Lecture 03 - Social Psych

Social Persuasion


(Adapted from "Cognitive theories of persuasion"; Michener et al; McGuire's chapter in the handbook of Social Psychology; Myers; Readings about the Social Animal; Vander Zanden's Social Psychology, 4th edition)

Definition: Persuasion = a deliberate attempt on the part of one party to influence the attitudes or behavior of another party so as to achieve some predetermined end. The communicator sends a message to a target person hoping to evoke a particular response. (From Vander Zanden)

I. Theories of Persuasion. The tradition in this area has long been one of many theories, no one of which has gained dominance. Theories are often complementary because they pertain to different variables, and when relevant to the same variables, they often make similar predictions. I will present some of the key theories, and then discuss empirical findings.

1. McGuire's information processing paradigm

A. Basic steps

1. Attention. Once a message is presented, the recipient must pay attention to it in order for it to produce attitude change.

2. Comprehension - position recommended by the communicator must be comprehended.

3. Acceptance - must yield to the message content if any attitude change is to be detectable.

4. Retention - If change is to persist, must retain changed attitude over time.

5. Action - recipient must behave on the basis of the changed attitude.

McGuire argued that the failure of any of the steps to occur causes the sequence of processes to be broken, with the consequence that subsequent steps do not occur.

B. Some persuasive techniques can enhance one part of the process, while being detrimental to other parts.

EX: Obnoxious ads, such as the "Drink Schlitz or die" campaign. Grabbed attention, but worked against acceptance.

C. Problems with the model:

1. Things don't necessarily follow in this order - can be persuaded without comprehending.

EX: Reagan's 1984 "There is a bear in the woods" ad was not understood by many people - but they reported they liked the ad anyway.

2. Heuristic Model.

A. Implicit in the information-processing models is the view that message recipients engage in a considerable amount of message and/or issue relevant processing in deciding whether to accept a message's overall position. In contrast to this systematic conceptualization of persuasion, others have proposed a heuristic processing model of persuasion. According to the heuristic conceptualization, people sometimes exert little cognitive effort in judging message validity. Instead, they base their agreement with a message on a superficial assessment of a variety of persuasion cues. Simple decision-making rules determine whether and how we are persuaded.

EX: "Statements by experts can be trusted"

EX: "People I like usually have correct opinions on issues"

EX: "More arguments are better arguments" or "The longer it is, the more correct it must be".

Hence, without fully absorbing the content of argumentation, people may agree more with messages containing many (as opposed to few) arguments, with messages that are longer (rather than shorter), or with messages containing arguments that are embellished with statistics or ascribed to credible sources.

B. These rules should have their greatest impact when recipients are unmotivated or unable to systematically handle message content. Conversely, the rules should have less impact under conditions of high motivation or high ability.

3. Attribution theory. How do individuals go about establishing the validity of their own or another's impressions?

A. Kelley says we must explain the communicator's message. Why has a stand been taken? Is it because of biases of the communicator? Is it due to pressures of the situation? Or is it because of the thing being discussed? He says we consider three things.

1. Consensus - Do all or only a few people respond to the stimulus in the same way as the target person.

2. Distinctiveness - does the target person respond in the same way to other stimuli as well?

3. Consistency - does the target person always respond in the same way to this stimulus?

EX: Suppose a friend likes a restaurant. You'll be more like to accept her opinion if (1) Consensus is high - everyone likes it (2) Distinctiveness is high - friend seldom likes restaurants (3) Consistency is high - friend likes it every time. HHH - attribute to object

If, on the other hand, (1) consensus is low - most people don't like it (2) distinctiveness is low - target person likes most restaurants (3) consistency is high - he likes it each time - THEN you will conclude that her liking reflects something idiosyncratic about her. LLH - attribute to person. Friend likes anything and everything.

IF there is (1) Low Consensus (2) High distinctiveness (friend usually dislikes restaurants) (3) low consistency - he or she has disliked this restaurant in the past - THEN you will conclude that the present enjoyment is some kind of fluke. LHL - attribute to circumstances. Maybe friend was in a good mood, a different cook was on duty.

B. Other combinations are possible - but attributions are ambiguous.

C. We often have only partial info.

1. Low distinctiveness - we attribute it to the actor (e.g. friend likes every restaurant)

2. High consensus - assume the object is the cause

D. Implications for persuasion

1. Multiple sources are more persuasive than single sources, because they increase the feeling of consensus

2. Repeated messages advocating a similar viewpoint enhance persuasion by increasing the consistency of the speaker's stand. (Perhaps that is why it isn't enough for a politician to say they support something - they have to repeat their stand a lot.)

3. Agreement from dissimilar others increases judgmental confidence more than agreement from similar others. This reflects the effect of consensus: if agreeing others are similar, they might have the same biasing characteristics as the message recipients.

4. Functionalist theory (as applied to persuasion). The function the attitude is serving helps determine what type of persuasion is most effective. Messages that provide info can be most effective when attitudes are instrumentally based - people became less prejudiced when they learned anti-semitism was neither widespread nor factually based, and therefore not necessary to being liked and accepted. Messages that provide insight can be best for attitudes that are ego-defensively based - people become less prejudiced when they realize that what they disliked was something about themselves, not others.

EX: Think of how ads appeal to different functions of attitudes. For example, "This is not your father's oldsmobile" and ads for other luxury cars make value-expressive appeals. Porsche ads don't spend much time talking about great mileage!

Ads also often attack stereotypes, i.e. the knowledge function of attitudes. Again, the oldsmobile ads. Also, Mountain Dew ads - used to feature a hillbilly, now have very with-it ads.

II. Empirical evidence. We will talk about characteristics of the Communicator, the Message, the Receiver, and the Channel (i.e. the medium through which the message is conveyed)

A. Source

1. Credibility - Competence, trustworthiness.

a. Competence alone usually isn't enough - sources may be seen as too involved, or as having ulterior motives.

EX: Garage mechanic is competent - but is he trustworthy? If not, he isn't credible.

EX: In a debate on national health insurance, an insurance company executive might be quite competent, but too involved or biased for him to be credible.

b. Sources who argue against their own vested interests seem especially trustworthy. Info from credible sources can come to be internalized. Due to the communicator's characteristics or the situation s/he is in, we expect him or her to take a particular stand. When expectations are confirmed, they tend to attribute the communicator's view to personal characteristics or situational pressure. When expectations are disconfirmed, have to figure out why. Usually the most likely alternative theory is that especially compelling evidence made the communicator overcome the bias that was expected to affect his or her behavior. Because the communicator's biases work against the position he has taken, the message is especially persuasive.

EX: If the Joint Chiefs of Staff call for a defense increase, you may not be particularly persuaded. But if Teddy Kennedy says more spending is needed for defense, you may be persuaded.

EX: A study was done where a hardened criminal argued for either a more lenient or less lenient criminal justice system. He was far more effective when he argued for a less lenient system.

EX: Patrick Reynolds inherited $2.5 million from his families Tobacco fortune. He is now an antismoking activist, and has even urged people to sue tobacco companies.

EX: Ronald Reagan headed "Democrats for Nixon" in 1960.

c. Sleeper effect - immediate impact of a message can be small, because the source is discounted - but arguments from discredited sources can become more effective later, as the source and the message become disassociated from each other.

2. Attractiveness.

a. At least where trivial opinions and behaviors are concerned, if we like and can identify a person, his or her opinions and behaviors will influence our own more than their content would ordinarily warrant.

EX: Football players selling shaving cream. Brian Bosworth selling deodorant. Certainly, we are all very impressed by the fact that he graduated from a prestigious institution like the University of Oklahoma, but it probably is not his competence that makes him persuasive.

b. However, negative stereotypes can also be associated with beauty.

c. These attitudes may be less stable - if what you like changes then your attitudes can change

COMMENT: For many things, there is no such thing as an expert - who is an expert on toothpaste, razor blades, etc.? Furthermore, as noted below, there often is little rational reason for preferring one product over another! Hence, attractiveness may be as good a basis as any for choosing products.

3. Power, compliance - receiver wants to get a reward or avoid a punishment from a powerful source. The source's perceived control over reinforcements, source's perceived concern about compliance, and the source's ability to scrutinize compliance are important here. Least stable attitudes.

EX: Parents may be able to "persuade" you to attend church - but if you don't like it, once you get away you'll stop going.

B. Message

1. Presenting both sides vs. presenting one side - depends on how well informed or opinionated the audience is - if they are already with you then just present one side. Otherwise you may give them ideas they didn't have; or, you may just confuse them. If hostile or well-informed the two-sided approach is better - audience is aware of the counter-arguments, and will think you are biased or unable to refute these points unless you mention them.

2. Negative appeals - fear is supposed to motivate people, and following recommended actions can reduce discomfort. Fear appeals have been succesfully used in attempts to terminate cigarette smoking, secure vaccinations, and wear seat belts. Per capita cigarette smoking has declined annually since 1973; in the absence of the antismoking campaign, cigarette consumption in 1978 would have exceeded the 1973 level by 1/3.

Yet the arousal of fear alone may boomerang. The anxiety that fear appeals cause may lead people to think up counterarguments, suppress their thoughts about the danger, or rationalize why they need not have any worries. Accordingly, it seems that fear-arousing messages result in greater persuasion if they contain recommendations for reducing fear - for example, coping with the danger by stopping smoking, getting a tetanus injection, or wearing a seat belt.

3. Use of attribution vs. use of persuasion. Telling people they are something may be more effective than telling them they should be something. This may be due to role expectations.

EX: In one study, students were told they should pick up things. ANother group was praised for being the kind of people who kept things neat. The latter was neater.

4. Forthrightness and competence. Feelings of competence can be enhanced by speaking forthrightly and confidently. The straightforward manner of men's speech is often more persuasive than the hesitating manner of women's speech. (Men may not know more, but they act like they do!)

5. COMMENT: Relating the above findings about source and audience to previous theories, we have:

Information-processing: Ads try to get attention by various means, e.g. attractiveness, and then try to persuade us in various ways.

Heuristic processes: Use simple decision-making rules, e.g. experts can be trusted, people I like (those who are attractive or similar) are people I usually agree with.

Attribution theory: When sources say unexpected things, what they say is more likely to be true (i.e. they are more trustworthy).

C. Receiver (Target)

1. Intelligence - smart subjects are less yielding, but more able to comprehend. Ergo, messages to the intelligent should be more complex.

2. Self-esteem. Individuals who feel inadequate are more easily influenced by a persuasive communication than people who think highly of themselves. If people don't like themselves, they don't place a very high premium on their ideas.

3. Gender - some evidence women are more persuadable than men. This may reflect male bias in the construction of measures - "masculine" topics are more often used in experiments - or it may reflect socialization biases.

4. Involvement - how much you care about the issue affects how closely you scrutinize the message

EX: You are more likely to counterargue against a policy that will affect you rather than a policy that will affect incoming freshmen.

D. Channel - Paths by which messages reach receivers.

1. There are many apparent effects of the mass media

a. Over 90% of preschool age children ask for products they saw advertised on television

b. For many consumer products, the public will buy a specific brand for no other reason than the fact it is heavily advertised. For example, there is no reason to buy one brand of aspirin over another; and, products like Nyquil and Tylenol have generic equivalents that are identical and less expensive.

EX: Several companies offer "extra strength" varieties of arthritic pain formulations. The extra strength comes from extra aspirin and from caffeine. Take two aspirins and you could get the same result.

EX: Another product claims it uses the ingredient that "doctors recommend." What is that miracle product? Aspirin.

2. Yet, advertising is not necessarily as effective as we assume. Two studies showed that in four out of ten cases, people see an ad but forget the message or miss the name of the sponsor. Another study examined what people actually look at when they examine magazine ads; 43% of the subjects overlooked the sponsor's name.

EX: Burger King sales have been stagnant in recent years.

EX: Political ads only appear to affect a small portion of the population - maybe 5 to 10% - although that can be enough to swing a close election. Political advertising seems to work best for unknowns.

3. Possible explanations

a. Competing messages cancel out.

b. Selective exposure. Many messages do not even reach the audience they are intended to influence. Instead of reaching persons who disagree with the message, many media communications are heard by persons who already agree with the message. Most persons encounter more messages supporting than not supporting their pre-existing attitudes.

4. Effects that have been shown/speculated

a. May lead people to "keep the faith" - keep buying a product, or get out and vote for a candidate. For example, TV presidential debates tend to strengthen pre-existing attitudes rather than change them.

III. Resisting persuasion

A. Can distort the message. Can assume we are more similar than we are (assimilation) - hence change is unnecessary. Or, can assume differences are greater than they are (contrast) - reject it without further consideration.

B. Inoculation - Many beliefs are never called into question; when they are not, it is relatively easy for us to lose sight of why we hold them. e.g. "The United States is the best country in the world" or "if people are willing to work hard, they can succeed." Exposure to weak attacks make you better able to deal with strong attacks. This is because you become motivated to defend your beliefs and you get experience with forming counter-arguments.

EX: After the Korean War, when several of our prisoners were supposedly brainwashed, a Senate committee recommended that courses on patriotism and Americanism be instituted in American schools. A better route might have been to teach courses on Communism, presenting both sides. The person who is easiest to brainwash is the person whose beliefs have never been seriously challenged.

EX: Patty Hearst had no experience in dealing with the challenges to her beliefs presented by the SLA - hence she could not resist them.

IV. Practical application.

1. Last April 8th, Notre Dame co-sponsored Christmas in April. This one-day project will use volunteers to fix up the homes of the disadvantaged and elderly living in neighborhoods near the campus. Notre Dame is searching for ways to persuade students to participate in this project. Naturally, the administration has come to you, to get the benefit of your expert advice.

a) Choose one of the following theories, and explain its major propositions.

i. Cognitive dissonance

ii. Fishbein and Ajzen's Model of Reasoned Action

iii. Functionalist theory

iv. Heuristic processes

b) Discuss how your chosen theory can be applied to this particular problem. Be sure to make it clear what things the theory says you should focus on, and specific strategies that the theory suggests.

c) Suppose the persuasive campaign does not succeed - students do not participate. Explain how the theory might account for this.