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Determinants of successful persuasion

Current status of research


The art of “winning men’s minds by words” has occupied the attention of philosophers since long before the time of Plato’s and Aristotle’s commentaries on rhetoric. But not until the twentieth century has there been any concerted effort of empirically oriented scholars to describe objectively the conditions under which persuasion succeeds or fails.

Pioneering contributions. In a recent survey of current knowledge about persuasive communication, four social scientists who made pioneering contributions during the first half of this century have been singled out as the founding fathers of the new field of research on persuasive communication (Schramm 1963). One is the political scientist Harold D. Lasswell, who carried out the first detailed descriptive studies of major propaganda campaigns, focusing on the communications issued by national elites during World War i and by totalitarian movements that tried to influence the masses during the period of the great depression. Lasswell formulated a set of theoretical categories for analyzing the effects of persuasive communications and initiated the development of systematic techniques of content analysis (Lasswell et al. 1949).

A second major figure is the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, who worked out new methods for investigating the impact of mass media on voting behavior and on the beliefs, judgments, and values of the mass audience. Using poll data from U.S. election campaigns and panel surveys of public reactions to a wide variety of radio programs, Lazarsfeld and his colleagues have described the complex communication networks and cross pressures that exist in modern communities. Their studies (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944; Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955) highlight the influential role of local opinion leaders, who function as “gatekeepers” by promoting or rejecting the evaluative judgments transmitted in the mass media by political parties, business organizations, public welfare authorities, and intellectuals.

A third outstanding contributor to scientific research on social influence is the psychologist Kurt Lewin, whose studies emphasized the powerful barriers to change that are created by the primary and secondary groups with which the individual is affiliated. One of his major explanatory concepts to account for resistance to new sources of social pressure is the counterpressure arising from the existence of group norms, in which attitudes are anchored. When attempting to understand why a person accepts or rejects a persuasive message, according to Lewin (1947), the investigator should examine the person’s anticipations about whether or not he will be diverging from the norms of his reference groups, such as his family, his work group, and the social organizations with which he identifies. [See the biography ofLewin.]

Another psychologist, Carl I. Hovland, is the fourth contributor to have helped build up systematic knowledge about communication effects and the processes of persuasion. Hovland initiated broad programs of experimental research designed to test general hypotheses concerning the factors that determine whether or not the recipients of a persuasive message will be influenced. Some of the studies by Hovland and his collaborators (see, e.g., Personality and Persuasibility 1959) bear directly on the hypotheses put forth by Lasswell, Lazarsfeld, and Lewin, while others have led to unexpected discoveries and new theoretical analyses of the psychological processes underlying successful persuasion. [See the biography ofHovland.]

The sections that follow present some of the main generalizations drawn from these and other studies in order to indicate representative hypotheses and empirical findings. [For a fuller discussion of theoretical approaches, seeAttitudes, article OnAttitude Change.]

Resistance to persuasion. During recent decades many self-styled experts in propaganda, journalism, advertising, and public relations have promoted an image of modern man as highly gullible. The new field of mass-communications research, which developed from the work of these four pioneering social scientists, has shattered this image along with other popular preconceptions concerning the alleged power of the mass media to manipulate, exploit, or “brainwash” the public. A review of the evidence accumulated from relevant research studies indicates that mass communications generally fail to produce any marked changes in social attitudes or actions (see Klapper 1960). The slight effects produced by the press, films, radio, and television are usually limited to a reinforcement of the pre-existing beliefs and values of the audience. Campaigns designed to persuade people to change their values, to modify social stereotypes, or to foster a new political ideology generally mobilize powerful resistances in the public. So pervasive are these resistances, according to the documented accounts of numerous investigators, that one could characterize “successful persuasion” by the mass media as a relatively rare social phenomenon.

Hovland, Janis, and Kelley (1953), in their analysis of factors that influence attention, comprehension, and acceptance of persuasive messages, call attention to essential differences between educational instruction and persuasion. Most of the differences pertain to the audience’s initial expectations, which have a marked influence on motivation to accept or reject the communicator’s conclusions. In the case of instructional communications, where high acceptance is readily elicited, the educational setting is typically one in which the members of the audience anticipate that the communicator is trying to help them, that his conclusions are incontrovertible, and that they will be socially rewarded rather than punished for adhering to his conclusions. In persuasive situations, on the other hand, interfering expectations are aroused, and these operate as resistances. The authors point out that the findings from experiments on communication effects seem to converge upon three types of interfering expectations that operate to decrease the degree of acceptance: (1) expectations of being manipulated by the communicator (e.g., being made a “sucker” by an untrustworthy source, who has ulterior economic or political motives for trying to persuade others to support his position); (2) expectations of being “wrong” (e.g., making incorrect judgments on a controversial political issue or overlooking antithetical evidence that would be grounds for a more cautious or compromise position); and (3) expectations of social disapproval (e.g., from the local community or from a primary group whose norms are not in accord with the communicator’s position).

This third type of resistance, which reflects Lewin’s “social anchorage” concept, has been most extensively investigated. Many studies indicate that when the members of an audience are exposed to a communication advocating a position that goes counter to the norms of one or more of their reference groups, their resistance will vary directly with the strength of the formal and informal sanctions put forth by the norm-setting group. Quite aside from any special sanctions applied to those who violate the group norms, the mere perception that the vast majority of other members accept a given norm operates as a powerful force on the individual to conform to that norm (Lewin 1947; Asch 1952; Kiesler & Corbin 1965).

Determinants of successful persuasion

Most of the substantiated propositions about successful persuasion designate factors that help to decrease psychological resistances when the recipients are exposed to a persuasive communication (see Janis & Smith 1965). Exposure requires not only adequate physical transmission of the message but also audience attention, which will not be elicited if the communication is perceived as deviating markedly from pre-existing attitudes and values or as violating the norms of an important reference group. If a persuasive communication evokes sufficient attention to surmount the exposure hurdle, its success will then depend upon comprehension (i.e., the extent to which the audience grasps the essential meanings the communicator intended to convey) and acceptance (i.e., the degree to which the audience is convinced by the arguments and/or is responsive to the motivational appeals presented in the communication).

The main types of factors that have been investigated are those specified by Lasswell’s classic formula for communications analysis: Who says what to whom with what effect? Janis and Hovland (1959) present a paradigm of interacting factors that enter into successful persuasion (see Figure 1). Communicator characteristics, the content of the message, the manner of presentation, and other crucial situational factors shown in column 1 are considered to be stimulus variables capable of touching off the key mediating processes (represented in column 3)—attention, comprehension, and acceptance—that give rise to the various

effects designated as attitude change (column 4). The magnitude of the influence exerted by the stimulus variables also depends on different types of predispositional variables (represented in column 2).

Communicator and content factors

The most thoroughly investigated propositions bearing on the processes of persuasion are those that specify how one or another of the stimulus attributes is related to successful persuasion. Sometimes communications research has merely confirmed certain of the well-known prescriptions formulated by experts in the art of persuasion. But research occasionally leads to the discovery of unexpected limiting conditions or hitherto unknown relationships that call into question the commonly accepted assumptions about how people can be influenced to change their beliefs or attitudes.

Prestige and “sleeper” effects. Studies of prestige effects have confirmed some “obvious” assumptions and refuted other, equally “obvious” ones. Several communication experiments have shown, as might be expected, that there is an immediate gain in acceptance of persuasive communications when the message is given by someone who is initially accorded relatively high prestige by the audience or when the arguments are attributed to a relatively trustworthy source. But, contrary to expectations, it has been found that in the long run, persuasive communications from low-prestige sources turn out to be just as effective as those from high-prestige sources. This phenomenon has been termed the “sleeper” effect (see Hovland et al. 1953, pp. 254–259; Kelman & Hovland 1953). Both positive and negative prestige effects seem to wear off over a period of several weeks. When a communication comes from a nonprestigious or distrusted source, the audience tends at first to reject the message. But as time goes on, acceptance of the originally discounted statements has been found to increase, evidently because with the passage of time, the content of the message is no longer spontaneously associated with the source.

One-sided versus two-sided presentations. Another issue that has been systematically investigated is whether persuasion is more effective when it concentrates exclusively on the arguments supporting the propagandist’s position or when it includes discussion of the opposing arguments. Hitler and other Nazi propaganda strategists have claimed that in appealing for a specific line of action, no rival or opposing ideas should ever be mentioned, because they invite comparisons, hesitation, and doubt. But the available evidence indicates that this principle holds true only under very limited conditions, such as when the audience is unaware of the arguments for the other side of the issue. When the audience is strongly opposed to the position being advocated, a persuasive message is generally more effective if it includes the opposing arguments than if it presents only the arguments in favor of one side of the issue (see Hovland et al. 1953, pp. 105–110; Hovland et al. 1949, pp. 201–227; Klapper 1960, pp. 113–116). Moreover, even when the audience is not initially opposed to the communicator’s position, a two-sided presentation will be more effective in creating sustained changes in attitudes if the communication is given under conditions where the audience will subsequently be exposed to countercommunications presenting the opposing arguments.

Inoculation devices. When the members of an audience are pre-exposed to the opposing arguments along with some refutations, they are to some extent “inoculated” against subsequent countercommunications, because the new arguments will be much less impressive and more readily discounted (see Lumsdaine & Janis 1953). This type of inoculation has been found to produce a “generalized immunization effect” under certain conditions, notably when a communication advocates recommendations that the audience already regards as being in line with commonly accepted norms, such as simple health rules. Thus, inclusion of a few arguments that momentarily shake the confidence of members of the audience in cultural truisms they had always taken for granted will reduce the chances of their being influenced by subsequent counterpropaganda, because they become more resistant both to the counterarguments specifically mentioned and refuted in the original two-sided communication and to new counterarguments which might otherwise shake their beliefs (McGuire 1961).

Another simple inoculation device has been found to be effective in reducing the influence of unconventional communications that take issue with cultural truisms of the type that people are seldom or never called upon to defend. This device consists of stimulating the members of an audience to build up defenses by warning them in advance that their hitherto unchallenged beliefs will soon be exposed to strong attack (McGuire 1961; 1964; McGuire & Papageorgis 1962).

The well-known “freezing” effects of public commitment to a newly adopted policy or course of action form the basis for another type of communication device that prevents backsliding. Experimental studies indicate that resistance to subsequent countercommunications can be built up if, after presenting impressive arguments and appeals, the communicator uses his persuasive influence to induce his listeners to endorse the position publicly—for example, by voting openly for it, signing a petition, or showing other overt signs of acceptance that will be seen by people in their community (see Lewin 1947; Attitude Organization and Change 1960).

Other types of inoculation procedures have been studied to determine the conditions under which acceptance of a new attitude or policy recommendation will be sustained despite subsequent exposure to frustrations, threats, or setbacks that arouse strong negative effects. For example, after having been persuaded to adopt a communicator’s recommendations, the audience may subsequently be exposed to warnings or punishments that stimulate avoidance of the recommendations. The emotional impact of the subsequent setback will tend to be reduced if the audience has been given inoculating communications that predict the threatening event in advance, thus eliminating the element of surprise and, at the same time, stimulating appropriate defenses (see Janis 1962). Similarly, in the case of “bad news” events that generate pessimistic expectations about the future, preparatory communications that present grounds for maintaining optimistic expectations can help soften the blow and enable the audience to resist being unduly influenced by the impact of the disturbance (Janis et al. 1951). In general, the eventual success of any attempt at persuading people to carry out a given course of action is likely to be attained if the communicator frankly discusses the possible subsequent difficulties and countercommunications, presenting them in a way that helps to create a cognitive frame of reference for discounting or minimizing them if they do, in fact, materialize.

Effectiveness of “primacy.” Since most inoculation devices involve familiarizing the audience with counterarguments, two-sided communications might be more advantageous in the long run, even in circumstances where a one-sided communication could be expected to be more successful in producing immediate changes in a higher proportion of the audience. There are, of course, many different ways of arranging the opposing arguments in a two-sided communication, and some ways of inserting them have been found to be more effective than others. For example, when the audience is not familiar with the opposing arguments, a two-sided communication from an authoritative source tends to be more effective if the opposing arguments are presented after, rather than before, the favorable arguments that support the communicator’s conclusion. By giving strong favorable arguments first, the communication arouses the audience’s motivation to accept the communicator’s conclusion, so that when the negative material subsequently occurs, it can be better tolerated. Furthermore, if a strong case is made for the communicator’s position at the outset, there is a greater likelihood that the recipient will make an early decision to accept the communicator’s position and thereafter tend to minimize dissonance or conflict by ignoring the opposing ideas (see Brehm & Cohen 1962; Festinger 1957; 1964; Janis 1957; 1959). This primacy effect, when tested with communications designed to induce opposing attitudes toward the same social objects or policies, proved to be extremely pronounced under conditions where the contradictory material was not spontaneously salient and there was no time interval between the first set of arguments and the second, contradictory set (Asch 1946; Luchins 1957a; 1957b; Janis & Feierabend 1957). Under other conditions, however, such as where the audience is very familiar with the opposing arguments and has initial doubts about the communicator’s honesty, a recency effect might predominate, making it more advantageous to give the counterarguments first, with the main affirmative arguments saved for the end of the communication (see Hovland et al. 1957, pp. 130–147).

Emotional appeals. It is commonly recognized that when a person remains unmoved by repeated attempts to persuade him with rational arguments, he might nevertheless show a marked change as soon as emotional appeals are introduced. Probably the most widespread form of emotional appeal in modern Western culture involves the arousal of fear by emphasizing anticipated threats. Antiwar propaganda, public health campaigns, and other efforts at mass persuasion frequently rely upon emotional shock devices to motivate people to carry out preventive measures or to support policies designed to avert potential dangers (for example, promoting a ban against a nuclear weapons test by emphasizing the horrors of war). For maximal effectiveness, this device requires not only that the communications succeed in arousing fear but also that the recommendations function as effective reassurances. The latter term refers to verbal statements—plans, resolutions, judgments, evaluations—that are capable of alleviating or reducing emotional tension. Many communication experiments have been designed to test popular claims about the effectiveness of emotional appeals and to determine objectively the conditions under which such appeals are successful.

Political leaders and public health authorities often assume that the protective actions or practical solutions they advocate will be more readily accepted, the more they succeed in frightening the audience about the dangerous consequences of failing to adhere to their recommendations. This assumption may occasionally be correct, as in the case of recommendations concerning immediate escape actions (e.g., evacuation of a danger area within a few minutes after an emergency warning is issued). But the assumption appears to be questionable in many instances, especially when the goal is to induce delayed actions or sustained attitudes (e.g., evacuating at some future date, if the threat materializes; supporting a disarmament movement; favoring prodemocratic policies). The available evidence indicates that presenting feararousing material in a persuasive communication tends to stimulate the recipient’s vigilance and his need for reassurance. But this does not necessarily increase his motivation to accept authoritative recommendations about ways to avert or cope with the danger, since the person may find other ways to reduce his fear. Whenever fear is aroused to a very high level, resistances tend to be strongly mobilized. This will reduce the effectiveness of a persuasive communication, unless it is outweighed by certain other factors that could facilitate attitude change (Hovland et al. 1953, pp. 56–98; Leventhal 1965). Among the facilitating conditions that increase an audience’s tolerance for a strong dosage of fear-arousing material in a persuasive message is the inclusion of one or more highly specific recommendations that offer an apparently good solution to the problems posed by the threat, with no obvious loopholes (Leventhal et al. 1965). When this condition is not met, as is often the case in “scare” propaganda, the use of a strong emotional appeal may produce much less acceptance of the communicator’s recommendations than a milder appeal, since the audience will then become motivated to attach little importance to the threat or develop some other form of defensive avoidance that enables them to alleviate their fear. Sometimes strong emotional appeals attain spectacular persuasive effects, but it is difficult to predict accurately that a very high dosage of fear will not exceed the optimal level. Preliminary “program assessment” research with cross-sectional samples of the intended audience is usually needed to make sure that the version of the communication containing a strong appeal is more effective than a version containing a more moderate appeal.

Implicit versus explicit conclusions. Many claims are made about effective strategies for inducing people to change their attitudes and values, but some of these claims are difficult to assess empirically. One such notion is that a nondirective approach—similar to that used by many counselors and psychotherapists when dealing with people who seek help in making conflictful decisions of an upsetting nature—will generally be more effective in mass communications than a more directive approach [seeMental Disorders, Treatment of, article on client-centered counseling]. One testable implication of this notion is that a mass communication will sway more people if instead of stating an explicit conclusion, the communicator allows the audience to draw its own conclusions from the facts, arguments, and appeals that he presents. Undoubtedly, there are some circumstances where direct suggestions are likely to meet with such insurmountable resistances that an indirect approach is the only hope for exerting any influence whatsoever. But for informative communications dealing with relatively impersonal issues, the available research evidence indicates that it is generally more effective to state the conclusions or recommendations explicitly, even when the propagandist is regarded as biased or untrustworthy (see Hovland et al. 1953, pp. 100–105; Klapper 1960, pp. 84–91, 116–117). One of the main advantages of stating the conclusions explicitly is that it helps to prevent the audience from missing or distorting the essential point of the arguments.

Effects of role playing. One type of indirect persuasion that has been carefully investigated involves the use of a special role-playing technique. It has been repeatedly found that when a person is required to play a role entailing the presentation of a persuasive message to others in his own words, he will be more influenced than if he were passively exposed to the same message. This “saying is believing” tendency has been found to occur even when role playing is artificially induced by asking people to take part in a test of their public-speaking ability or to write essays (Janis & King 1954; Kelman 1953). Experimental evidence indicates that mere repetition of a persuasive message has little effect as compared with an improvised restatement and elaboration of the arguments and conclusions (King & Janis 1956). The success of improvised role playing might be attributed to several different psychological processes. Festinger (1957) suggests that the primary gain from role playing comes from efforts to reduce dissonance between what one is saying publicly and what one actually believes, and a number of experiments offer some supporting evidence (e.g., Brehm & Cohen 1962; Festinger & Carlsmith 1959; Festinger 1964). An alternative explanation is in terms of self-persuasion: when attempting to convey the message to others, the role player is likely to think up new formulations of the arguments, new illustrations and appeals. These are likely to be convincing incentives to himself, especially if he regards the improvised ideas as his “own” (see Hovland et al. 1953, pp. 228–237; Janis & Gilmore 1965; Elms & Janis 1965). This theoretical issue has not yet been settled, and the differential predictions from the alternative explanations are currently under investigation (see Carlsmith et al. 1966; Rosenberg 1965).

Personality factors

Numerous studies have shown that social attitudes are frequently resistant to persuasion because they satisfy deep-seated personality needs. Such attitudes are likely to remain unchanged unless self-insight techniques or special types of persuasive appeals are used that take account of the adjustive and ego-defensive functions of these attitudes (see Katz & Stotland 1959; Lasswell 1930–1951; Smith et al. 1956). It is logical, therefore, that assessment of personality attributes should help in predicting whether a given person will be responsive to persuasive messages that deal with a particular topic or that employ one or another type of argument. Studies of authoritarian personalities, for example, indicate that any communication fostering rigid, antidemocratic controls over political dissenters and minority out-groups will tend to be more readily accepted by one particular type of personality (see Adorno et al. 1950). An outstanding characteristic of this personality is a strong latent need to displace hostility away from in-groups toward out-groups—as manifested by symptoms of intense ambivalence toward parents, bosses, and other authority figures, combined with a high degree of inhibition of normal sexual and aggressive activities.

Table 1 shows a set of hypothetical diagnostic categories, worked out by Katz (1960), that might prove to be useful for predicting individual differences in responsiveness to persuasion on important

Table 1 – Determinants of attitude formation, arousal, and change in relation to type of function
Source: From Katz 1960, p. 192.
AdjustmentThe object of the attitude has proved to be useful for satisfying important needs; it increases one’s chances of gaining rewards or decreases one’s chances of being punished.1. Activation of needs.
2. Salience of cues associated with need satisfaction.
1. Failure to gain usual satisfactions from the attitude.
2. Creation of new needs and new levels of aspiration that are not satisfied by the attitude.
3. Shifting of rewards and punishments so that the attitude is no longer reinforced.
4. Impressive demonstration of new and better paths for need satisfaction.
Ego defenseThe attitude helps to protect the person from internal conflicts or from becoming highly disturbed by external dangers.1. Posing of threats.
2. Appeals to hatred and repressed impulses.
3. Rise in frustrations.
4. Use of authoritarian suggestion.
1. Removal of threats.
2. Catharsis which reduces the need for defense against pent-up impulses.
3. Opportunity for development of self-insight.
Value expressionThe attitude helps the person to maintain his self-identity and his self-esteem; it allows him to express himself or gives him a sense of independence.1. Salience of cues associated with values.
2. Appeals to individual to reassert self-image.
3. Ambiguities which threaten self concept.
1. Some degree of dissatisfaction with the self.
2. Impressive demonstration of the greater appropriateness of a new attitude for enhancing one’s self-image.
3. Loss of usual environmental supports to such an extent that old values are undermined.
KnowledgeThe attitude satisfies the needs for understanding, for meaningful cognitive organization, and for consistency and clarity.1. Re-encounters with the original problem that required a solution or encounters with related problems.1. Ambiguity created by new information or by a marked change in environment.
2. Meaningful information about a different way of analyzing the problem or about new ways of solving it.

social issues. The first step would be to determine which of the four basic types of functions (column 1) is served by the person’s current attitude on the issue in question. The type of need fulfilled by each function is shown in the second column of the table. If one could assess the status of these needs accurately, one would presumably be able to predict the types of situations that would arouse the attitude (column 3) and the general conditions that would have to be met in order to change each individual’s attitude (column 4).

One of the main reasons why Katz’s hypothetical schema is regarded as a promising functional approach to the study of attitude change is that it helps to explain why the conditions required for changing certain attitudes, particularly those diagnosed as serving an ego-defensive function, are not satisfied by the usual forms of persuasion to be found in the mass media. The material in this table carries the implication that no simple psychological formula can be expected to subsume all instances of attitude change. This implication confirms clinical observations, which indicate that unconscious dynamics as well as conscious processes are sometimes involved when a person clings unyieldingly to his stand in the face of strong persuasive arguments or when he readily gives in, without any opposition, on an important social or political issue (see Lasswell 1930–1951). It also agrees with experimental evidence indicating that even when dealing with conscious attitudes, we cannot expect to find only one type of cognitive process that will account for successful persuasion. For example, the striving for consistency among cognitions bearing on the same issue—which Heider (1958) has postulated as a fundamental human tendency in response to all meaningful communications— sometimes appears to be an important determinant of reactions to persuasion, but it does not account for certain instances where other motivational factors, such as pleasurable anticipations of gain, may become the dominant determinants (see Rosenberg & Abelson 1960).

Individual differences are to be expected, not only in response to persuasive pressures from arguments that create cognitive imbalances but also in response to emotional appeals (see Janis & Feshbach 1954) and group pressures induced by giving information about the consensus of judgments made by one’s peers (see Crutchfield 1955); these are called “content-bound” predispositions. Some research evidence also points to specific personality needs, preferences, and sensitivities that predispose certain persons to be highly responsive to one or another limited type of communicator (Janis & Hovland 1959); these are termed “communicator-bound” predispositions. In Figure 1, all such sources of individual differences are represented in the second column by the box labeled “specific predispositions.”

In addition to specific types of predispositional factors, there are also certain personality attributes that predispose people to be swayed by, or to be resistant to, any persuasive message, irrespective of what is said, how it is said, or who says it. This general persuasibility factor (represented by the box at the top of the second column in Figure 1) has been inferred from research on the consistency of individual differences. Such research indicates that when a large audience is exposed to many different types of persuasive communications on many different types of issues, some persons are consistently resistant, whereas others are moderately persuasible, and still others are highly persuasible (see Abelson & Lesser 1959a; Janis & Field 1959a; 1959b). Among the personality factors found to be predictive of low resistance to all forms of persuasive influence are (1) low selfesteem; (2) inhibition of overt aggressive behavior; (3) high fantasy imagery and strong empathic responses to symbolic representations; and (4) other-directed rather than inner-directed orientation, that is, a value system stressing adaptation to the social environment rather than inner standards for regulating one’s conduct. It is a puzzling fact, however, that these relationships have been found only in samples of men, since no such relationships have been found as yet in samples of women. These findings have been attributed to differences in the social roles prescribed for women and men in our society, which may also account for the repeated finding that women are more persuasible than men on social and political issues (see Hovland & Janis 1959).

Current status of research

The hypotheses summarized in the foregoing review of social-psychological studies of persuasion do not constitute an exhaustive propositional inventory of all available findings but, rather, serve to highlight major relationships that have emerged from systematic research. Supporting evidence comes from carefully controlled experiments, but the studies usually have been carried out with small subpopulation samples, most often limited to American high school or college students in a classroom situation. Consequently, the generality of the hypotheses and the limiting conditions under which they hold true have not yet been adequately explored. There is some reason to expect, however, that the relationships initially observed in the limited experimental situations will have fairly wide applicability because: (a) they appear to be in line with observations from other, less wellcontrolled investigations of social influence (such as panel studies of opinion trends during political campaigns, market research surveys on widely advertised products, and case studies of responsiveness to psychological counseling or psychotherapy); and (b) in a number of instances where replications have been carried out with other subpopulations in other types of communication situations, confirmatory evidence has been obtained (see Janis & Smith 1965).

In any case, the development of experimental techniques, attitude scales, and sophisticated methods for analyzing the effects of many different causal factors and their interactions have now reached the point where we can obtain relevant and cumulative knowledge from systematic studies of the conditions under which persuasive communications are effective or ineffective (see Campbell 1963). As new techniques and methods are used in the rapidly expanding field of communications research, we can expect a fuller account of the influence of the variables discussed, as well as new discoveries concerning the ways in which communication stimuli and predispositional factors interact in the processes of persuasion.

Irving L. Janis

[Directly related are the entries Attitudes, article onAttitude Change; Propaganda; Suggestion. Other relevant material may be found inBrainwashing; Communication; Communication, mass; Communication, political; Groups, articles onGroup behaviorandGroup formation; Hypnosis; Norms ; Sample surveys; SystemsAnalysis, article OnPsychological Systems; Thinking, article Oncognitive organization and processes; and in the biographies ofHovlandandLewin.]


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Janis, Irving L.; and Gilmore, J. B. 1965 The Influence of Incentive Conditions on the Success of Role Playing in Modifying Attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1:17–27.

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Every day we are exposed to hundreds of attempts to change our opinions. Consider how often you come across an advertisementin a magazine or newspaper, on television, the radio, or a Web site. But marketers are not the only ones trying to influence us. Family members, religious leaders, politicians, and friends all try to convince us to do things, agree with them, or support their cause. Although persuasive attempts are pervasive, they are not always successful.

Persuasion can be defined as an active attempt by a person, group, or entity (such as a corporation), usually through some form of communication, to change a persons mind. Although we use the term mind here, often what we are referring to are attitudes or opinions. Persuasion has been a central focus of the social psychology literature at least since the mid-twentieth century perhaps because persuasive attempts are so common. Furthermore, if attitudes can be changed, behavior can be changed as well.


In the 1940s a group of researchers led by the psychologist Carl Hovland (19121961) at Yale University spearheaded a comprehensive program of research on persuasion. The catalogue of persuasive factors that they examined is now referred to as the message learning approach. The Yale group also proposed a sequence for the process of persuasion: in order for persuasion to occur, a person needs to be exposed to the persuasive message, as well as pay attention to, comprehend, accept or yield to, and remember the message. Although more recent researchers have argued that not all of these steps are absolutely necessary (particularly remembering the message), this basic process has been supported in numerous studies.

The Yale group also found that the source of the persuasive communication is an important determinant of success. The expertise and trustworthiness of the source are critical. For example, in an advertisement for basketball shoes, a professional athlete may be an expert but may not be trustworthy because he is being paid to sell the shoes. Thus the advertisement may not be effective. The attractiveness of the source is also important. This is why clothing advertisers use attractive models in their advertisements. The implicit message is: If you buy these clothes, you will look good too. Furthermore, the more you like someone and the more you are attracted to that person, the more likely you are to buy the product he or she is selling.

Characteristics of the persuasive message have also been explored. Factors that have been found to influence persuasion include: a one-sided versus a two-sided message (i.e., providing one or both sides of an argument); the order of messages; the comprehensibility of the message content; and the number of arguments presented. In terms of the sidedness and order of messages, which is superior depends on the situation. Nonetheless, it is clear that if people do not understand the message they are exposed to, they will not be persuaded. For this reason, print advertisements for complex products (such as computers or stereos) are often more effective because people have the time to read and understand them. With regard to the number of arguments, more arguments usually result in more persuasion.

Characteristics such as the intelligence, self-esteem, and gender of the recipient have all been explored as factors affecting persuasion, but the results of these studies are mixed. In general, the more intelligent a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will comprehend a message, but the less likely it is that the person will accept the message. Early studies found that women tend to be more easily persuaded, but more recent research suggests that ones knowledge about a topic is more important than gender.


Despite hundreds of studies exploring the variables discussed above, results have not always been consistent. Sometimes variables matter and sometimes they do not. Furthermore, the change in attitude achieved by persuasive communication is often transitory. To address these issues, Richard Petty and John Cacioppo developed the elaboration likelihood model, which proposes that persuasion typically happens by one of two routes. They argue that the extent to which message-relevant arguments are elaborated is a key determinant of the success of a persuasive appeal. Elaboration is not simply the learning of the arguments, but involves scrutinizing, making inferences about, and evaluating the quality of those arguments.

In a number of experiments, researchers have shown that when elaboration is low, persuasion tends to occur through peripheral route processes. That is, persuasion occurs through features or characteristics of the persuasion context (referred to as cues ) that are not directly related to the central merits of the arguments. Such cues include the attractiveness or expertise of the message source, the mood of the participants, and the number of arguments presented.

When elaboration is high, however, people attend to the central merits of the arguments (central route processing). If the arguments are of high quality (i.e., strong), peoples attitudes are likely to change. However, if the arguments are weak, people will be able to counter them, and the message will not be effective. In order for elaboration to occur, however, two conditions must be met: (1) people must be motivated to scrutinize the message (they need to be involved, feel a sense of personal responsibility, or enjoy engaging in cognitive tasks); and (2) people must be able to scrutinize the message (they must have the requisite knowledge to process the information, and must not be distracted). Perhaps this is why most advertisements on television, billboards, and Web sites are structured around peripheral cues (using expert, trustworthy, attractive sources, or humor); since people do not typically scrutinize these types of advertisements, peripheral approaches may be more successful.

Attitude-change research continues to enjoy a central role within the social psychological literature. Furthermore, it is clear from the numerous applications of the attitude-change literature to our daily lives (for advertisers, marketers, politicians, and many others) that persuasion research will continue to be at the forefront of the field.

SEE ALSO Attitudes; Social Influence


Eagly, Alice H., and Shelley Chaiken. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.

Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. [1981] 1996. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Petty, Richard E., and Duane T. Wegener. 1998. Attitude Change: Multiple Roles for Persuasion Variables. In The Handbook of Social Psychology, eds. Daniel T. Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, and Gardner Lindzey, 323390. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wood, Wendy. 2000. Attitude Change: Persuasion and Social Influence. Annual Review of Psychology 50: 539570.

Steven M. Smith

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per·sua·sion / pərˈswāzhən/ • n. 1. the action or fact of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something: Monica needed plenty of persuasion before she actually left. ∎  a means of persuading someone to do or believe something; an argument or inducement: he gave way to the persuasions of his half-brother. 2. a belief or set of beliefs, esp. religious or political ones: writers of all political persuasions. ∎  a group or sect holding a particular religious belief: the village had two chapels for those of the Methodist persuasion. ∎ humorous any group or type of person or thing linked by a specified characteristic, quality, or attribute: an ancient gas oven of the enamel persuasion.

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