the new position. That is, people will pull the new position closer to themselves and make it seem to be even more acceptable than it really is.

By contrast, if incoming persuasive information falls outside of the latitude of acceptance, then people will “contrast” that new position. That is, they will push the new position even farther away from themselves and make it seem worse than it really is.

Realize that both assimilation and contrast distort the “true” position of the new information. Recall the temperature example. The true room temperature maybe 70 degrees, but if our “anchor” is low because we have a cold body, then we will distort our judgment of the room and contrast. That is, we will say that the room is “cold.” Yet if our body temperature is higher due to work, then we will again distort our judgment of the room and claim that 70 degrees is “just right” (assimilation).

Now the net of effect of these distortion processes is subtle, but quite important. Through assimilation and contrast we alter the “true” position of the incoming information and make it seem closer or farther away from our anchor than it really is. When distortions like this occur, no persuasion will result! The new information cannot persuade us for one of two reasons. First, if we contrast, we push the new information out of our latitude of acceptance and probably into the latitude of rejection. No persuasion here. Second, if we assimilate, we pull the new information to our anchor and make it seem like it is already a position we accept. No persuasion here, either.

Politics provides many examples of distortions. Take perceptions of the President. George Bush is a Republican and most Republican voters support him. And, of course, even among Republican voters, there is a range of liberal to conservative within the party. If you ask Republicans to rate George Bush on the dimension of liberal-conservative, you will see assimilation. Liberal Republicans will rate Bush as more liberal, while conservative Republicans will rate him as more conservative. Thus, the same object is “distorted” to fit the position the voter already holds.

Principle 5. Small to moderate discrepancies between our anchor positions and the one advocated will cause us to change; large discrepancies will not.

If you think about it, according to the Theory, persuasion is a very difficult process. First of all, persuasion cannot occur if new information is judged to fall within the latitude of rejection. Second, if the person is ego-involved in the issue, then the latitude of rejection is larger than usual and persuasion is even more difficult. Third, people tend to distort new information through assimilation and contrast which dilutes the persuasive potential of new information. There is not much room left for change.

According to Social Judgment Theory, then, for persuasion to occur the following must happen:

  1. the new information must fall in the latitude of acceptance.
  2. the new information must be different from the anchor position.
  3. the new information, while discrepant from the anchor, can’t be assimilated or contrasted.

Thus, change is likely to be small and difficult to obtain. (And this certainly is consistent with common sense. Most people most of the time are resistant to change and move to a new position slowly.) The amount of change that can happen has an interesting property. It follows what is called an “upside-down U” curve. To understand this property simply visualize and inverted, or upside-down U.

A good illustration of this upside-down U is with medicine. When you get a prescription for medicine it tells you how much and how often to take it. You get the maximum benefit when you take the right amount at the right time. If you take too little medicine, you won’t get better. And, if you take too much medicine you won’t get better either (may even get worse).

The same thing occurs with persuasion. As long as there is the “prescribed” amount of discrepancy between the anchor position and the new position, then persuasion can occur. If the amount of discrepancy is too small or too large, then persuasion will not happen.

A Quick Summary

There are five principles of Social Judgment Theory.

  • Principle 1. We have categories of judgment by which we evaluate persuasive positions.
  • Principle 2. When we receive persuasive information, we locate it on our categories of judgment.
  • Principle 3. Our level of “ego-involvement” affects the size of our latitudes.
  • Principle 4. We tend to distort incoming information to fit our categories of judgment.
  • Principle 5. Small to moderate discrepancies between our anchor positions and the one advocated will cause us to change; large discrepancies will not.


This Theory offers some powerful guidelines for persuasion.

1. Work in the latitude of acceptance and avoid the latitude of rejection.

According to this Theory, change cannot occur within the latitude of rejection. When new information is put in this zone, the receiver essentially stops listening to it or, even worse, responds to it in an extremely negative and argumentative way. The last thing an effective persuader wants is a listener who is turned off or angry. Thus, direct attacks are often doomed to failure according to the Theory.

The task we face is difficult, but exceedingly realistic. We must find a common ground in the areas upon which we can agree. We must work within the latitude of acceptance or, perhaps, the latitude of non-commitment. The best way to discover these latitudes is through communication and careful observation of our receivers.

2. Expect change to happen in many small steps over a long time period.

Influence is most likely to occur under three conditions. First, we must work in the latitude of acceptance. Second, we must produce some discrepancy between the new position and the anchor position. Third, we must avoid assimilation and contrast effects. These three conditions obviously limit both our short- and long-term effectiveness. It is just silly to expect influence miracles where our receivers undergo massive, immediate change.

3. Watch out for ego-involvement.

The best example of this danger is the parent-teacher conference. For some parents as soon as the discussion revolves around their child, bang, you have very strong ego-involvement. Suddenly very reasonable people, get very unreasonable when the teacher mentions anything that sounds remotely critical of the child.

We know what is happening according to the Theory. The child is an ego-involving issue. Immediately we are dealing with people who have small latitudes of acceptance and large latitudes of rejection. Therefore, almost anything the teacher says is likely to fall into the latitude of rejection. It is also likely that if the parents distort anything the teacher says, the distortion will be contrast and not assimilation. Thus, the contrast will make the parents see the teacher comments as being much worse than the “really” are.

Of course, anybody, not just parents, are susceptible to this style of thinking. You can see it in your friends. Criticize a friend’s parents or brothers or sisters. Ridicule their close friends. Tease them about the way they want to wear their clothes or hair. Bang, you can see ego-involvement right away. You have crossed an important line and you are no longer dealing with reasonable people.

References and Recommended Readings

Sherif, M., Sherif, K., & Nebergall, R. (1965). Attitude and attitude change: The social judgment-involvement approach. Philadelphia: Saunders.