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Every day we are exposed to hundreds of attempts to change our opinions. Consider how often you come across an advertisement—in 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 person’s 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.
The Message Learning Approach
In the 1940s a group of researchers led by the psychologist Carl Hovland (1912–1961) 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 one’s knowledge about a topic is more important than gender.
Two Routes to Persuasion
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), people’s 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.
- Eagly, Alice , and Shelley Chaiken. 1993. The Psychology of Attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt.
- Petty, Richard , and John T. Cacioppo.  1996. Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Petty, Richard , 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, 323–390. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Wood, Wendy. Attitude Change: Persuasion and Social Influence. Annual Review of Psychology 50: 539–570.
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