What is Persuasion?

While the cognitive dissonance Opens in new window is the attitude change via an internal inconsistency, persuasion, an umbrella term of influence, refers to the attitude change via an external message.

Persuasion is the deliberate attempt made to change the attitudes or beliefs of a person (or a group) toward some event, idea, object, or other person(s), through information and arguments.

Persuasion can attempt to influence a person's beliefs, attitudes, intentions, motivations, or behaviors. Persuasion, then, is a pervasive form of social influence.

Though we know that attitudes Opens in new window are not good predictors of a person’s behavior, still we find that people try hard to persuade, and change the attitudes of others. In our everyday lives, we are all the time surrounded by endless efforts, aimed at shaping or changing our opinions and attitudes.

Right from the time you open the morning newspaper over a nice cup of morning coffee, to the late night serial you view on the television, you find various advertisements and opinions of famous men and women, aimed at giving out persuasive messages. But does persuasion work? Let us try to first understand the persuasion process, before we can really answer this question.

The persuasion includes four basic elements—source, receiver, message and channel.

Effective persuasion depends on certain factors, relating to each of the four components —

Source factor

When the source or the person who is sending the communication is trustworthy, highly credible, likeable, attractive, or shares a similarity with the person at whom the message is directed, then persuasion tends to be successful.

Message factor

For a message to be affective, its structuring is important. While structuring the message, care should be taken with regard to the contents that go into the making of the message.

Should the message contain a one-sided argument, or a two-sided argument? Should it have a logical appeal or a fear appeal? And how many times should the message be repeated for it to have an impact? All these factors have to be thoroughly studied to make the message effective.

Receiver factor

The personality of the receiver, his/her expectations, their pre-existing attitudes, their intelligence will to a great extent determine whether the persuasive message will have an impact on the receiver or not.

The channel

The medium used for persuasion also determines the extent of impact on the receiver. Sometimes, when the persuasive message is given in person, it has a tremendous impact on the receiver than if it was seen on television, heard on the radio, or seen in print. Therefore, the selection of the channel is also important.

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With the cognitive revolution of the sixties and the seventies, the cognitive approaches increasingly dominated the attitude research. The cognitive theories have proved particularly useful in the analysis of the processes or variables, which mediate the impact of the persuasive appeals on attitudes.

Two such models that are most popular for understanding the attitude change are the elaboration likelihood model (ELM; Petty and Cacioppo, 1986) and the heuristic-systematic model (HSM; Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly, 1989).

Although slightly different in emphasis, both argue that there are two ways that a persuasive message can cause attitude change, each differing in the amount of the cognitive effort or elaboration they require: the central (systematic) route and the peripheral (heuristic) route.

The central route is taken when people are motivated, and are able to think carefully about the content of a message (referred to as high elaboration conditions). Here, people are influenced by the strength and quality of the arguments.

In contrast, the peripheral route is taken when people are unwilling or unable to analyze the message content. Here, people pay attention to the cues that are irrelevant to the content or quality of the communication Opens in new window (referred to as low elaboration conditions), such as the attractiveness of the communicator or the amount of information presented.

It is important to note that attitudes Opens in new window can change via both routes, but that the resulting attitudes may be qualitatively different as a result. The attitudes formed via the peripheral route do not require the comprehension of the message, are weaker, less resistant to counter argument, and less predictive of behavior, than the central route attitudes.

Systematic versus heuristic processing of attitude-relevant persuasive messages
Figure I: Systematic versus heuristic processing of attitude-relevant persuasive messages

The attitude change is longer-lasting and more resistant to attack, when it occurs via the central route. There are a number of factors that specifically affect which route might be taken when people process the persuasive massages (See Figure I). These factors include:

  1. Speed of speech
    Rapid speech makes it hard to process the content of a persuasive message, so people discard the central route in favor of the peripheral route, relying on just the number of arguments as a heuristic, for deciding whether to accept the message.
  2. Mood
    Mood can also have huge impact on what route is taken. In general, happy people use the peripheral route, while unhappy people tend to use the central route. The explanation for this is that negative moods can signal that something is ‘wrong’, which triggers an increase in the attention to identify the problem. The implication is that happy people are therefore more susceptible to weak cues, like source attractiveness.
  3. Involvement
    The extent to which the issue is important to the self, has an impact on which route is taken. If the outcome of the argument or the issue at hand directly affects, and has important implications for the self, then it is more likely that the perceiver will pay more attention, and the central route will be taken.
  4. Individual differences
    There are also individual differences that make some people more likely than other, to take one route over another. The need for cognition is one such characteristic, which is the degree to which someone is oriented to engaging in effortful thought.

    People who are higher in the need for cognition are therefore more likely to take the central, while people who are lower in the need for cognition are more likely to take the peripheral route. Similar effects have been found using related tendencies such as the need for closure Opens in new window and the need to evaluate.
  5. Humor
    The use of humor Opens in new window can influence which route is taken. Relevant humor leads to the central route being taken, while irrelevant humor leads to the peripheral route being taken.

Resisting Persuasive Messages

There are several ways of avoiding persuasion. Some of the most common ways of resisting persuasive messages are:

  1. Reactance
    When people perceive persuasive messages as threat to their personal freedom; they may show a negative reaction and can result in negative attitude change—view persuasion as an assault to one's freedom.

    This is what the persuaders are trying to do—they are attempting to change your attitude. So, when you are at the receiving end of such appeals, remind yourself that you are in charge of yourself, your own life, and that there is no reason to listen or to accept what the advertisers, politicians and the like, tell you.
  2. Forewarning
    The advanced knowledge that the message is intended to persuade can increase the resistance, and provide the opportunity to develop counterarguments. Forewarning gives time to recall the facts and the information that may be useful to persuade you, it is useful to be forwarned to resist persuasion.

    So, whenever you encounter an attempt to persuade you, remind yourself, no matter who they are, persuasion is their goal, and you will not be influenced by them. When others put forward their views, which are different from your own, as part of a convincing appeal, focus on how different these ideas are from those you hold. The rest will often take care of itself.
  3. Attitude inoculation is the technique whereby people are exposed to small doses of arguments against their position, making it easier for them to refute these arguments when they hear the arguments later. This approach may also inoculate people against the attacks that play on their emotions and values, if people are first given small doses of these kinds of attacks.

    Another way to make people resistant, is to warn them in advance that someone will be trying to change their attitudes. When people were forewarned, they analyze what they see, and hear more carefully, and as a result are likely to avoid attitude change.

    Attempts to manage people’s attitudes, however, should not be used with too heavy a hand. Strongly prohibiting people from engaging in certain behaviors can actually cause an increase in a liking for those activities. According to the reactance theory, people experience an unpleasant state called reactance, when their freedom of choice is threatened. One way, people can reduce reactance, is to exhibit the behavior that was threatened.

In conclusion, it should be pointed out that changing the incentive structure or using persuasive appeals should not be seen as the competing strategies of attitude and behavior change. On the contrary, since changes in the incentive structure are unlikely to affect the behavior, unless people are made aware that monetary inducements or legal sanctions have been introduced to encourage a given behavior, the governments typically rely on mass-media campaigns to inform the population of these changes.

Rather than relying on the uncertain effects of persuasion, the powerful institutions often influence behavior through incentives, social norms, or legal sanctions. Thus, governments may use taxation or legal sanctions to make certain behaviors like smoking, drinking alcohol or non-use of seat belts, more costly to the individual. Such strategies have not only been successful in affecting the targeted behavior, they have also often resulted in substantial changes in the attitudes.

Since changes in the incentive structure are unlikely to aid compliance, it is argued that the use of incentives and persuasive appeals should be considered complementary rather than the competing strategies of attitude and behavioral change.