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Nick Fletcher PY302

How does social psychology help us in understanding the process

involved in persuasion?

This essay will base itself around the Yale attitude change approach, which
has formed the basis of much of the more recent social psychology research in
this area and is also used as the basis of contemporary communications theory in
marketing and advertising (Belch & Belch, 2004). The approach simply asks ‘who
says what to whom and with what effect?’ This gives rise to three main variables
of persuasion: the communicator, the source; the communication, the message
itself; and the audience, those who receive the communication (Hovland et al.,
1953). Within the process itself Hovland et al. discerned four steps to persuasion:
attention, comprehension, acceptance and retention. The persuasive process, if
successful, can cause one (or more) of four outcomes: opinion change,
perception change, affect change or action change. The finer details of how each
aspect of the Yale attitude change approach works are still very much open to
debate, but over the years much research has been done into these details and
these have been able to help us understand many of the processes involved in
persuasion. This essay shall not discuss either Chaiken’s Heuristic-systematic
model or Petty & Cacioppo’s Elaboration-likelihood models of persuasion as,
although explanations of the processes involved in persuasion, these are findings
within the field of cognitive psychology rather than social. For the sake of
simplicity the ‘who’, the communicator, and the ‘whom’, the audience will be
discussed together. We shall then move on to the ‘what’, the communication
itself, and then conclude.
Hovland and Weiss (1952) showed that experts, or credible sources, are
more persuasive than non-experts or sources lacking in credibility. This is
because arguments carry more weight when delivered by someone who knows,
or at least appears to know, all the facts. Also, more attractive or charismatic
speakers are more effective as listeners are more likely to believe people that
they like (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969). People who speak quickly tend to be more
persuasive than people who speak slowly; this factor ties in with the idea of
credibility as it is mainly caused by the fact that people who speak quickly give
the impression they know what they are talking about (Miller et al., 1976). Finally,
a message is more persuasive if delivered in a powerful linguistic style
(Holtgraves & Lasky, 1999). This factor also links into the idea of credibility; an

Nick Fletcher PY302

argument that contains few hedges, tag questions or hesitations is more likely to
appear credible than one delivered in a weak linguistic style.
Social psychology has been able to uncover a great deal of information
about persuasion and gender. One rather controversial finding is that women are
more easily persuaded than men (Eagly & Carli, 1981). This could be because
women are brought up to be more socially conforming than men, and as such
may be both more open-minded and more flexible in their views. Further to this,
a study by Sistrunk and McDavid (1971) has shown that women are more easily
persuaded on male-orientated issues and men more easily persuaded on female-
orientated issues. This links into ideas of credibility, a man is likely to think
himself less credible on feminine matters and a woman is likely to think herself
less credible on masculine matters, therefore both are likely to be more easily
persuaded in each case. An excellent study by Carli (1990) has provided many
insights into male-female differences; during the study participants were played a
recording of a persuasive communication read by either a man or a woman in
either a tentative or assertive style. Carli found that male listeners were more
easily persuaded than a tentative woman, possibly because they perceive a
tentative woman to be more trustworthy and likeable than an assertive woman;
conversely, women were more easily persuaded by assertive women, possibly
because they perceive a tentative woman to not be particularly competent or
knowledgeable. There is also a possibility that in the case of a tentative woman
speaking to a man and an assertive woman speaking to another woman the
speaker communicates in the style that the listener expects; the speaker may
have more influence because their behaviour does not violate the listener’s
expectations. Male speakers were found to be equally influential whether
speaking tentatively or assertively to either a male or female listener. Thus social
psychological research has been able to increase our understanding of how the
speakers background, appearance and the way in which the speech is conveyed
affects the persuasiveness of an argument; a fairly comprehensive evaluation of
‘the who’.
Janis (1954) has postulated that people with low self esteem are persuaded
more easily than those with high self-esteem; this intuitively strong observation is
probably grounded in the fact that people with low self esteem are likely to be
unsure of their opinions making them easier to change. Also, if the speaker has
high self esteem, this will show through in their speech and will make them
appear more credible. This effect will be increased if the listener has significantly

Nick Fletcher PY302

lower self esteem than the speaker. However, this is one finding within the Yale
attitude change approach that has since been refuted; the work of McGuire
(1968) has shown that people with high self esteem are just as easily persuaded
as those with low, those with moderate self esteem are actually the easiest to
persuade. This intuitively confusing curvilinear relationship is a fine example of
how social psychology helps us understand the nature of persuasion; without
careful study of phenomenon such as these it is easy to take intuitive appeal for
In terms of age, there have been two main studies over recent years,
Visser & Krosnick (1998) and Tyler & Schuller (1991), that have yielded several
conflicting hypotheses concerning the relationship between age and attitude
change1. The increasing persistence hypothesis argues that in early adulthood
susceptibility to attitude change is high but decreases as one gets older. This
negative linear relationship suggests that attitudes reflect the accumulation of
relevant experiences. Another hypothesis argues that attitudes are cemented in
early adulthood, suggesting that susceptibility to attitude change follows an S-
shaped curve when considered alongside age. There is also a hypothesis that
suggests a U-shaped curve, the life stages hypothesis, where young and old
adults are highly susceptible to attitude change whilst middle-aged adults are
not. These are just a few examples of the hypotheses that have been postulated
in these studies, but they are able to illustrate how there are still many
unanswered questions in this area. It must be noted here that each of these
hypotheses has intuitive appeal, which highlights how important continued social
psychological study is to the understanding of the process of persuasion.
Intuitively, the most important part of any sort of persuasive
communication is ‘the what’ or the content of the communication itself.
According to findings by Hovland, Lumsdaine & Sheffield (1949) it is best to use a
one-sided argument when the audience is in general agreement with your
argument, and best to use a two sided argument when the audience is in general
disagreement with your argument. This is because when the audience is on your
side it is best not to put ideas in their heads contrary to your argument; you may
bring to light or strengthen factors they had not yet fully considered which could
undermine your argument. In this case a balanced argument is not required,
rather than changing the beliefs of your audience you are hoping to strengthen
them. However, if the audience in is general disagreement with your position, not
to acknowledge any points contrary to your position will make it seem as though

Nick Fletcher PY302

you have not considered both sides. This will affect your credibility in their eyes
and so the audience will be less inclined to adopt your position. Furthermore, the
more intelligent an audience, the more important it is to present a balanced
argument (McGinnies, 1966); even if a highly intelligent audience generally
agrees with your position it is still important to produce a fairly balanced
argument, as the intelligent audience will dismiss a solely one-sided argument as
propaganda. A less intelligent audience is less likely to think around the content
of the communication and are more likely to accept it at face value, hence the
benefit of using a one-sided communication with such audiences.
Miller & Campbell conducted studies into primacy and recency effects (1959),
finding that if you are speaking in a two speech debate where the speeches are
given back to back and the

These hypotheses come from study into developmental psychology; however, their
results are important to both developmental and social psychology hence their inclusion
in this essay.
audience are able to consider their position before giving a verdict it is best to go
first as there will be a primacy effect; the audience is likely to be more influenced
by what they hear first. However, if the speeches are given with break in between
and the audience is asked for their verdict immediately after the second speech,
it is best to speak second as there is likely to be a recency effect; where the
audience are likely to better remember what they heard second.
Persuasion can also be enhanced by shock tactics, by communications that
instil fear into the audience. For example, in order to persuade people to stop
smoking, it may be useful to show pictures of diseased or cancerous lungs in
order to instil fear of death into them which will make them more likely to give up
(Leventhall, Singer & Jones, 1965). Persuasion can also be aided by use of
evaluative biased language, for example, a study by Eiser and Pancer (1979)
showed that a short essay on adult authority that used words that implied a
favourable evaluation of pro-authority position (e.g. polite) and words that
implied an unfavourable evaluation of the anti-authority position (e.g.
disobedient) caused attitude change in the pro-authority direction. Both these
effects are caused by the creation or enhancement of a subconscious association
within the mind of the audience between the subject and the evaluative language
or shocking content. However, evaluatively based language will not always aid

Nick Fletcher PY302

persuasion, especially when the audience is generally opposed to your position,

as they may feel indignation at such slandering of their position.
Walster and Festinger conducted a study in 1962 that showed that people
are more easily persuaded by communications that do not appear designed to
persuade them. This is because if a listener realises that an attempt at
persuasion is being made, they may develop suspicions as to any ulterior motives
the speaker may have. It is also possible that the listeners defences towards a
change of perspective may not be in place if they unaware of the attempt at
persuasion; their minds may be more receptive and open to the new ideas.
Furthermore, a listener who knows a persuasive attempt is being made will be
less susceptible to subconscious changes in associations through use of
evaluatively based language.
Social psychological study has been able to uncover and explain a great
deal of the social variables concerning persuasion. Obviously there is much left to
explore, most notably within the variable of age; but comprehensive evaluation of
factors such as gender, assertiveness and other personal characteristics of
speaker and audience, as well as the structure and presentation of persuasive
communications themselves has been achieved, backed up by testable results
from research and experiments. However, whilst well able to explain many of the
processes surrounding persuasion, social psychology is ill-equipped to explain the
processes involved within persuasion; this area is confined to the field of
cognitive psychology. To conclude, social psychology is a useful practical tool
when designing a persuasive communication, it allows us to use factors
concerning the nature of the audience and the method of delivery to our
advantage, but it is not so useful in terms of the academic explanation of the
mental processes of persuasion.

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Nick Fletcher PY302

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