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The theory of reasoned action (TRA) is a general theory of behavior that was first introduced in 1967 by Martin Fishbein, and was extended by Fishbein and Icek Ajzen (e.g., Ajzen & Fishbein 1980). Developed largely in response to the repeated failure of traditional attitude measures to predict specific behaviors, the theory began with the premise that the simplest and most efficient way to predict a given behavior was to ask a person whether he or she was or was not going to perform that behavior. Thus, according to the theory, performance or non-performance of a given behavior is primarily determined by the strength of a person’s intention to perform (or to not perform) that behavior, where intention is defined as the subjective likelihood that one will perform (or try to perform) the behavior in question.
Although the theory focuses upon behavioral intentions (e.g., to jog 20 minutes every day), it can also predict and explain intentions to engage in categories of behavior (e.g., to exercise) or to reach certain goals (e.g., to lose weight). According to the theory, however, unlike the strong relation between intentions to engage in a given behavior and behavioral performance, there is no necessary relation between intentions to engage in a behavioral category and whether one does (or does not) perform any single behavior in that category or between intentions to reach a specific goal and goal attainment. Thus, although the theory can predict and explain any intention, the TRA recognizes that only intentions to engage in volitionally controlled behaviors will consistently lead to accurate behavioral predictions.
The intention (I) to perform a given behavior (B) is, in turn, viewed as a function of two basic factors: the person’s attitude toward performing the behavior (i.e., one’s overall positive or negative feeling about personally performing the behavior – Ab) and/or the person’s subjective norm concerning his or her performance of the behavior (i.e., the person’s perception that his or her important others think that he or she should [or should not] perform the behavior in question – SN). Algebraically, this can be expressed as: B ~ I = w1Ab + w2SN, where w1 and w2 are weights indicating the relative importance of attitudes and subjective norms as determinants of intention. It is important to recognize that the relative importance of these two psychosocial variables as determinants of intention will depend upon both the behavior and the population being considered. Thus, for example, one behavior may be primarily determined by attitudinal considerations while another may be primarily influenced by perceived norms. Similarly, a behavior that is attitudinally driven in one population or culture may be normatively driven in another. While some behaviors may be entirely under attitudinal control (i.e., w2 may be zero), others may be entirely under normative control (i.e., w1 may be zero).
The theory also considers the determinants of attitudes and subjective norms. On the basis of Fishbein’s earlier expectancy value model, attitudes are viewed as a function of behavioral beliefs and their evaluative aspects. Algebraically: Ab = f(Σbiei), where Ab = the attitude toward performing the behavior, bi = belief that performing the behavior will lead to outcome ‘I’ and ei = the evaluation of outcome ‘i.’ Somewhat similarly, subjective norms are viewed as a function of normative beliefs and motivations to comply. Algebraically: SN = f(ΣNbiMci), where SN = the subjective norm, Nbi = the normative belief that referent ‘i’ thinks one should (or should not) perform the behavior and Mci = the motivation to comply, in general, with referent ‘i.’ Finally, the TRA also considers the role played by more traditional demographic, economic, personality, attitudinal, and other individual difference variables, such as perceived risk or sensation seeking.
In 1991, Ajzen introduced the theory of planned behavior, which extended the TRA by adding the concept of perceived behavioral control as a predictor of both intention and behaviour. And in 2000, Fishbein introduced the integrative model, which extended the theory of planned behavior by expanding the normative component to include descriptive as well as injunctive norms, and by explicitly acknowledging the role of skills and abilities and facilitating factors as moderators of the intention–behavior relationship. The reasoned action approach has been used successfully to predict and/or explain a wide variety of behaviors, including such things as wearing safety helmets, smoking marijuana, voting, or drinking alcohol (see, e.g., Ajzen et al. 2007).
- Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50(2), 179–211.
- Ajzen, I. & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Ajzen, I., Albarracin, D., & Hornik, R. (eds.) (2007). Prediction and change of health behavior: Applying the reasoned action approach. Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Fishbein, M. (1967). Attitude and the prediction of behavior. In M. Fishbein (ed.), Readings in attitude theory and measurement. New York: John Wiley, pp. 477–492.
- Fishbein, M. (2000). The role of theory in HIV prevention. AIDS Care, 12(3), 273–278.