Theory of reasoned action

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The theory of reasoned action (TRA), is one of the three Classic Persuasion models of psychology, and is also used in communication discourse as a theory of understanding persuasive messages. The Theory of Reasoned Action was developed by Martin Fishbein and Icek Ajzen in 1975 and was derived from previous research that began as the theory of attitude. The theory aims to explain the relationship between attitudes and behaviors within human action. TRA is used to predict how individuals will behave based on their pre-existing attitudes and behavioral intentions. An individual's decision to engage in a particular behavior is based on the outcomes the individual expects will come as a result of performing the behavior.[1]

Overview of the Theory[edit]

The theory of reasoned action serves to understand an individual's voluntary behavior.[2] The ideas found within the theory of reasoned action have to do with an individual's basic motivation to perform an action. According to the theory, intention to perform a certain behavior precedes the actual behavior.[3] This intention is known as behavioral intention, and comes as a result of a belief that performing the behavior will lead to a specific outcome. Behavioral intention is important to the theory because these intentions "are determined by attitudes to behaviors and subjective norms".[4] The theory of reasoned action suggests that stronger intentions lead to increased effort to perform the behavior, which also increases the likelihood for the behavior to be performed.

Ajzen and Fishbein suggest two factors that determine intention: attitudes and subjective norms. An attitude is a person's opinion about whether a behavior is positive or negative, while "a subjective norm is a perceived social pressure arising from one's perception".[4] A subjective norm describes the social pressure an individual feels to perform or not perform the behavior at hand. Together, attitudes and subjective norms are thought to determine behavioral intention. Behavioral intention then leads to performing the behavior.

The TRA theorists note that there are three conditions that can affect the relationship between behavioral intention and behavior. The first condition is that "the measure of intention must correspond with respect to their levels of specificity".[5] This means that to predict a specific behavior, the behavioral intention must be equally specific. The second condition is that there must be "stability of intentions between time of measurement and performance of behavior".[5] The intention must remain the same between the time that it is given and the time that the behavior is performed. The third condition is "the degree to which carrying out the intention is under the volitional control of the individual".[5] The individual always has the control of whether or not to perform the behavior. These conditions have to do with the transition from verbal responses to actual behavior.[5]

Applications of the Theory[edit]

The Theory of Reasoned action has been used in many studies as a framework for examining specific kinds of behavior. Many researchers use the theory to study behaviors that are associated with high risks and danger, as well as deviant behavior. In contrast, some research has applied the theory to more normative and rational types of action. Some of the applications of the TRA include college fraternity and sorority hazing, coupon usage, and adolescent sexual behavior. Researchers Davies, Foxall, and Pallister suggest that the theory of reasoned can be tested if "behavior is measured objectively without drawing a connection to prior intention".[6] Most studies, however, look at intention because its central role in the theory.

College Fraternity and Sorority Hazing[edit]

The theory of reasoned action has been applied to the study of whistle-blowing intentions and hazing in college organizations, specifically fraternities and sororities. Hazing is understood to be "any activity expected of someone that joins a group, which humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers its victims".[7] In the United States, there have been a variety of hazing incidents that have resulted in death and harm of students on several college campuses. Whistle-blowing "involves an individual with some level of unique or inside knowledge using public communication to bring attention to some perceived wrongdoing or problem.[7] Whistle-blowing is significant to this issue because individuals who are aware of hazing incidents can come forward to university officials and make the occurrence of hazing known. In their study, Richardson et. al set out to study whistle-blowing by using the theory of reasoned action as a framework to predict whether or not individuals will come forward about report hazing incidents. Their study served to examine whether the relationships suggested by the TRA model remain true in predicting whistle blowing intentions, as well as, to see if these relationships would change depending on the severity of the hazing incident.

Richardson et. al surveyed a sample of 259 students from Greek organizations at university in the Southwestern United States. The survey questions measured the different aspects of the TRA model: behavioral beliefs, outcome evaluations, attitude toward the behavior, normative beliefs, motivation to comply, subjective norms, and the consequence endogenous variable. The questions asked respondents to rate their responses on various 7 point scales. "Participants in the study responded to one of three scenarios, varying in level of severity, describing a hazing situation occurring in their fraternity or sorority".[7] In line with the theory, the researchers wanted to identify if attitudes held about hazing, dangerous activity, and group affiliation, along with subjective norms about whistle-blowing (reactions by others, consequences of reporting the action, isolation from the group) would influence whether or not an individual would go through with reporting a hazing incident. The results of the study found that individuals were more likely to report, or whistle-blow, on hazing incidents that were more severe or harmful to individuals. Simultaneously, individuals were also concerned about the perceptions of others' attitudes towards them and the consequences they may face if they reported hazing incidents.

Coupon Usage[edit]

Coupon usage has also been studied through the theory of reasoned action framework by researchers interested in consumer and marketer behavior. In 1984, Terence Shimp and Alican Kavas applied this theory to coupon usage behavior, with the research premise that "coupon usage is rational, systematic, and thoughtful behavior"[8] in contrast with other applications of the theory to more dangerous types of behavior.

The theory of reasoned action serves as a useful model because it can help examine whether "consumers' intentions to use coupons are determined by their attitudes and perceptions of whether important others think one should or should not expend the effort to clip, save, and use coupons.[8] The consumer's behavior intentions are influenced by their personal beliefs about coupon usage, meaning whether or not they think saving money is important and are willing to spend the time clipping coupons. These potential beliefs also influenced the coupon user's thoughts about what others think about their usage of coupons. Together, the coupon user will use their own beliefs and the opinions of others to form an overall attitude towards coupon usage. To approach this study, Shimp and Alican surveyed 770 households and measured the aspects of the TRA model in terms of the participant's responses. The received responses indicated that consumers' norms are "partially determined by their personal beliefs toward coupon usage, and to an even greater extend, that attitudes are influenced by internalizations of others' beliefs".[8] Positive attitudes towards this behavior are influenced by an individual's perceptions that their partners will be satisfied by their time spent and efforts made to save money.

Sexual Behavior[edit]

Many studies have been conducted about the theory of reasoned action and its applications to sexual behavior, especially in adolescents. This focus may be because "sexual intercourse among adolescents frequently has been characterized as unplanned and impulsive".[1] W.M. Doswell, Braxter, Cha, and Kim examined sexual behavior in African American teenage girls and applied the theory as a framework for understanding this behavior. Previous research and reviews of pregnancy prevention programs indicate that teenager's beliefs about sex, values, attitudes, and intentions were the most important factors related to sexual behavior.[2] The theory of reasoned action can explain these behaviors in that teens' behavioral intentions to engage in early sexual behavior are influenced by their pre-existing attitudes and subjective norms of their peers. Attitudes in this context are favorable or unfavorable dispositions towards teenage sexual behavior.[2] Subjective norms are the perceived social pressure teenagers feel from their friends, classmates, and other peer groups to engage in sexual behavior. As a framework, the TRA suggests that adolescents will participate in early behavior because of their own attitudes towards the behavior and the subjective norms of their peers. In this case, intention is the willful plan to perform early sexual behavior.[2]

Doswell et. al conducted their study with the purpose of testing the TRA and its ability to predict early sexual behavior in African American teenage girls. Participants in the study were included if they were African American, between ages 11 and 14, healthy, and had no history of pregnancy. The girls were measured on six instrumental scales: socio-demographic placement, pubertal development, and four TRA survey questionnaires.[2] Findings from the student showed that the TRA was supportive in predicting early sexual behavior among African American teenage girls. Attitudes towards sex and subjective norms both correlated with intentions to participate in early sexual behavior in the study's sample.

Additional Information[edit]

The theory of reasoned action has been summarized into a formula and a flow chart for visual representations of how the theory works.


In its simplest form, the TRA can be expressed as the following equation:

BI {{=}} (AB)W_1 + (SN)W_2\,\!


  • BI = behavioral intention
  • (AB) = one's attitude toward performing the behavior
  • W = empirically derived weights
  • SN = one's subjective norm related to performing the behavior[9]


As a behavioral process, an expanded TRA flow model can be expressed as follows:[10]

Belief toward an outcome Attitude Intention Behavior
Evaluation of the outcome
Beliefs of what others think Subjective norm
What experts think
Motivation to comply with others

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rogers Gillmore, Mary; Archibald, Matthew; Morrison, Diane; Wilsdon, Anthony; Wells, Elizabeth; Hoppe, Marilyn; Nahom, Deborah; Murowchick, Elise (November 2002). "Teen Sexual Behavior: Applicability of the Theory of Reasoned Action". Journal of Marriage and Family (Volume 64). 
  2. ^ a b c d e Doswell, Willa; Braxter, Betty; Cha, EunSeok; Kim, Kevin (2011). "Testing the Theory of Reasoned Action in Explaining Sexual Behavior Among African American Young Teen Girls". Journal of Pediatric Nursing. 
  3. ^ Azjen, Icek; Madden, Thomas (1986). "Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 
  4. ^ a b Colman, Andrew (January 2015). "Theory of Reasoned Action". A Dictionary of Psychology. 
  5. ^ a b c d Ajzen, Icek (February 1992). "A Comparison of the Theory of Planned Behavior and the Theory of Reasoned Action". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 
  6. ^ Yousafzai, Shumaila (2010). "Explaining Internet Banking Behavior: Theory of reasoned action, theory of planned behavior, or technology acceptance model?". Journal of Applied Psychology. 
  7. ^ a b c Richardson, Brian; Wang, Zuoming; Hall, Camille (April–June 2012). "Blowing the Whistle Against Greek Hazing: The Theory of Reasoned Action as a Framework for Reporting Intentions". Communication Studies. 
  8. ^ a b c Shimp, Terence; Kavas, Alican (December 1984). "The Theory of Reasoned Action Applied to Coupon Usage". Journal of Consumer Research (Volume 11). 
  9. ^ Hale, Jerold; Householder, Brian; Greene, Kathryn (2002). "The Theory of Reasoned Action". The persuasion handbook: Developments in theory and practice. 
  10. ^ Ajzen, Icek, and Martin Fishbein. "Understanding attitudes and predicting social behaviour." (1980).