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Jane Austen

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


When Persuasion was published posthumously in 1818, only a small circle of people knew of and admired Jane Austen's novels. Since that date, however, Austen has come to be one of the world's most widely read and most beloved authors. She claimed once to her nephew, who would later write her biography, "the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush produces little effect after much labour." Scholars and readers, however, have overwhelmingly disagreed with her assessment that her work produces "little effect," finding her to be a conscious artist and astute social critic. In Persuasion, her last novel, Austen continues to present in minute detail the daily lives of her characters, upper-middle-class men and women living in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This novel perhaps is her most romantic, centering on postponed but enduring love. Anne Elliot, the story's heroine, suffers from a decision that was forced upon her several years ago—to break off a relationship with the man she deeply loved. As Austen examines the causes and consequences of this action, she offers a penetrating critique of the standards of the British class system and the narrow-mindedness of those who strictly subscribe to them. The novel's witty realism helped guarantee Austen's position as one of the finest novelists.

Author Biography

Jane Austen was born on December 16, 1775, in England, to George and Cassandra (Leigh) Austen. Her father was a clergyman in Steventon, a small town in Hampshire County. Her mother, whose ancestors were titled, was born into a higher social class. She and her husband settled into a comfortable but modest life, associating with the local gentry and raising eight children. Jane's close relationship with her siblings and her family's relationship with the local gentry would provide her with material for her plots and influence her creation of the settings and characterizations in her novels.

Austen received only five years of formal schooling; however, she continued her education at home. When she was in her teens, she wrote plays, verses, short novels, and other prose works, which were primarily parodies of sentimental fiction. Soon she began writing Elinor and Marianne, an early version of Sense and Sensibility, and after that, First Impressions, which later became Pride and Prejudice. Even though a London publishing house rejected the draft of the latter work after her father had submitted it, the novel was heartily enjoyed by her family and a wide circle of acquaintances.

Scholars divide Austen's literary career into an early and a late period separated by a writing hiatus of eight years. The first includes her early writings, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice (both published in 1811), and Northanger Abbey (written in 1803 but published posthumously in 1818). Her late period includes Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), and Persuasion (published posthumously along with Northanger Abbey in 1818. During the eight-year hiatus, Austen moved frequently with her family, staying in Bath, London, Clifton, Warwickshire, and Southampton, where they moved after her father died in 1805.

Austen started writing her last novel, which the family would later title Sandition, in 1817. She had not completed the novel when she died, most likely of Addison's disease, on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England.

During her lifetime, Austen's works were well received, especially Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, yet since all her works were published anonymously, she was not well known by the public. After her death, when her brother revealed her authorship, scholars began critiquing her work. By the end of the nineteenth century, she came to be regarded as one of the most important English novelists, a position she retains today.

Plot Summary

Volume I

The novel opens in the summer of 1814 with Sir Walter Elliot, widower and father of three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary, in Kellynch Hall, his estate in Somersetshire, England. Sir Walter's greatest pleasure is to pick up the Baronetage, a book that documents his and his family's history and social standing. He is very close to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who shares his vanity and class consciousness, and who has been the mistress of Kellynch Hall for the past thirteen years since her mother died. Elizabeth has struck up a friendship with Mrs. Clay, the daughter of the family lawyer, which troubles Anne, who does not trust Mrs. Clay's motives.

Sir Walter's extravagant spending habits have placed the family into considerable debt. Neither he nor Elizabeth has been able to devise any means of easing their financial burdens without compromising their dignity or relinquishing the comforts they regard as necessities for anyone of their breeding and social position. As a result, Sir Walter begs their close family friend, Lady Russell, to advise them, along with Mr. Shepherd, their lawyer.

Kind-hearted and generally rational, Lady Russell draws up, with Anne's help, a plan for them to economize. However, her father can not approve the suggestions Lady Russell has made for changes in his lifestyle. He decides that he would rather leave his home than live in a manner that he considers undignified. As a result, he determines to find a smaller but comfortable house in Bath and rent out Kellynch Hall, even though he is bothered by the gossip the move might generate. Anne becomes distressed over the thought of leaving her home and moving to a city where she thinks she will not know anyone.

When Admiral Croft, a native of Somerset-shire, shows interest in Kellynch Hall, Sir Walter notes his considerable wealth and determines that he and his wife would be suitable tenants. Anne also approves of the couple, especially since several years ago, she had fallen deeply in love with Mrs. Croft's brother, Captain Frederick Went-worth. She hopes that Wentworth might visit his sister, which would afford Anne the opportunity to see him again.

Several years before in the summer of 1806, Wentworth lived at his brother's home near Kellynch Hall and soon fell in love with Anne. Her father, however, did not approve of the match, considering it to be "a very degrading alliance." Lady Russell shared Sir Walter's disapproval, noting that Wentworth had no money. She also considered "his sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind," a dangerous combination and so strongly advised Anne against marrying him. Anne could not ignore the displeasure felt by her father and Lady Russell, who had become a surrogate mother to her. Lady Russell eventually convinced her that her engagement to Wentworth was improper for both Anne and Wentworth. After Anne broke off the engagement, Wentworth determined that he had been "ill-used" and left the country. The break caused Anne a great deal of suffering, clouding "every enjoyment of youth" and causing an "early loss of [her] bloom and spirits."

During the next seven years, Anne never found anyone to compare with Captain Wentworth "as he stood in her memory." Charles Musgrove, a well-respected local man, had asked Anne to marry him, but she turned him down, and eventually he married her sister Mary. Anne has come to regret her decision to break off her relationship with Wentworth, blaming it on her "over-anxious caution."

As the Elliots plan their move, Mary decides that she is in bad health and insists that Anne come to stay with her before relocating to Bath. Mary frequently complains of ill health, most often to gain the attention of her family. Anne gives in to her sister since she is not looking forward to the move to Bath. In addition, her sister lives near Kellynch Hall where she hopes Wentworth will visit. Her patience and good nature soon cure Mary's "illness."

While at Mary's, Anne becomes well acquainted with Charles's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove, who are considerably less elegant and orderly than the Elliots but whose hospitality and kindness soon endear them to Anne. The Mus-groves' spirited and good-natured daughters, Henrietta and Louisa, also are welcome guests in Mary's home.

Media Adaptations

  • Persuasion was adapted as a film by Roger Michell, starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds, Columbia/Tristar Studios, 1995; available from Columbia Home Video.
  • The novel was also adapted in an earlier film version by Howard Baker, starring Anne Fir-bank and Bryan Marshall, BBC Video, 1971.

Anne soon runs into Wentworth through her association with the Musgroves and the Crofts. Although he and Anne are frequently in each other's company, they do not engage in any conversation and speak only to each other when it is necessary to be polite. His coldness toward her upsets Anne. All of the others are quite impressed with the captain, especially the Musgroves' daughters. Henrietta seems to have forgotten her attachment to Charles Hayter, a young man she had become close to before she was introduced to Wentworth. Henrietta's attentions, however, soon return to Charles, and the others now assume Wentworth and Louisa will make a match.

One day, as Anne plays with her young nephew, he jumps on her back and refuses to get off. When Wentworth immediately rescues her, she becomes speechless at his kindness. Through this incident, she comes to understand that while he has not been able to forgive her, "he could not be unfeeling" toward her. Though he resented what she had done to him, "he could not see her suffer without the desire of giving her relief … an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship." This act becomes proof of his "warm and amiable heart," the acknowledgement of which fills Anne with strong feelings of both pleasure and pain.

Wentworth organizes a trip for all of them to Lyme to visit his friend Captain Harville. While there, they meet Captain Benwick, who has been mourning the death of his fiancée, Harville's sister. Right before they leave Lyme, they take a walk along the Cobb, a long stone pier at the water's edge. Louisa demands that Wentworth catch her as she jumps down the steps, but she moves before he has a chance to prepare and falls on the pavement, knocking herself unconscious. They take Louisa to the Harville's house where she stays to recuperate.

Volume II

After Anne moves to Bath, she becomes friendly with William Elliot, her cousin and the heir presumptive to the Elliot estate, who has been accepted back into the family after a period of estrangement. She also renews her friendship with Mrs. Smith, a widowed schoolmate of hers, who suffers from ill-health and financial problems.

A month later, Anne is thrilled over the news that Louisa and Benwick are engaged, which puts to rest her fears over her friend's attachment to Wentworth. Wentworth soon comes to Bath to visit the Crofts, who have come for a short stay. One evening, when they are all gathered together at a party, Anne begins to suspect that he still has feelings for her after he appears jealous over Mr. Elliot's attentions towards her. The next morning, Anne visits Mrs. Smith who tells her that Mr. Elliot is a man "without heart or conscience," who had led her husband into debt.

The next day Anne discusses with Harville the difference between men's and women's emotions, both claiming that their own sex retains feelings of love the longest. During this conversation, Wentworth writes a letter, which everyone assumes is to Captain Benwick. As they leave, Wentworth leaves the letter where only Anne will discover it. The letter reveals how much he still loves her and his hopes that she returns his affections. Anne becomes overwhelmed with emotion. Later, when they meet on the street, they both declare their love for each other. Anne admits that although Lady Russell was not reasonable in her previous assessment of Wentworth, Anne felt that it was her duty to follow her father's and Lady Russell's wishes.

Lady Elliot and Sir Walter now accept Wentworth as a suitable match for Anne, due to his distinguished military career and his wealth. Wentworth helps Mrs. Smith get some of her husband's money back. The novel ends happily for all.


Captain Benwick

Benwick, "an excellent young man," had been engaged to Captain Harville's sister. Anne meets him when she and her group travel to Lyme to visit Harville, Wentworth's friend. Harville's sister died the preceding summer while Benwick was at sea, and he has been in mourning ever since. Anne notes his "melancholy air" and his withdrawal from conversation. When she strikes up a friendship with him, she finds that his need to be useful prompts him to keep busy, constructing toys for the children and fixing things for the Harvilles. He and Anne discuss poetry, but she warns him of its power to stir the emotions and so suggests that he read it sparingly.

Mrs. Clay

Elizabeth strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Clay, the daughter of Mr. Shepherd, the family's lawyer. Mrs. Clay has returned to her father's house with her children after an unprosperous marriage. She has a sharp mind and "understood the art of pleasing," which makes her untrustworthy to Anne and Lady Russell, who consider her friendship with Elizabeth "dangerous." They both believe that she would like to form a romantic relationship with Sir Walter.

Admiral Croft

Admiral Croft and his wife rent Kellynch Hall after the Elliots move to Bath. His "goodness of heart and simplicity of character" are "irresistible" to Anne.

Mrs. Croft

Mrs. Croft is a "well-spoken, genteel, shrewd lady," who appears older than her thirty-eight years, due to her spending so much time at sea with her husband. Anne admires her for her open and easy manners and her devotion to being with her husband, even under the harsh conditions at sea.

Anne Elliot

Anne Elliot, Sir Elliot's middle daughter, possesses an elegant mind and sweet character recognized by all but her father and sister, who regard her as ordinary and so do not pay her much attention. Years ago, during her relationship with Wentworth, Anne had been quite attractive, but the pain she suffered after their split caused her "bloom" to vanish early.

Anne's loyalty and sense of family duty emerged as she forced herself to follow her father's and Lady Russell's advice concerning her engagement to Wentworth. Her naïve and gentle nature could not stand up to these two powerful influences in her life. She especially trusted Lady Russell's good council and so was persuaded to admit that a marriage to Wentworth would be improper and imprudent. Her unselfishness extended to Wentworth, whom she was convinced would also benefit from the breaking of their engagement, a belief that helped her endure their painful split.

Years later, Anne displays her maturity and levelheadedness as she constructs a plan with Lady Russell to help her father economize. Mary and her friends recognize her responsible nature and her kind heart, which emerges as she nurses her sister and takes charge after Louisa falls from the Cobb. All, except her father and sister, look to Anne for direction when a problem arises.

Over the years, Anne develops a keen understanding of human nature and so recognizes her father's and sister's shallow class consciousness. As she meets and enjoys the company of the Crofts and the Musgroves, she comes to relax her own strict standards of behavior and situation. This change becomes apparent when everyone but Anne makes a fuss when her cousins, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple and her daughter, the Honorable Miss Carteret, come to Bath. Anne finds them boring, preferring "the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation." She ignores William's observation that the family's association with them would be good for their position in society. She feels that those whose sincerity sometimes caused them to be imprudent or to lack decorum should be trusted more than those whose guardedness never allowed them to make a social mistake.

Her maturity also contributes to her understanding that while she should not yield to another's persuasion, she must retain her loyalty to her friends and family, even at the expense of her own desires.

Elizabeth Elliot

Elizabeth, the eldest Elliot daughter, has been the mistress of Kellynch Hall for the past thirteen years since her mother died, "presiding and directing with a self-possession and decision." She shares her father's vanity and class snobbery and ignores Anne, for the most part, considering her not worthy of her time or attention.

Mary Elliot

Sir Walter and Elizabeth also did not think much of Mary, the youngest Elliot, but when she married Charles Musgrove, she acquired a measure of importance in their estimation. Exhibiting the same kind of self-involvement as does her sister and father, Mary often complains of being unwell and always insists that her needs take precedence over those of her family. She often turns to Anne to "nurse" her back to health. When she feels that she has been properly attended to, she has high spirits, but when left alone for too long a period, she inevitably comes down with a new series of complaints.

Just as Anne is planning her move to Bath, Mary contracts another aliment and insists that she "cannot possibly do without" Anne's care. While Mary shows none of Anne's compassion nor even temper, Anne frequently agrees to stay with her sister since she was "not so repulsive and unsisterly as Elizabeth, nor so inaccessible to all influence of hers."

Sir Walter Elliot

"Vanity was the beginning and the end" of Sir Walter's character. He spent his time perfecting his personal appearance and reviewing his position in society. His favorite pastime is to reread his entry in the Baronetage, a book that records his and his family's history and social standing. He is quite attached to his eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who shares his temperament, but considers his two other daughters to be of very inferior value. He has lost hope of Anne ever marrying well and so puts his faith in Elizabeth to uphold the honor of the family through a prosperous marriage.

Sir Walter's snobbery had previously prompted him to deny his blessing for Anne's plans to marry Wentworth. He considers a naval career undesir-able, insisting that sailors work hard but do not deserve to be raised from an obscure birth into distinction that he considers unmerited. He also finds sailors rather unattractive, due to their weathered features. Sir Walter only appreciates people and things he finds aesthetically pleasing. He reveals his shallowness when, at the end of the novel, he welcomes Wentworth into the family since the captain has amassed over twenty-five thousand pounds and has moved as high in his profession as possible and thus is no longer "nobody." Wentworth is now esteemed "quite worthy to address the daughter of a foolish, spendthrift baronet."

William Elliot

William Elliot, Esq., Anne's cousin and the heir presumptive to the Elliot inheritance, had a falling out with the family after his relationship with Elizabeth failed to end in marriage. The family had also discovered that he had "spoken most disrespectfully of them," which they could not forgive. Soon after, he married a rich woman "of inferior birth." After she died, he tried to resume his relationship with Elizabeth, but she would not consider it.

Eventually, he reestablishes his relationship with the family by insisting that his treatment of them had been due to an unfortunate misunderstanding. Sir Walter forgives him, and the family now becomes "delighted" with him, influenced by his charm and the fortune he has amassed through marriage. William now turns his attentions to Anne, who initially is flattered. To all, he appears polished, agreeable, and sensible. His conversations with others reveal "correct opinions" about the world and family honor. He also displays a kind heart and a sense of moderation.

The family assumes that he will marry Anne. While she admits the thought of being able to move back to Kellynch is hard to resist, she decides there is something about his character that bothers her. She distrusts his past, due to rumors that he had indulged in bad habits. Also, although he appears to be rational and discreet, he is not open. Anne notices that he never displays his emotions—any "warmth of indignation or delight." She becomes suspicious of his guardedness.

Anne's suspicions of William are proven true when Mrs. Smith reveals to her his true character. Elliot is, in reality, "a designing, wary, cold-blooded being who thinks only of himself." Mrs. Smith has experienced firsthand his lack of feeling for others when she watched him lead her husband into overwhelming debt. She concludes that he is "black and hollow at heart." Mrs. Smith proves his true nature when she shows Anne a letter he had written, criticizing her family. At the end of the novel, Elliot runs off with Mrs. Clay.

Captain Harville

Anne considers Captain Harville, a good friend of Wentworth's, a perfect gentleman, "unaffected, warm, and obliging."

Mrs. Fanny Harville

Mrs. Harville is "a degree less polished than her husband," yet she displays the same good heart, warmly welcoming the group from Somersetshire to her home. She also insists that Louisa recuperate under her care after her accident.

Charles Hayter

Charles Hayter, a scholar "very superior in cultivation and manners" to the Musgroves, has been involved in a relationship with Henrietta. When Wentworth arrives, Henrietta's attentions and affection are temporarily transferred from Charles to him.

Charles Musgrove

Charles Musgrove, a well-respected local man, had asked Anne to marry him, but she turned him down, and eventually he married her sister Mary. Her marriage to Charles pleases Sir Walter, who appreciates that Charles's standing in society is second only to Sir Walter's.

Charles's good nature allows him to tolerate his wife's frequent bids for attention, a quality Anne admires. She admits that his temperament and common sense make him superior to her sister; however, he is not clever enough in conversation for her to regret turning him down. He spends much of his time involved in sport but in nothing else of consequence, a situation Anne decides would have been improved if he had married a woman of equal understanding who could have helped steer him in a more useful and rational direction.

Henrietta Musgrove

Henrietta and Louisa, Charles's sisters, are typical women of their time and station. They live "to be fashionable, happy and merry." They both are high spirited and open but have no time for the more cultivated pursuits that occupy much of Anne's time. Anne appreciates their mutual affection for each other, something she has not enjoyed with her own sisters. Henrietta and Louisa pay Wentworth a great deal of attention and develop a "fever of admiration" for him that Anne fears might turn into love. Henrietta had been in a romantic relationship with another man before she met Captain Wentworth. Her attention and affection, however, soon return to the former man.

Louisa Musgrove

Louisa Musgrove is more incautious than her sister is. Her desire to jump off the Cobb causes her serious injury. While she recuperates, she falls in love with Captain Benwick.

Mr. Musgrove

Mr. Musgrove and his wife live an unordered life. Anne notes that they, "like their houses," always seem to be "in a state of alteration." They are old English in style, whereas their children are devoted to the new, and whereas neither is educated nor elegant, their friendliness and hospitality ensure their popularity; they never lack invitations or visitors.

Mrs. Musgrove

Mrs. Musgrove shares her husband's easy manner.

Lady Russell

The Elliots have relied on Lady Russell's generous support and generally reasonable advice ever since Mrs. Elliot died. Though she possessed a winning combination of benevolence and strict integrity, she was prejudicial against those she deemed of lower rank and consequence. She shared Sir Walter's disapproval of Anne's early attachment to Wentworth, noting that the captain had no money. She also considered "his sanguine temper, and fearlessness of mind," a dangerous combination and so strongly advised Anne against marrying him. Wentworth's behavior had not suited Lady Russell's own ideas, and she was hasty in suspecting them to indicate a character of "dangerous impetuosity." When Anne and Wentworth reestablish their relationship, Lady Russell reveals her magnanimous nature, admitting that she was wrong about him.

Mr. Shepherd

Mr. Shepherd, the Elliot's lawyer and Mrs. Clay's father, presents himself to be "civil and cautious."

Mrs. Smith

Mrs. Smith, Anne's widowed schoolmate, had been kind to her after Anne's mother died. When Anne reestablishes their friendship in Bath, she finds Mrs. Smith in ill health and financial difficulty. Mrs. Smith displays "good sense and agreeable manners" even during her hard times. Anne admires her "elasticity of mind," her lack of self-pity, and her resourcefulness.

Captain Frederick Wentworth

In the summer of 1806, Captain Wentworth, Mrs. Croft's brother, lived near Kellynch Hall and soon fell in love with Anne, who noted his quick mind, fearlessness, and generous spirit. These qualities, however, prompted Lady Russell's disapproval, which led to her advising Anne not to marry him.

When he reappears in Somersetshire years later, however, Wentworth's sterling character again reveals itself to Anne. He shows his compassionate heart as he listens to Mrs. Musgrove's sorrow over her son's early death, and he takes full responsibility for Louisa's accident, even though her impetuosity had been the cause. His stirring conversation about his days at sea prompt all to feel a "warm admiration" for him. While his stubbornness will not allow him to forgive Anne's initial rejection of him, that same quality will not let him give up on her. His generous nature allows him to forgive Sir Walter's and Lady Russell's interference as he becomes a part of the family.


Class Consciousness

The predominant theme in Persuasion focuses on the consciousness of class. Austen defines one main social division—the landed gentry of the upper-middle class—through her realistic portrayals of the Elliot family and those who travel in their sphere. She notes the traditions of this structured social group as well as its restricted vision of those outside the group. The ladies and gentlemen of the landed gentry, as represented by Sir Walter, depend on social hierarchies to ensure their superiority over the lower classes. Sir Walter's favorite pastime is to pore over the Baronetage, reminding himself of his exalted social position. The pride he takes in this position has degenerated into an inflated vanity and aesthetic sense, as he can appreciate only things that, like his own visage, please his eye.

His sense of superiority translates into an arrogance directed at those in lower classes who are presumptuous enough to try to improve their social station. One such interloper is Captain Wentworth, who assumes that his deep love for Anne, coupled with his success as a naval officer, should be enough to earn Sir Walter's blessing of their union. However, Sir Walter, backed by Lady Russell, rejects the captain as a suitable son-in-law, due to his lack of money and his profession, which Sir Walter considers undesirable. He notes that sailors work hard, but he insists that they do not deserve to be raised from an obscure birth into the upper class.

Anne's sister Elizabeth reflects her father's strict rules of etiquette. She devotes her time to "doing the honours, and laying down the domestic law at home … opening every ball of credit which a scanty neighbourhood afforded." Mary, Anne's youngest sister, has turned her feelings of superiority of class into a form of hypochondria. When she feels that she has not been paid enough attention, she comes down with an "illness" that must be attended to, preferably by Anne, who displays none of the class snobbery of the rest of the family.

All of the Elliots except Anne illustrate the gentry's limited vision of the realities of the world. They live in comfortable isolation in a privileged community set apart from the unpleasant truths of the social stratification and political system that has enabled them to live an advantaged life. Their restricted view does not recognize women like Mrs. Smith who have fallen on hard times, even if one of their class (as was the case with Mrs. Smith) has been the cause.

Sir Walter's change of heart, when Anne asks for his blessing the second time Captain Wentworth asks her to marry him, is the result of several factors. Wentworth has amassed a small fortune and so can afford to provide an even more comfortable life for Anne than the one she enjoyed with her economically-challenged father. Wentworth has also risen to the top of his profession, which, in the early part of the nineteenth century, was becoming highly honored. Thus Sir Walter is able to welcome the captain into the family and proudly record his name in the Baronetage without suffering the shame of Anne marrying someone unworthy of her social position.

Courtship and Marriage

The rituals of courtship and marriage are determined and strictly enforced within each class. They are governed by a sense of order, decorum, and self-control according to the rigid roles that women are expected to fulfill. A young woman is duty bound to obey her father's authority in all matters, submitting without question to the restrictions placed on her. When fathers forbade their daughters from marrying unacceptable men, they expected and got obedience. Sir Walter made a similar decree, with Lady Russell's support, which Anne felt she must obey, even though she would suffer greatly over her break from Wentworth. The novel ends happily only after Sir Walter changes his opinion about Wentworth and so gives his permission for Anne to marry him.

Topics for Further Study

  • Observe and listen to a conversation that involves several people. Write a short sketch of the conversation, focusing on the perspective of one of the people involved. Describe not only what is said but also what you imagine the person is thinking during the conversation.
  • Read Austen's Pride and Prejudice, written during her first phase, and compare the central character, Elizabeth Bennet, to Anne Elliot. What similarities and differences do you discover?
  • Research the psychological foundations of the act of persuasion. In what ways could Anne have prevented her father's and Lady Russell's influence over her?
  • Investigate the lives of the middle-class British at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Discuss how strictly social lines were drawn during that period.


Domestic Comedy

Austen helped create the domestic comedy of middle-class manners, a genre that is concerned with family situations and problems. This type of novel focuses on the manners and conventions of the British middle class—in Austen's work, specifically the landed gentry. The plot is structured around problems that arise within the family concerning the particular fashions and outlook of this structured social group. The point of view is often satirical, as it illuminates and critiques the idiosyncrasies of its members. Although the plot can offer clever solutions to the family's conflicts, it is less important than the characterizations and the dialogue. In Persuasion, Austen's plot revolves around the conflicts within her family and their desire to keep those they deem undesirable out. Though some characters, such as Lady Russell and Mrs. Clay, are decidedly flat, most of the Elliot family is carefully drawn to reflect the realities of upper-middle-class life in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As the plot evolves, Austen critiques the snobbery and arrogance of the landed gentry in her depiction of Sir Walter. All conflicts are worked out by the end of the novel, signaled by Anne's happy marriage to Wentworth.

Historical Context

Sentimental Novel

The sentimental novel was a popular form of fiction in England at the end of the eighteenth century. This type of fiction focuses on the problems encountered by virtuous men and women as they strive to lead exemplary lives. By the end of the novel, characters who displayed a sense of honor and behaved in a moral fashion were able to solve their problems and regain a sense of order in their world. The didactic plot promoted accepted standards of morality, encouraging readers to believe that such behavior would be justly rewarded in time. Characters in these novels did not check their emotions, which suggested their benevolence and compassion. The most well-known example of this genre is Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740, which chronicled the life of the title character, a servant girl who survived continuous assaults on her honor. Other novels in this genre include Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1776), Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), and Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen broke from this form in her novels, which concentrate on realistic depictions of the tensions between her heroines and their society.

A Woman's Place

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, women were confined to the classes into which they were born, unless their fathers or husbands moved up or down in the social hierarchy. The strict rules for each social class defined the women and their lives. Women in the upper classes had the leisure to educate themselves; however, they, like their counterparts in the lower classes, were not expected to think for themselves and were not often listened to when they did. Urges for independence and self-determination were suppressed in women from all classes. The strict social morality of the period demanded that women exhibit the standards of polite femininity, culminating in the ideals of marriage and motherhood. Jane Austen's novels both reflect and challenge the period's attitudes toward women. Her heroines must operate within the confines of the middle class, yet their quick minds and independent spirits make them yearn for at least a measure of autonomy. Brian Southam, in his article on Austen for British Writers, comments that each of Austen's heroines must "practice the morality of compromise and discover her own way of accepting the demands of society while preserving the integrity of her own values and beliefs."

Social Revolution

Austen's novels describe how British society was divided at the end of the eighteenth century into three classes: the aristocracy, the gentry, and the yeoman class. Yet, the revolutionary fervor at the end of this century and the beginning of the next, exemplified by the American and French revolutions, was seeping into the social fabric of England. During this period, class distinctions began to relax and to be redefined. As the lower-middle classes became more prosperous, they began to emulate their social "betters," as did the landed gentry of the upper-middle class. The middle classes became absorbed with a cultivation of the "proper" manners, dress, and décor practiced by the aristocracy.

Critical Overview

By the time Persuasion was published in 1818, Austen's novels had gained a limited reading audience that was dramatically expanded in 1833, when her novels were republished in the Bentley's Standard Novels series. Scholars began to pay at-tention to Persuasion and Austen's other novels in 1870, after the publication of Memoir of Jane Austen, the first major biography of her, written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh. The biography triggered several articles on her works, including some by critics Margaret Oliphant and Richard Simpson. Scholarly attention to her novels increased at the end of the century and continued into the twentieth, especially after the publication of Mary Lascelles's Jane Austen and Her Art in 1939.

Persuasion, like her other novels, was praised for its realistic depiction of character and society. In his article on Austen for British Writers, Brian Southam applauds the "semantic drama" of the novel, commenting that within the novel "we can follow the scheme of characterization that brings the meaning of [the title] to life in the complexities and contradictions of human nature." Margaret Drabble, in her introduction to the Signet publication of the novel, praises its "strong anti-romantic tendencies," its "unexpected generosities," and its "welcoming of the possibility of a new order." These scholars have helped cement the novel's reputation as a literary classic.


Wendy Perkins

Perkins is an associate professor of English and American literature and film at Prince George's Community College and has published several articles on British and American authors. In this essay, she argues that Austen's novel is a reflection of its revolutionary age.

Compare & Contrast

  • Late 1700s: Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft is published in 1792. The book chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction women feel about the unequal treatment they receive in the home and in other institutions.

    Today: American women have made major gains in their fight for equality with the passage of many pieces of legislation. Although some notable pieces of legislation, including the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment bill, have not been passed, discrimination against women is now against the law.
  • Late 1700s: One of the most popular forms of literature during this period is the sentimental novel—a didactic work that promotes and rewards its characters' "proper" moral behavior.

    Today: The most popular forms of literature for the general reading public are thrillers and memoirs.
  • Late 1700s: The American War of Independence is waged from 1775 to 1783. As a result, British domination of America comes to an end.

    Today: Catholics in Northern Ireland, backed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), continue their struggle to break free from English rule.

In an article in British Writers, Brian Southam presents an overview of Jane Austen's work and concludes that her fiction reveals a firm sense of time and place. He argues that Austen's novels "communicate a profound sense" of England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, "when the old Georgian world of the eighteenth century was being carried uneasily and reluctantly into the new world of Regency England, the Augustan world into the romantic." Gary Kelly, in his critique of Austen's works for Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that British society was influenced by the revolutionary fervor surrounding the American and French battles for independence during this age and finds that zeitgeist was represented "as a progressive dialectic of gentry and professionals."

Austen's novels join this dialectical discussion, for they focus specifically on the changes in the country's social fabric as strict hierarchies of class were being challenged. The sense of this historical moment as a period of transition becomes most evident in her last novel, Persuasion. In her depiction of the members of the Elliot family and their circle, Austen not only chronicles the changes that were occurring in the British class system during this period, but she also appears to support them.

Austen begins the novel with a description of Sir Walter, the patriarch of the Elliot family, and his class obsession, evident in his constant perusal of the Baronetage, where he notes the description of the social standing and history of his family. Sir Walter is a traditional gentleman of the landed gentry, the upper-middle level of the British class system. Through his characterization, Austen records all that she finds pretentious and shallow in the most conservatively rigid members of this group. In her detailed depiction of Sir Walter's manners and fashionable pursuits, Austen lays the ground-work for her critique of the superficialities of the middle class.

In Sir Walter's structured society, the harmony of the group depends on each individual complying with its fixed rules. The appearance of wealth and propriety are sacrosanct in his world, and Sir Walter is a firm devotee of its conventions. As a result, when his extravagant spending habits threaten to bring him to the brink of financial ruin, he cannot come up with a plan to economize. He insists that he can endure no changes to his lifestyle that will compromise his dignity or comfort or that will place him in too close proximity to the lower classes. Fortunately, Lady Russell convinces him to find a less expensive dwelling in Bath, where he can appear to be enjoying a change of scenery and retain his social position.

The shallowness of the upper classes is reflected in the attitudes Sir Walter and his eldest daughter Elizabeth harbor regarding Anne. Unable to place value on her intellectual and moral merit, they find her loss of "bloom" after suffering through her break from Wentworth evidence of her inferiority.

Sir Walter's sense of superiority is epitomized in his overweening vanity, which is "the beginning and the end" of his character, and his arrogant dismissal of anyone from the lower classes who is presumptuous enough to try to gain entry into his circle. This attitude causes his daughter Anne to suffer greatly when it results in his refusal to approve of her marriage to Wentworth, who does not enjoy the benefits of a noble birth nor, initially, of the leisure class.

Austen's critique of this society develops a harder edge in her depiction of William Elliot, their self-serving cousin who reveals himself to be "black and hollow at heart." Austen illustrates the blindness of the middle class to the faults of its own privileged and "dignified" members when the Elliot family quickly allows him back into the family after a troubled past relationship with him. When they permit him to reestablish himself in their good graces, most find his character sterling. Anne, however, with her astute powers of perception that do not depend on social standing, suspects a duplicitous nature, which her friend Mrs. Smith confirms. The narrative soon reveals that he has come to Bath and reintegrated himself with the family only to insure his inheritance.

Austen's illustration of the age's spirit of change is centered in Anne. Her openness reflects the transitional nature of Regency England, when class distinctions began to blur. As the lower-middle classes became more prosperous, successful professionals were eager to share the privileges of the gentry and so began to imitate their manners and fashions. As a result, the traditional distinction between the two groups—a noble bloodline—began to ease. Anne embraces this change when she falls in love with Wentworth, a sailor who, when they first meet, is professionally but not economically successful. She also reveals her democratic spirit when she reestablishes her friendship with Mrs. Smith, an old schoolmate, who has fallen on hard times. Mrs. Smith represents the economic realities of the lower classes, which the gentry successfully ignored.

Anne has suffered from the strict code of manners and tightly defined roles thrust upon her by her social class. Her ties to her family must supersede her own desires, and as a result, they prevent her from marrying the man she loves. She believes, even at the end of the novel when she gains her family's approval for her marriage to Wentworth, that it is her duty to obey their wishes when they initially forbid her union with him. Her sense of duty springs from the moral obligation she feels to her family and to Lady Russell, who has become her surrogate mother. Austen juxtaposes this sense of duty with Anne's struggle for individuality and fulfillment, which she achieves in part, at the end of the novel, due to the changes that were beginning to occur in her world. She is finally able to marry Wentworth, not only because of his change in fortune but also as a result of the relaxed definition of a "gentleman." Wentworth has become socially acceptable through the new respect paid his profession. During the early part of the nineteenth century, England held its navy in high regard as a result of its victories at sea and its protection of trading routes.

Austen supports this transitional spirit through her depiction of other characters. While Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove have the breeding that insures their inclusion into Sir Walter's circle, their unconventional behavior strains the boundaries of their class. The Musgroves' unpretentious nature emerges in their encouragement of their daughters' independent spirits and in their lack of concern for traditionally proper mates for them. Anne notes that they live an unordered life and that, "like their houses," they always seemed to be "in a state of alteration."

At first Anne seems put off by their disorder. However, as she gains experience and maturity, she accepts and promotes the relaxation of social norms. When she discovers and comes to an appreciation of the Musgroves' warm hearts and openness, she embraces their differences and includes them in her circle of friends. She welcomes them with open arms when they arrive in Bath, especially after having to suffer the company of her stuffy and dull cousins, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret. Anne's new openness becomes apparent in her distrust of William Elliot and in her decision that she appreciates spontaneity over formality. She concludes that she could "so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped."

The Harvilles and the Crofts also help educate Anne about the possibilities of a world free from rigid class structures. Although they have cramped accommodations, the Harvilles warmly welcome Anne and her group to Lyme, and after the accident, they insist on nursing Louisa back to health. Anne also appreciates Mrs. Croft's unconventional behavior in her relationship with her husband. Mrs. Croft has redefined the limiting roles for women in her position, as noted when she responds to Captain Wentworth's assertion that naval vessels are no place for ladies. She corrects him sharply, noting, "But I hate to hear you talking so, like a fine gentleman, and as if we were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures."

Austen promotes the concept of women being "rational creatures" as she emphasizes Anne's "strong, mature mind," qualities that become evident in her behavior throughout the novel. Through Anne, Austen challenges traditional notions that fashionable women should only concern themselves with learning to sing and play the piano and to memorize English verse and passages from novels. Women who could present this shallow display of the arts became perfect social ornaments and wives. As a counter to these limited women, Austen presents Anne as rational and witty, able to think for herself. She has developed an interior life independent of those in her class and strives to make her own choices concerning her relationships and her destiny.

Austen reinforces her social critique and her support of change at the end of the novel. Even though Anne admits that she was right in following her father's and Lady Russell's advice in not marrying Wentworth, citing her sense of duty, Austen underlines the fact that Anne and Wentworth have lost several years of happiness due to the narrow-mindedness and overly cautious opinions of others. After Anne and Wentworth reunite, however, Lady Russell also shows signs that she has become more open to new social standards. She admits that because Wentworth's "manners had not suited her own ideas, she had been too quick in suspecting them to indicate a character of dangerous impetuosity." Now, she concedes that "she had been pretty completely wrong" and determines "to take up a new set of opinions and of hopes." Sir Walter, ever the symbol of the old world, remains at the end of the novel "a foolish, spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him." Kelly notes Sir Walter's static nature in contrast to the transformations occurring around him when he comments that at the conclusion, his estate, "dangerously overextended morally, socially, and financially, is not so much reinvigorated as superseded by an estate acquired entirely on merit and able to take into itself the neglected best of the older estate."

Persuasion participates in the revolutionary spirit of its age through Austen's penetrating critique of the sacred ideals of the British class system and her documentation and support of the changes that were emerging at the end of the Age of Reason. Through her characterization of her heroine, Anne Elliot, she presents a wise and sympathetic portrait of one woman's shifting perspective of her relation to society and her understanding of herself.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Persuasion, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Mary Waldron

In the following essay excerpt, Waldron examines Austen's moral intentions in Persuasion.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Austen's Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, chronicles the lives of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as they learn to find a balance between the extremes of the two qualities noted in the title.
  • Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813 and considered to be Austen's best novel, presents an intimate portrait of Elizabeth Bennet and her struggles with family, social, and romantic problems.
  • Emma, published in 1816, focuses on one of Austen's most endearing and complex characters as she tries to influence the lives of those in her circle.
  • Robert B. Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, published in 1993, presents the science of persuasion as it helps readers understand the psychological foundations of this technique.

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Source: Mary Waldron, "Rationality and Rebellion: Persuasion and the Model Girl," in Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time, Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 135-47.

Alistair M. Duckworth

In the following essay, Duckworth explores the "new direction" Austen takes in Persuasion toward social status and heritage as compared to her earlier novels.

The success with which Emma accommodates its imaginative heroine in a traditional community invites us to read Jane Austen's conservative commitment as a sincere response rather than a con-ventional cover or camouflage. Unlike Emma, however, Persuasion (1818) does not bring its heroine to a defined social place and role; and in the last novel the attitude to social heritage differs subtly, if not in the end radically, from that communicated in the earlier novels. Though Anne Elliot becomes the wife of Captain Wentworth and the delighted mistress of a "very pretty landaulette," she has (as her status-obsessed sister Mary observes with satisfaction) "no Uppercrosshall before her, no landed estate, no headship of a family," Persuasion marks a new direction in Jane Austen's search for accommodations. Her deliberate decision not to provide Anne with abbey, house, hall, place, park, or cottage on her marriage to a man who has gained a fortune of £25,000 from prize money does not indicate—as the failure to finish The Watsons did—an oppressed sense of insurmountable difficulties to be overcome. The nature of the problem has changed, as has the kind of accommodation sought.

One way to describe the new direction of Persuasion is to compare Anne Elliot's role with that of Fanny Price. Like Fanny, Anne is often made aware of her "own nothingness." Fanny, however, becomes involved despite herself in issues of social importance at Sotherton, Mansfield, and Thornton Lacey, defending traditional "grounds" from the injuries of selfish improvements, innovative behavior, and materialistic ways. When she becomes the mistress of the Mansfield parsonage, she redeems her society. In Persuasion, by contrast, "place" is no longer there to be defended, since Sir Walter Elliot, the "foolish spendthrift baronet, who had not had principle or sense enough to maintain himself in the situation in which Providence had placed him," has rented his ancestral home and moved to Bath, where, to Anne's sorrow, he feels "no degradation in his change." Kellynch Hall will never be Anne's to "improve," nor is she to find a home like Uppercross (of which she could have been mistress one day, had she accepted Charles Musgrove's proposal of marriage).

Uppercross mansion, with "its high walls, great gates, and old trees, substantial and unmodernized," exists at the heart of the kind of organic community Jane Austen had described in her positive pictures of places like Delaford and Thornton Lacey. But in Persuasion the viability of its "old English style" is put in some question. Charles Musgrove, heir to the estate, has introduced improvements in the community in the form of a farmhouse "elevated into a cottage," complete with "veranda, French windows, and other prettinesses." Meanwhile, within the great house the Musgrove girls have created an air of confusion in the old-fashioned, wainscoted parlor, by furnishing it with a pianoforte, harp, flower stands, and "little tables placed in every direction." The ancestral portraits seem "to be staring in astonishment" at "such an overthrow of all order and neatness." Yet despite her exposure of the selfishness of the younger generation, Jane Austen does not adopt a censorious attitude. In this respect, Persuasion differs from earlier works in which the desire of Mary Crawford to new-furnish Mansfield or of Marianne Dashwood to new-furnish Allenham were suspect signs of "modern manners" to be repudiated by the reader.

Anne's task in Persuasion is not, then, to reclaim Kellynch (debased beyond Anne's powers of recovery by her father's extravagance, otiosity, and absurd pride in rank) but to discover new possibilities of accommodation for herself. Thus in conversation with Mr. Elliot, her false suitor, she proclaims herself "too proud to enjoy a welcome which depends so entirely upon place" while later she assures Wentworth that "every fresh place would be interesting to me." The novel provides Anne with a number of "fresh" possibilities of accommoda-tion, which are associated not with the stabilities of the land (Winthrop, the future home of Henrietta Musgrove, is significantly described as an "indifferent" place, "without beauty and without dignity") but with the risks and uncertainties of life at sea or among sailors. Mrs. Croft knows "nothing superior to the accommodations of a man of war," having lived with her husband Admiral Croft in no fewer than five ships, crossed the Atlantic four times, and been once to the East Indies. Ashore, the Crofts are tenants of Kellynch, where their improvements include the removal of a number of large looking glasses from Sir Walter's dressing room. They drive an unfashionable gig and, while in Bath, live in lodgings that are none the worse, as the Admiral tells Anne, "for putting us in mind of those we first had at North Yarmouth. The wind blows through one of the cupboards just in the same way." Described as "generally out of doors together … dawdling about in a way not endurable to a third person," the Crofts are the most successful portrait of seasoned "connubial felicity" in Jane Austen's work. Their partnership in life, no less than in their style of driving the gig, provides Anne with a model of marriage, an exemplary way of responding to an existence in which the waters are not always smooth.

A second naval family, the Harvilles, provides another positive example. Anne meets Captain Harville in Lyme shortly before Louisa Musgrove's disastrous leap from the steps on the Cobb calls into question the nature of her "fortitude." Suffering from a severe wound, Harville reveals a more estimable form of fortitude in his modest house near the Cobb. Its rooms are so small that Anne is at first astonished that he can think them "capable of accommodating so many." But her astonishment gives way to pleasure deriving from "all the ingenious contrivances and nice arrangements of Captain Harville, to turn the actual space to the best possible account, to supply the deficiencies of lodging-house furniture, and defend the windows and doors against the winter storms to be expected." In his illness, Captain Harville has at least set his house in order; and we are surely asked to discover in his usefulness, active employment, and positive outlook an exemplary response to reduced social expectations. Like Mrs. Smith in her even worse circumstances in Westgate Buildings, Harville responds not only with resolution and independence but with "elasticity of mind." Without fortune or carriage or spacious accommodations, Harville extends an "uncommon" degree of hospitality to the visitors in Lyme, whereas the Elliots in Bath, in sycophantic pursuit of their aristocratic relations and guiltily aware of their own reduced style of living, have altogether abandoned "old fashioned notions" of "country hospitality."

So consistent is the contrast between the landed and the naval characters in Persuasion, and so consistent the preference for the latter, that critics (myself included) have been led to make excessive historical claims concerning the new directions of the novel. We should not see the renting of Kellynch Hall as a doomladen portent of the decline of the landed order; nor should we see in the energy and initiative of the naval characters implications as to the arrival on the social scene of a new, perhaps "bourgeois," class. As Jane Austen's own family showed, a modest but well-connected gentry family could more than adequately fill both landed and naval roles in the period. Nor should we see Persuasion's new directions as a contradiction of the traditional values embodied in the character of Mr. Knightley. It is true that in her last completed novel, Jane Austen reexamines both the idea of the gentleman and the role of manners. But in repudiating Sir Walter's definition of the gentleman—which excludes sailors on the grounds that they are without property, have to work, and are exposed to inclement weather that ravages their looks—she does not abandon her trust in gentlemanly behavior; and in consistently presenting the hypocritical Mr. Elliot as a man of "polished" manners, she does not renounce her faith in morally informed manners as a medium of social intercourse.

The contrast between land and sea in Persuasion works not to announce a new social leadership but rather to open new possibilities of accommodation for the marginal woman. What if our hopes of landed entitlement are disappointed—is this the end of the world? "Desire" is, of course, fulfilled in the marriage of Anne to Wentworth, but the dependence on marriage for the closure of the novel's plot is not escapist, in view of the positive examples of the Crofts, the Harvilles, Mrs. Smith, and Anne herself, who in the lonely period before her rapprochement with Wentworth showed stoicism, self-reliance, and above all "usefulness" in her social relations.

Even the most interesting of Persuasion's new directions, its new attitude to nature, needs careful description. Sister of a great landowner, Jane Austen had always shown (like Fanny on her trip to Sotherton) a proprietary interest in "the appearance of the country, the bearings of the roads, the difference of soil, the state of the harvest, the cottages, the cattle." In her last works, however, nature begins to express states of consciousness, as her heroines respond to atmospheric conditions and seasonal moods. On the walk to Winthrop, for example, Anne's "autumnal" feelings of loss and loneliness find consolation in "the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges." But such "romanticism" is closer to that expressed in the sonnets of Charlotte Smith (1784) and William Lisle Bowles (1789) than to that of Wordsworth or Coleridge, and unlike Captain Benwick's romantic attitudes, it is never allowed to become selfindulgent. Even so, Anne's feelings for the natural scene mark a new emphasis in Jane Austen's response to the land, which is no longer viewed mainly as a place to be inhabited by the heroine in a responsible social role but as a possible source of alternative emotional consolation.

Like Persuasion, Jane Austen's unfinished fragment Sanditon, written in the winter before her death on 18 July 1817, also shows signs of a more private interest in nature. Sanditon describes with remarkable brio the transformation of an old village into a seaside resort for valetudinarians. Mr. Parker and Lady Denham are partners in this speculative enterprise, which brilliantly captures aspects of the rootless, fashionseeking Regency era. Mr. Parker makes of his inheritance "his Mine, his Lottery, his Speculation & his Hobby Horse." He moves from his old house—like Donwell Abbey, unfashionably low and sheltered but "rich in … Garden, Orchard & Meadows"—to a new house, to which he gives the topical name of Trafalgar House. Trafalgar House lacks a kitchen garden and shade trees, is exposed to winter storms, and is built near a cliff "on the most elevated spot on the Down." Jane Austen's satire is in the eighteenth-century tradition of Horace Walpole, who, in a letter to Montagu (15 June 1768), wrote: "How our ancestors would laugh at us, who knew there was no being comfortable, unless you had a high hill before your nose, and a thick warm wood at your back! Taste is too freezing a commodity for us, and depend upon it will go out of fashion again." It seems clear that the lofty and precarious location of Mr. Parker's new house was intended to prefigure the crash of his speculative ventures, but what is remarkable about Sanditon is Jane Austen's sang-froid in face of the "improvements" she describes. Here, after all, is the theme of Mansfield Park, but Sanditon's heroine is unlikely to play Fanny's role of social redeemer, or even of social conscience. Like Emma, she responds aesthetically to the external scene, finding "amusement enough in standing at her ample Venetian window, & looking over the miscellaneous foreground of unfinished Building, waving Linen, & tops of Houses, to the Sea, dancing & sparkling in Sunshine & Freshness." Charlotte Heywood is like previous heroines in terms of her emerging from a traditional rural home into the glare of a materialistic world, but her accommodation to this world is more detached, more self-contained; she finds the Sanditon scene "very striking—and very amusing—or very melancholy, just as Satire or Morality might prevail." And rather than being critical of Sanditon's "modern" developments, she views them "with the calmness of amused curiosity." Sanditon is a remarkable work by a woman about to move into her last accommodations in College Street, Winchester. In its satire of hypochondria, it announces itself to be on the side of life and health; and in its presentation of the heroine, it arouses our curiosity. Like Mr. Knightley in his early concern for Emma, we "wonder what will become of her." More than in her future husband, we are interested in the home she would have found.

Source: Alistair M. Duckworth, "Austen's Accommodations," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, edited by Laura Mooneyham White, G. K. Hall & Co., 1998, pp. 190-94.


Drabble, Margaret, "Introduction" in Persuasion, by Jane Austen, Signet, 1989, pp. v-xx.

Kelly, Gary, "Jane Austen," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 116: British Romantic Novelists, 1789–1832, Gale Research, 1992, pp. 3-35.

Southam, Brian, "Jane Austen," in British Writers, Vol. 4, Scribner, 1981, pp. 101-24.

For Further Reading

Brown, Lloyd, W., Bits of Ivory: Narrative Techniques in Jane Austen's Fiction, Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

Brown presents a penetrating study of how Austen structures the realistic portraits of daily life in her novels.

Butler, Marilyn, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Clarendon Press, 1975.

This work explores Austen's dominant themes, including an analysis of class consciousness, a central theme in all of her novels.

Litz, A. Walton, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development, Oxford University Press, 1965.

Walton places Persuasion in Austen's second phase and examines the structure and style of the novel.

Pinion, F. B., A Jane Austen Companion: A Critical Survey and Reference Book, Macmillan, 1973.

Pinion presents a comprehensive and useful introduction to the themes and structure of Austen's work.

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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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The average number of hours the television set is on in American households is 6.8 hours a day (Peterson 1981). When not watching their 6.8 hours of television, most people spend the bulk of their time in talk with others. Much of this talk is geared not just to making oneself understood but to convincing someone else of the value and correctness of one's viewpoint. The average adult spends the majority of his or her waking hours at work, where, depending on the job, much activity involves efforts to get others to do one's bidding or being the object of such efforts. All this television watching, conversation, and work takes place in a social and political climate that, in theory if not in practice, encourages the exchange and dissemination of ideas among large numbers of people.

These facts have led some to conclude that this is an era of persuasion in which understanding who says what to whom in what way and with what effect is of critical importance (Lasswell 1948). In fact, some argue that the current era of persuasion is one of the few periods in the four millennia of Western history characterized by such a degree of openness to argument (McGuire 1985).

Whether or not the present era is unique in this manner, more and more people are becoming conscious of the persuasive contexts in which they spend most of their time. Indeed, if the increasingly ingenious efforts of advertisers to pique interest and shape tastes and habits are any indication, people are becoming increasingly savvy about others' efforts at persuasion. This means that we have a very practical interest in understanding just how persuasion works. It also means that social scientists, and social psychologists in particular, have an interest in understanding and explaining a pervasive social phenomenon.

As one aspect of understanding persuasion, social psychologists have long studied attitude formation and change. During the 1920s and 1930s psychologists focused on describing the attitudes people hold. This led to the development of techniques for measuring attitudes, primarily scales such as the Likert scale, which continue to be used today by persuasion researchers. The second period of interest in attitude research occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, with the main focus moving from description to the study of attitude change and the effects of attitudes on behavior. (For a review of the research on attitude-behavior consistency, see Ajzen and Fishbein 1977.) This interest waned considerably during the next two decades as social psychologists became increasingly interested in social perception, or how people selectively interpret and respond to their social environments. The resurgence of interest in attitudes, and particularly in persuasion, that followed is thus largely informed by social psychology's more general emphasis on how people process the information they take in from their environment.

One might speculate that the interest in explaining persuasion and attitude change over mere attitude description reflects the increasing influence of mass media. However, this coincidence of research interest and social change is belied by the lack of communication between those studying the effects of mass media on attitudes and those studying persuasion in more immediately interpersonal contests (Roberts and Maccoby 1985). The discussion here reflects this split in research focuses, concentrating solely on persuasion research in face-to-face, interpersonal contexts and dealing only peripherally with research on the effects of mass media on attitudes. (See Roberts and Maccoby 1985 for a review of this literature.) The issue of brainwashing, an extreme form and method of persuasion, is considered only when it has direct relevance to less extreme persuasion contests and processes.

Of relevance to research on persuasion is the study of normative compliance occurring in settings where no active attempt is made to influence, but people change their opinions or judgments nonetheless. Asch's (1951) research on conformity demonstrated that subjects involved in a simple task of judging the length of a line were highly influenced by the judgments of others present, even when no overt influence attempts were made. In these studies people working with the experimenter gave incorrect assessments of the relative lengths of lines viewed. Even in cases of obviously incorrect judgments, most subjects conformed to the majority's assessment. Normative compliance is found to be greater the closer to unanimity the majority view, the larger the number holding it, and the more the conforming subject is attracted to and invested in group membership.

The persistence of findings of normative compliance, even in the absence of overt influence attempts, raises an obvious question: What happens when such overt attempts at persuasion are made? This and related questions are the focus of persuasion research. The focus in persuasion research is on attitude change "occurring in people exposed to relatively complex messages consisting of a position advocated by a communicator and usually one or more arguments designed to support that position" (Eagly and Chaiken 1984, p. 256). More simply defined, persuasion is an effort to change people's attitudes, these being the emotional and cognitive responses they have to objects, people, experiences, and so on.


The guiding question of who says what to whom in what way with what effect has largely determined what factors researchers look to in explaining and predicting persuasion. These factors fall into four general classes: source or communicator variables, message variables, channel variables, and receiver variables. Reflecting two decades of research on social cognition, studies of the effects of these variables on persuasion investigate how these factors affect persuasion by shaping the way in which people process information in the persuasion context. Indeed, the term process reflects the computer analogy often used to capture the manner in which people perceive, interpret, and respond to their environment.

For example, in studying the effects of source characteristics (the characteristics of the person communicating the persuasive message) researchers might examine how the likability of the source leads the receiver (the object of persuasion) either to attend to or to ignore the quality of the arguments accompanying the message. Similarly, researchers examine other aspects of cognition (e.g., attention, comprehension, receptivity, retention) for the manner in which they mediate the effects on persuasion of source, message, channel, and receiver variables.

Source Variables. The source variable of greatest interest is the credibility of the person communicating the persuasive message, including the communicator's apparent knowledge, social class, attractiveness, and likability. Consistently with common sense, the more credible the source, the more persuasive the source and the more likely that the receiver will change his or her attitude in the direction of the persuasive message. More interesting, however, is the combination of source credibility with other factors, and their combined effect on persuasion. For example, if the target person is not personally involved with the issue at hand, source credibility is more likely to enhance persuasion than if the person is highly involved in the issue. This is because personal involvement is likely to be associated with greater argument scrutiny by the target person, reducing the likelihood of immediate acceptance of even a credible source's position (Chaiken 1980).

The effects of source credibility on persuasion are thus mediated by the extent to which the target is motivated to thoughtfully scrutinize the supporting arguments presented by the source. Personal involvement in the issue is one such motivation, but specific knowledge of the topic (without any particularly emotionally charged investment in it) and being educated in general are also factors that mediate the effect of source credibility because of their impact on the manner in which the target processes information at his or her disposal. Level of involvement, knowledge, and education are all characteristics of the receiver. The above example thus reveals the complex relationships between the factors that affect persuasion and their joint effects on information processing.

Message Variables. Many aspects of the persuasive message itself have been examined by research on persuasion. These include message style, ordering of arguments presented, speed of delivery, and message repetition. The effects of message repetition on persuasion are particularly interesting because they reveal the often unexpected combined effects of variables. For example, a study by Cacioppo and Petty (1979) revealed that only if supporting arguments are strong does repetition enhance persuasion, since repetition leads to greater argument scrutiny by the receiver, which enhances persuasion only to the extent that arguments are convincing.

Common sense might tell us that the use of humor in a message will enhance its persuasiveness by increasing the attractiveness of the source or, in the case of weak supporting arguments, distracting the target's attention from the content. Researchers have hypothesized that humor should enhance persuasion with a highly credible source, but not with a less credible source, since humor is likely to further reduce credibility in the latter case. However, there is little evidence to support the expected effects of humor on persuasion. The observed effects are rarely significant, and are as often negative as positive. Furthermore, the combined effects of humor with source credibility, or humor's impact on interest, retention, or source evaluation, are not found (McGuire 1985).

Channel Variables. Channel variables refer to the medium in which the message is communicated. For example, message persuasiveness varies depending on whether the message is given in person or in verbal, written, audio, or video form. In addition, channel variables include factors such as distraction—either direct distraction created by the behavior of the source or indirect distraction such as repeated external noise during the communication.

Petty and Cacioppo (1981) studied the effects of distraction on persuasion and found that its effects are mediated by cognitive factors such as the target's ability or motivation to scrutinize the arguments. If the message is accompanied by a distracting noise, for example, this will enhance persuasion if accompanying arguments are weak, since it decreases the receiver's ability or motivation to pay close attention to the supporting arguments. Conversely, if the supporting arguments are strong, distraction decreases the likelihood of persuasion, especially with knowledgeable targets, since it makes it unlikely they will pay attention to the strong arguments designed to persuade them.

Similarly, other channel variables, such as the use of catchy music in television ads, affect persuasion to the extent that they motivate the receiver to generate positive rather than negative thoughts in response to the message. Generating thoughts is distinguished from argument scrutiny because it refers to the additional arguments or ideas the receiver brings to bear in evaluating a message, not to the supporting arguments provided by the communicator. Channel or other variables enhance persuasion to the extent that they generate positive thoughts or supporting arguments in the target (Greenwald 1968). Like other factors affecting persuasion then, the impact of channel variables on persuasion is mediated by the resulting cognitive processes engaged in by the target of the persuasive message.

Receiver Variables. Since persuasion is oriented toward convincing someone to adopt a particular viewpoint or opinion, it makes sense that the person himself or herself has some impact on the persuasion process. Interest in the personality correlates of persuasion was high during the 1950s but waned in the following decades as individual-level explanations of social phenomena became less popular among social psychologists. However, more recent work has revived interest in the effect of receiver variables on persuasion.

A variety of receiver variables relating to personality characteristics have been studied to determine receiver susceptibility and resistance to persuasion. With respect to self-esteem, researchers predict that greater self-esteem will decrease the likelihood of persuasion to the extent that it increases the likelihood that the receiver will carefully scrutinize the arguments, and decreases the likelihood of the receiver's being swayed by a credible source in the absence of strong supporting arguments. Therefore, like the other factors affecting persuasion, self-esteem exerts its effects on persuasion through the variables related to the manner in which the receiver processes the information available in the persuasion context.

Results of studies of self-esteem and persuasion offer mixed results, some indicating negligible effects (Barber 1964) and others suggesting that the lower the self-esteem, the greater the tendency to conform, especially when the aspect of self-esteem involved is closely related to the issue at hand (Endler et al. 1972). The effects of self-esteem are complex, especially when combined with other variables. For example, greater influenceability is associated with higher, not lower, self-esteem as the complexity of the persuasive message increases.

More consistent findings have been produced on the effects of receiver's mood on responses to persuasive attempts. Interestingly, research has shown that neutral or bad moods decrease susceptibility to persuasive attempts, largely because targets are more likely to scrutinize messages when in a neutral or bad mood than when in a good mood (Wegener et al. 1995; Rosseli et al. 1995).

The effects of authoritarianism or dogmatism have also received considerable research attention. Dogmatism is defined as a general inclination to be closed-minded, intolerant, and deferential to authority. Research has shown that receivers low in dogmatism are persuaded by strong, but not by weak, arguments. Dogmatic receivers, in contrast, are persuaded by strong arguments only when the source is nonexpert. With expert sources, dogmatic individuals are equally persuaded by strong and weak arguments (DeBono and Klein 1993).

Aside from personality characteristics, persuasion researchers, like other social researchers, have shown a longstanding interest in the issue of gender differences. A summary of 148 studies of the effects of gender on persuasion (Eagly and Carli 1981) indicates that women are more easily influenced than men. However, as consistent as these findings are, the magnitude of gender differences in influenceability is small enough to raise doubts about its practical significance for people's everyday lives (McGuire 1985).

However trivial these differences may be, they have inspired persuasion researchers to search for an explanation. One plausible account is that "greater female susceptibility and greater male predictability might derive from socialization differences such that conforming pressures are exerted more strongly and uniformly on women, compressing them into a narrow band of high influenceability" (McGuire 1985, p. 288). Thus, the effects of gender on influenceability result from the different social experiences of men and women (for example, the greater likelihood that women will hold jobs in which they will receive more persuasion attempts than they themselves perform).


While all studies of persuasion tend to focus on some combination of the variables discussed above, more general research orientations have not been uniform. One way of dividing research approaches to persuasion is to distinguish between the descriptive and the mathematical models. The former may focus on any combination of variables affecting persuasion, but their predictions tend to be stated in the form of verbal argument or a set of hypotheses. Mathematical or probabilistic models, on the other hand, cast their predictions about persuasion in the form of equations, with variables and their relationships represented in algebraic terms. While the choice of research approach does not dictate which variables the researcher focuses on, some argue that the greater precision of probabilistic models makes for a more exact understanding of the conditions likely to produce persuasion (McGuire 1985). Others (e.g., Eagly and Chaiken 1984) refer to these models as "normative," meaning that they describe how persuasion ought to work, not necessarily how it works in reality.

Whatever the relative merits of descriptive and probabilistic approaches, there is some consensus among persuasion researchers that a more general theory of persuasion is necessary if the vast research findings in the area are to be integrated in a meaningful manner (Eagly and Chaiken 1984). As this discussion shows, the research on persuasion is blessed with a large number of well-conceptualized variables, most of which are easy to operationalize, that is, to create in a laboratory setting. The discussion also shows, however, that even when a small portion of all the possible combinations of these variables are matched with one or two of the mediating cognitive processes, the resulting insights into persuasion are far from some of the commonsense notions alluded to throughout this discussion. This fact lends support for the call for a more unifying theory of persuasion to integrate the somewhat fragmented picture that emerges from a combining-of-variables approach.


This discussion raises important questions about issues of susceptibility and resistance to persuasion. When is being easily persuaded good? When is resistance good, and how can it be taught? If Americans are spending between six and seven hours a day in front of their television sets, and the rest of their waking hours in persuasive communications with others on the job or at leisure, teaching resistance to all this persuasion might become a top priority. For example, when research reveals that motivating people to generate reasons for their attitudes toward a product ultimately causes them to change their initial attitude, and even to purchase a product on the basis of their changed attitude (only to regret it later) attention is called to the conditions under which enhancing resistance might be warranted (Wilson et al. 1989). On the other hand, when research shows that two years of viewing Sesame Street caused both black and white children to manifest more positive attitudes towards black and Hispanics, something is learned about the conditions under which enhancing attitude change and persuasion is desirable (Bogatz and Ball 1971).

Whether one values resistance or openness to persuasion, our understanding of resistance to persuasion is enhanced by our understanding of what increases the likelihood of persuasion. As this discussion has shown, source variables (e.g., credibility), channel variables (e.g., distractions), message variables (e.g., argument strength), and receiver variables (e.g. personality characteristics) can all affect the receiver's susceptibility or resistance to persuasion. In addition, research has shown that when people perceive persuasive messages as threats to their freedom, they resist persuasion and maintain their original position or, in some cases, adopt a position opposite to the one advocated in the message (Brehm 1966). More recent research on values reveals another factor involved in susceptibility and resistance to persuasion. In general, people are more susceptible to messages which are consistent with their own values, and more resistant to those that are not. For example, Han and Shavitt (1994) have shown that receivers with individualistic values (e.g., Americans) are more persuaded by advertising messages emphasizing individualistic themes (e.g., "Take care of number one!"). In contrast, receivers with collectivistic values (e.g., Koreans) are more persuaded by advertising messages emphasizing collectivistic themes (e.g., "For you and your family!"). Thus, whether we are interested in enhancing persuasion or increasing resistance to it, understanding the role of values in the persuasion process is crucial.

Ultimately, resistance to the potential loss of autonomy involved in persuasion is not surprising in a culture that places a premium on such individuality and freedom. In addition, such concerns are not unwarranted, given the fact that many of the attempts at persuasion people face in natural settings are specifically designed to minimize the threatening aspects of such attempts and thus to reduce resistance (hence the use of the word "seductive" to refer to arguments, advertisements, etc.). Are people continually at risk, then, of potentially harmful persuasion?

One could argue that in people's ability to be persuaded lies the possibility of autonomy. If people are easily persuaded, then they are in similar measure unlikely to be overwhelmingly persuaded by a particular viewpoint over all others. They may be likely to resist total indoctrination, if only because they are susceptible to some other credible source sending a convincing message in a captivating medium.


Ajzen, I., and M. Fishbein 1977 "Attitude-Behavior Relations: A Theoretical Analysis and Review of Empirical Research." Psychological Bulletin 84:888–918.

Asch, S. E. 1951 "The Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments." In H. Guetzkow, ed., Groups, Leadership and Men. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Carnegie Press.

Barber, T. X. 1964 "Hypnotizability, Suggestibility and Personality: V. A Critical Review of Research Findings." Psychological Reports 14:299–320.

Bogatz, G. A., and S. J. Ball 1971 The Second Year of Sesame Street: A Continuing Evaluation, 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Educational Testing Service.

Brehm, J. W. 1966 A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Cacioppo, J., and R. Petty 1979 "Effects of Message Repetition and Position on Cognitive Response, Recall, and Persuasion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:97–109.

Chaiken, S. 1980 "Heuristic versus Systematic Information Processing and the Use of Source Versus Message Cues in Persuasion." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 39:752–766.

DeBono, K. G., and C. Klein 1993 "Source Expertise and Persuasion: The Moderating Role of Recipient Dogmatism." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 19:167–173.

Eagly, A. H. and L. L. Carli 1981 "Sex of Researchers and Sex-typed Communications as Determinants of Sex Differences in Influenceability: A Meta-analysis of Influence Studies." Psychological Bulletin 90:1–20.

Eagly, A. H., and S. Chaiken 1984 "Cognitive Theories of Persuasion." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 17. New York: Academic Press.

Endler, N. S., D. L. Weisenthal, and S. H. Geller 1972 "The Generalization Effects of Agreement and Correctness on Relative Competence Mediating Conformity." Canadian Journal of the Behavioral Sciences 4:322–329.

Han, S., and S. Shavitt 1994 "Persuasion and Culture: Advertising Appeals in Individualistic and Collectivistic Societies." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 30:326–350.

Greenwald, A. G. 1968 "Cognitive Learning, Cognitive Response to Persuasion, and Attitude Change." In A. G. Greenwald, T. S. Brock, and T. M. Ostrom, eds., Psychological Foundations of Attitudes. New York: Academic Press.

Lasswell, H. D. 1948 "The Structure and Function of Communication in Society." In L. Bryson, ed., Communication Ideas. New York: Harper.

McGuire, W. J. 1985 "Attitudes and Attitude Change." In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 2. New York: Random House.

Peterson, R. A. 1981 "Measuring Culture, Leisure, and Time Use." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 453:1969–1979.

Petty, R. E., and J. T. Cacioppo 1981 Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Debuque Ia.: W. C. Brown.

Roberts, D. F., and N. Maccoby 1985 "Effects of Mass Communication." In G. Lindzey and E. Aronson, eds., The Handbook of Social Psychology, vol. 2. New York: Random House.

Rosselli F., J. Skelly, and D. M. Mackie 1995 "Processing Rational and Emotional Messages: The Cognitive and Affective Mediation of Persuasion." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 31:163–190.

Wegener, D. T., R. E. Petty, and S. M. Smith 1995 "Positive Mood Can Increase or Decrease Message Scrutiny: The Hedonic Contingency View of Mood and Message Processing." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69:5–15.

Wilson, T. D., D. S. Dunn, D. Kraft, and D. J. Lisle 1989 "Introspection, Attitude Change, and Attitude Behavior Consistency: The Disruptive Effects of Explaining Why We Feel the Way We Do." In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 22. New York: Academic Press.

Susan McWilliams

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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.