COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A person may have strong negative feelings about donating blood and still be more willing to give than someone who is less negative, new research suggests.

Researchers found that if people have strong positive attitudes about blood donations, they may be willing to give -- even if they also have strong negative feelings, said John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and leader of the research team.

In this case, Cacioppo said, the positive feelings people have toward donating influence their behavior more than do negative attitudes.

This research is one of a series of studies by Cacioppo and his colleagues questioning traditional beliefs about attitudes. The researchers are showing that people can have both strong negative feelings and strong positive feelings about something like donating blood. And contrary to traditional theory, these negative and positive attitudes are not psychological opposites.

In fact, they may not be related and may not affect each other.

"What we're finding is that having positive attitudes towards an object is not the same as having an absence of negative attitudes," Cacioppo said.

Cacioppo said this new research has implications for everything from fighting racist attitudes to increasing blood donations. He discussed recent work in the field Aug. 12 in New York at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

How can someone hold contradictory attitudes about the same object? Cacioppo said that different attitudes about a single object can be triggered in different situations.

For example, people may feel strongly positive about donating blood when they consider how it can help people in need. But the same people can feel negative attitudes because of their fear of needles and medical procedures.

In traditional conceptions of attitudes, these positive and negative feelings are assumed to be related, so that an increase in one means a decrease in the other, and vice versa.

But Cacioppo's research team has found that this relationship doesn't always hold. You can increase or decrease negative feelings about blood donation without affecting positive attitudes, his research has shown.

The difference between these two conceptions of attitudes has very practical implications, Cacioppo said. For example, under traditional theory, you could promote blood donations either by increasing positive feelings toward giving or decreasing negative feelings, since both affect the other.

Cacioppo found this isn't true: In the case of blood donations, positive feelings influence the willingness to donate blood without any affect on negative attitudes. People are more willing to donate blood if they have strong positive feelings toward donation -- regardless of whether their negative feelings are strong or weak.

The study showed that the people who were most willing to give blood were -- not surprisingly -- those who had highly positive attitudes about giving blood and low negative feelings. But the next most willing group were those who had highly positive and highly negative feelings about the donation process. They were more willing to give blood than people who had both low positive and low negative feelings about donation.

These results suggest that the best strategy to boost the number of blood donors would be to increase people's positive attitudes about donating, Cacioppo said. Trying to fight negative attitudes won't work as well.

But Cacioppo said that negative attitudes may play a more important role in influencing other behaviors. For example, work by other researchers suggests that the best strategy for reducing violence against minorities is reducing negative feelings toward them by whites. That's because it's negative attitudes that lead to violence, he said.

"Most of the programs the government have to reduce prejudice are usually designed to increase positive feelings toward minorities," Cacioppo said. "But our research suggests that increasing positive feelings won't help reduce violence. It may lead to more positive behaviors toward minorities -- but it will not reduce negative attitudes, and it's negative attitudes that are related to violence."

Cacioppo said that viewing attitudes as bipolar -- as simply positive or negative -- is often an oversimplification of reality. Understanding how opposing attitudes can co-exist will help uncover better ways of persuading people to take desired actions such as giving blood, he said.

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Contact: John Cacioppo, (614) 292-1916

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457