Self and Society: Explain theories of Persuasion

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Self and Society

Explain theories of persuasion.

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Throughout decades psychologists have attempted to study the way in which others easily persuade individuals. Today the importance of understanding the power of persuasion is greater than ever, mainly because of the thousands of advertisements and commercials individuals are exposed to constantly. Persuasion has been defined as a human communication that is specifically designed to influence others by modifying their beliefs or attitudes (Vaughan & Hogg, 2005). Psychologists have been therefore attempting to develop theories to explain the development of the skills needed to correctly persuade others, including social judgment theory, the elaboration likelihood model, cognitive dissonance and the narrative paradigm.

The research on the relationship between persuasive communication and attitude change is more focused and mostly applied to advertising and marketing. Towards the end of the Second World War psychologists have been more interested in this topic and the systematic investigation of this phenomenon became more investigated. Hovland and colleagues (1953) were some of the first psychologists to work on persuasion and suggested that the key to understanding why people attend to persuasive messages is to study the characteristics of the person sending the message, the context of the message and the characteristic of the receiver. This was later called Yale approach model, which is still employed as the basis of contemporary communications theory in marketing and advertising. Hovland and colleagues identified 4 steps in the persuasion process; attention, comprehension, acceptance and retention. Yet, they emphasized that some communicators, message strategies and speech styles are more effective than others, hence it is hard to identify which strategy or message is most effective. Although persuasion has been studied for many years, social psychologists do not always agree about what the important steps are, however they emphasize that the audience’s thoughts are of critical importance. This is because the message will be accepted if it arouses favorable thoughts, whereas it will be rejected if the receivers argue against it in their minds. It has been observed that although individuals are constantly exposed to advertisements/commercials and therefore persuasive messages, most people consider that they are less likely to be influenced than others by these. This phenomenon has been called third-person effect, and affects everyone even though there is no difference between the susceptibility of individuals.

Although persuasion seems a simple, in reality it is very complex as three important things must be considered; the communicator, the message and the audience. Triandis (1971) has argued that a communicator who seems to be an expert, with knowledge, ability and various skills, demands more of our respect; high levels of expertise, good physical looks and extensive skills make a communicate much more effective. It is very important for the message to come from a credible source. Additionally, source characteristics such as attractiveness or similarity are also essential; we tend to prefer those messages that are both attractive and that come from people who are most similar to us. As a result, the persuasive message should be accepted because of these two characteristics. However, psychologists have identified that when the issue concerns a matter of taste or judgment, similar sources are accepted more than dissimilar sources. However, when the issue concerns a matter of fact, dissimilar sources do better (Goethals & Nelson, 1973). Additionally, the message that the sender purposes has a vital role in the process of persuasion. Psychologists suggested that this variable tends to interact quite strongly with characteristics of the audience. For example, if the audience is against an argument, but is fairly intelligent, it is more effective to present both sides of the argument. Psychologists have also suggested that the effects of repetition of a message strongly affect the overall persuasion. According to Arkes and colleagues (1991), simple repetition of a statement makes it appear more true, hence repeated exposure to an object or message increases its familiarity. Over the year, psychologists also examined fear in relation to persuasion. It has been suggested that fear-arousing messages may enhance persuasion, however not all fear conditions will have the same effect. According to Keller and Block (1995), when fear is at a very low level, and audience may have little motivation to attend to the message as it has little consequences. Lastly, Hovland and colleagues have noted that a distracted audience is more easily persuaded than one with full attention, provided that the attention is simple. This suggests that the attention of the audience plays a very important role in the process of persuasion. Interestingly, psychologists hypothesized an apparent difference between males and females. Crutchfield (1955) was the first to report that women were more conforming and susceptible to social influence compared to men. It has been suggested that this is because women are socialized to be cooperative, hence being less resistant than men to influence (Eagly, Wood & Fishbaugh, 1981). Psychologists have also noted that prior beliefs of the audience greatly affect the amount of persuasion they go through. According to some, arguments that are incompatible with prior beliefs are subjected to more extensive analysis and are judged much weaker than those arguments that are compatible with prior beliefs. From these variables, and many more, psychologists throughout decades have identified different theories to explain how persuasion works.  

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        One of the first theories brought up by Sherif, Sherif & Nebergall (1965) is the social judgment theory. This theory suggests that knowing an individual’s attitudes on particular topics can provide clues about how to persuade him/her. Sherif and associates have been focusing on peoples’ assessment of persuasive messages, proposing that individuals make evaluations on the content of a given message, and that this largely depends on their stance on a particular topic message. According to Sherif, each attitude is placed into three categories: attitude of acceptance, which focuses on ideas that a person finds acceptable; latitude of ...

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