Does advertising plant product images in people’s minds? Do the media influence outcomes of elections? Why do so many attempts to scare teenagers into protecting their health fail abysmally? Is persuasion a social good or a malevolent agent used by cunning connivers?
These questions strike to the heart of persuasion theory and research, a time-honored academic field that dates back to fourth century BCE when the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) developed the first systematic approach to persuasion, or rhetoric as it was known then. From Aristotle’s era to our own, persuasion endlessly fascinates people because of its uncanny ability to powerfully influence human attitudes and the elusive relationship with truth and morality.
Persuasion is defined as “a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behavior regarding an issue through the transmission of a message, in an atmosphere of free choice” (Perloff 2003, p. 8). Persuasion is fundamentally self-persuasion. We persuade ourselves to go along with what communicators suggest; unfortunately, self-persuasion can be both benevolent and malevolent, with the determination of what is malevolent or benevolent a function of the consequences of the action, the persuader’s intentions, and social context.
The basic component of persuasion is the attitude, which the entity persuaders hope to form, influence, and reinforce. We have attitudes toward all sorts of topics, from politics to religion. Attitudes have a cognitive structure and serve psychological functions for individuals. Attitudes can be weak (e.g., one’s attitude toward the candidate running for state auditor) or strong (e.g., prejudice against African Americans). Attitudes predict behavior when the attitude is strongly held and is measured at the same level of specificity as the behavior.
Persuasive communications can change attitudes by employing appealing communicators, by developing a convincing message, or by containing features that attract attention but are peripheral to the message (e.g., music that accompanies an advertisement).
The key characteristic of effective communicators is credibility. Credible communicators are perceived to possess expertise, trustworthiness, and good will. Communicators also change attitudes because they are likable, physically attractive, or perceived as similar to the audience. Because charming, likable persuaders can take advantage of naïve individuals, psychologist Robert Cialdini (2001) refers to these communicator traits collectively as “the friendly thief.”
What you say and how you say it are aspects of the persuasive message. Evidence and statistics strengthen the persuasiveness of a message. Emotional factors, such as fear, also can sway audiences. A speech arousing fear (e.g., on cigarette smoking or drugs) can influence audience members if it scares them, points out negative consequences of performing a behavior, and identifies ways to avoid these consequences. Communications are also persuasive when they provoke inconsistencies—or arouse cognitive dissonance—between attitudes people harbor and their behavior.
Language is a key component of the persuasive message. The words you use, how fast you speak, and the metaphors you employ to frame your message can influence attitudes. Communicators who do not qualify or hedge their verbal statements are seen as more credible than unassertive speakers. Messages containing metaphors produce greater attitude change than those without metaphoric statements. We all can think of books, movies, and songs that changed the way we looked at the world, in large part due to the metaphors they employed and the stories they told (Green and Brock 2005).
Persuasion occurs in different contexts—one-on-one, as when a salesperson tries to sell you a car, and in groups, such as a business meeting or a jury. Interpersonal persuasion frequently occurs in stages, and persuasion professionals frequently resort to such techniques as foot-in-the-door, door-in-the-face, and lowballing. Today, much persuasion occurs through mass media, and a great deal of money is spent on research to understand consumers’ attitudes toward products and politics. Advertisements link products with fantasies in the hopes of convincing people that the product will bring them happiness or success. Politicians hire consultants who help them frame messages in politically palatable ways.
Scholars study persuasion by developing theories and testing hypotheses through empirical research. Contemporary theories, such as the elaboration likelihood model focus on process, emphasizing that persuaders cannot develop an effective message unless they appreciate how audiences think about the topic at hand. When individuals lack motivation to consider an issue, they process the message superficially, which suggests that simple messages with appealing images will carry the day. When people are more psychologically invested in a topic, they think more deeply about underlying issues. Under these circumstances, more complex or value-based messages influence attitudes (Petty and Cacioppo 1986).
Persuasion has great potential to help people change prejudiced attitudes and adopt healthier lifestyles. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, unsavory communicators will continue to exploit persuasion to achieve their own ends. An educated citizenry should understand the processes by which persuasive communications induce individuals to alter their attitudes and behavior.
SEE ALSO Advertising; Media; Medium Is the Message; Subliminal Suggestion
Cialdini, Robert B. 2001. Influence: Science and Practice. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Green, Melanie C., and Timothy C. Brock. 2005. Persuasiveness of Narratives. In Persuasion: Psychological Insights and Perspectives, 2nd ed., eds. Timothy C. Brock and Melanie C. Green, 117–142. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Perloff, Richard M. 2003. The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st century. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. 1986. The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 19, ed. Leonard Berkowitz, 123–205. New York: Academic Press.
Richard M. Perloff