Day 444: Understanding Persuasion

This continues from my previous posts starting here - please read for context.

Early research efforts aimed at understanding persuasion involved the study of the following elements: Some source directs some type of message to some person or group of people (the audience). Following World War II, persuasion research conducted by Hovland, Janis, and Kelly (1953) focused on these key elements, asking: "Who says what to whom with what effect?" This approach yielded a number of important findings, with the following being the most consistently obtained.
  • Communicators who are credible - who seem to know what they are talking about or who are expert with respect to the topics or issues they are presenting - are more persuasive than those who are seen as lacking expertise. For instance, in a famous study on this topic, Hovland and Weiss (1951) asked participants to read communications dealing with various issues (eg, atomic submarines, the future of movie theaters - remember, this was back in 1950). The supposed source of these messages was varied so as to be high or low in credibility. For instance, for atomic submarines, a highly credible source was the famous scientist Robert J Oppenheimer, while the low credibility source was Pravda, the newspaper of the Communist party in the Soviet Union (notice how the credible source was an in-group source). Participants expressed their attitudes toward these issues a week before the experiment and then immediately after receiving the communications. Those who were told that the source of the messages they read was a highly credible in-group member showed significantly greater attitude change than those who thought the message was from the out-group, which lacked trustworthiness and credibility. Indeed, members of our own group are typically seen as more credible and therefore are likely to influence us more than those with whom we do not share a group membership and with whom we might even expect to disagree (Turner, 1991). Communicators can, though, lose their credibility and therefore their ability to persuade. One means by which credibility can be undermined is if you learn that a communicator has a personal stake (financial or otherwise) in persuading you to adopt a particular position. Consequentially, communicators are seen as most credible and, therefore, persuasive, when they are perceived as arguing against their self interest (Eagly, Chaiken, & Wood 1981).
  •  Communicators who are attractive in some way (eg physically) are more persuasive than communicators who are not attractive (Hovland & Weiss, 1951). This is one reason why advertisements often include attractive models. Frequently, advertisers are attempting to suggest to us that if we buy their product, we, too, will be perceived as attractive. Another way that communicators can be seen as attractive is via their perceived likeability (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). We are more likely to be persuaded by a communicator we like than one we dislike. This is one reason why famous sports figures, such as Tiger Woods, musicians, such as Fergie or Beyonce Knowles, and even actors or models are selected as spokespersons for various products; we already like them so are more readily persuaded by them.
  • Messages that do not appear to be designed to change our attitudes are often more successful than those that seem to be designed to achieve this goal (Walster & Festinger, 1962). Indeed, a recent meta-analysis of the existing research on this issue has revealed that forewarning does typically lessen the extent to which attitude change occurs (Benoit, 1998). So, simply knowing that a sales pitch is coming your way undermines its persuasiveness.
  • One aspect of message content is whether those that contain emotional information, specifically fear appeals, which are messages that arouse fear in the recipient, are persuasive or not. For example, Janis and Feshbach (1953) gave people one of three messages about tooth decay that can result from not brushing one's teeth. They found that the message that induced mild fear resulted in the greatest subsequent tooth brushing. When the message is so fear arousing that people genuinely feel threatened, they are likely to react defensively and argue againtt the threat or else dismiss its applicability to themselves (Liberman & Chaiken, 1992; Taylor & Shepperd, 1998). - Social Psychology (Twelfth Edition), by Robert A Baron, Nyla R Branscombe, Donn Byrne

We judge/interpret/process a message by its messenger - not by its content. We seem to not be readily able to just look at the facts - there is all this bullshit that clouds our vision so that we end up acting out of some overwhelming urge and/or thought process. Some say we are rational creatures. I say most of us aren't - we're the absolute opposite. We do not see something for what it is - be it information, a person, a situation, whatever - we look at it through a mass of veils, these veils being all of our opinions, attitudes, views, beliefs, feelings, emotions, judgements, thoughts, interpretations, etc.

Obviously a few people discovered this interesting quirk in our "nature", and instead of bringing awareness to this point to improve on our understanding of ourselves, it was exploited for their gain. Now we all live at the mercy of all the images, feelings and thoughts that seem to just "come up" within us and "cause us to do/say/think things".