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Persuasion in an interpersonal Setting: Broad Starting Points
In every act of persuasion, the persuader has to find ways to motivate the recipients so that they will voluntarily change their attitudes or behaviour. For example, you might want a group of colleagues to be more positive about affirmative action in the workplace (an attitudinal change), or you might want to persuade someone to stop smoking (a behavioural change) or to vote in the next election (also a behavioural change). How do you go about it?
Contradict: On the other hand, the person about to make an oral presentation who says, “I’m not nervous”, despite his trembling hands and perspiring forehead (the nonverbal message) is contradicting the verbal message. The voice may also contradict the verbal message. A change in pitch, for example, can tell us that someone is perhaps telling a lie or being sarcastic or merely teasing. Research has shown that when we are attempting to conceal the truth, our pitch tends to become higher and this contradicts the verbal message.
Before you study this section, let us sort out the information it contains so that you can see at a glance how the various subsections relate to each other.
The three aspects of verbal messages that the persuader has to consider are: human emotions, the need to be rational, and the need to show credibility.
1.Human emotions: here, the persuader has to consider three points, namely people’s needs, attitudes and the desire for consistency in their lives.
2.Be rational: to present a rational argument, the persuader has to present the recipients with proof to support his or her argument. The types of proof discussed in this section are evidence and
3.Show credibility: the three factors to consider here are the persuader’s expertise, trustworthiness and
Consider Human Emotions
In this subsection (that is, subsection 188.8.131.52), we look at needs, attitudes and consistency.
Needs: Needs are the basic requirements of life. They can range from the physical need for food and shelter to our need for an overall sense of wellbeing based on some sort of success (for example, passing an examination). The ability to meet people’s needs is one of the best motivators of change. The person who is looking at a new car or stove because he or she needs one immediately is more likely to buy one than the person who is just thinking how nice it would be to own the latest model. An understanding of your recipient’s needs increases your chances of holding their attention and persuading them to do what you would like them to do. The classic theory that outlines basic human needs was developed by Abraham Maslow (1970). Maslow’s theory, which is not difficult to understand, is the need for self-actualisation.
This is explained below:
Self-actualisation is the need to develop our potential as human beings, to achieve our highest goals. Self-actualisaton is the least concrete of all our needs. It includes excelling in the activities you perform, expressing your creativity, and generally feeling that you are growing as an individual. Messages that focus on being “the best that you can be” appeal to self-actualisation needs, and are often directed at writers, composers, artists, innovators, and campaign leaders. However, whereas all people are motivated by physiological needs, relatively fewer are motivated by safety needs, and the number involved in the other motivations steadily decreases to the top, where considerably few respond to self-actualisation needs. To be an effective persuader, you must bear in mind that, if your recipients have to spend most of their time and energy satisfying their physiological and safety needs, they will have little time left for higher needs. In other words, you have to consider your recipient’s needs before you can persuade them.
How do we use Maslow’s pyramid of needs in a real situation? To persuade your recipients, you need to do two things: (1) determine which of their needs are not fulfilled or which may stop being fulfilled in the near future; and (2) find the information or actions that will show them how to cope successfully with the problem. If you were trying to persuade an audience to join your medical aid scheme, for example, your appeal would be to the need for adequate health care. You would point out that the continued satisfaction of this need is threatened by the ever-increasing cost of medical care. You would then present convincing supporting material (proof) to persuade them that your particular medical aid scheme can look after the health care needs of their family. (We will discuss types of proof later on in this section.)
Please note that Maslow’s pyramid of needs reflects his own society and culture. Therefore, ideas from other cultures do not always agree with the order in which Maslow has placed the needs. Also, as Burton and Dimbleby (1995) explain, Maslow’s highest need is the product of a western, industrial, individualized culture where the highest value is placed on self-actualisation – being able to fulfil your personal, physical and emotional needs and desires, and ultimately achieve a sense of independence. But, then, some cultures place the highest value on qualities such as mutual cooperation or equal opportunity for all. In such cultures, repressing your personal needs and desires and focusing on the needs of other people and the community may take the highest place in the hierarchy.
Consistency: Research shows that people like their lives to be predictable – we do not like unexpected change. We therefore tend to pay attention to messages that are consistent with our existing attitudes and behaviour and avoid messages that contradict or challenge them. Research also shows that our attitudes and behaviour are either in a state of consonance (balance) or dissonance (imbalance). We will feel dissonance if we are presented with information that is inconsistent with our current attitudes or behaviour. We need to be consistent otherwise
we experience psychological tension (discomfort). As a result, when we feel an inconsistency, we seek ways to reduce psychological tension by changing our behaviour until we are in a state of balance; the greater the dissonance, the greater the motivation to change something in order to feel psychologically comfortable again. For example, if you have not made provision for retirement (a source of dissonance which the mass media constantly remind us about) you would probably be easily motivated (persuaded) to buy a retirement policy in order to reach a state of consonance (peace of mind).
We said earlier that the persuader has to offer proof to support an argument or point of view. The two components of proof are evidence and reasoning.
We now go on to the third aspect of verbal messages that the communicator has to consider – the need to show credibility.
If you want to persuade somebody, that person must regard you as being a credible (that is, reliable) source of information. Credibility is important in all communication situations. It is crucial in persuasive speaking situations. The more credible you are perceived to be, the greater will be your success in winning their respect and confidence, and the more likely you are to promote new ideas or change their attitudes. Speakers who are perceived as ignorant, devious, or dishonest do not usually succeed in persuading others. The three characteristics of credibility that Aristotle identified are expertise, trustworthiness and goodwill.
Although we have already explained how nonverbal messages complement or contradict verbal messages in section 3.1., here is an explanation of the other terms that will help you understand what we explained better.
Theories of Persuasion
A theory is simply a creative interpretation or explanation of a phenomenon. So, when we speak of different theories of persuasion it is no more than an attempt to explain why persuasion occurs in some instances, and how it happens. As you will see, no theory can ever fully explain or account for a process of persuasion. These theories evolved over many centuries, from the earliest known ones in Greek era up to the present. The fact that elections are lost, that tribal and sectarian wars are still fought in Nigeria, proves that these theories offer no more than partial explanations of the phenomenon of persuasion.
Initially a theory is devised to account for a particular situation. When it is applied to other situations, deficiencies may emerge; so the theory is adapted or a new one is put forward to try and overcome these deficiencies. In a subsequent persuasion situation new deficiencies will come to light, triggering yet another process to overcome the latest weaknesses. Thus the process continues: new answers are looked for all the time. The theories discussed in this section are selected from a wide range of theories on the subject, which are constantly developing.
As we describe the various theories we shall try to demonstrate the progression in their development. That does not mean that any of the theories under discussion are invalid. Each applies to a specific situation, but not to every situation. A good persuader will recognise some of these situations and profitably use these existing explanations to persuade an audience as effectively as possible.
Attitude change theories are based on the assumption that our behaviour is determined by our attitude to certain ideas, people or products. If we feel strongly about environmental conservation, we will have a negative attitude towards environmental pollution. This will prompt certain kinds of behaviour: we will pick up the litter that others threw around, dispose of our own litter, teach our kids not to litter and campaign for anti-pollution legislation.
In a campaign to combat HIV/AIDS the communicator’s first step would be to change the target group’s attitude before behaviour can change (although a change of attitude will not necessarily result in changed behaviour, as we shall see in due course).
To change someone’s attitude, certain steps in the persuasion process have to be followed. Researchers have found that people will only change their attitudes if there is sufficient reinforcement and they have identified five steps on which persuasion depends:
The people who are to be persuaded have to pay attention to the message; otherwise they will not be persuaded.
If the people to be persuaded do not understand the message, they will not be persuaded.
If people reject the message to which they have been exposed and which they have understood, it will be impossible to persuade them.
Once the message has been understood and accepted, the people who have been persuaded usually need to remember it for some time; they also need to remember it for future use.
The behavioural change that is effected must correspond with the persuader’s appeal to change the attitude.
Although all the elements of the persuasion process were considered important, most researchers working in the Yale tradition concentrated on the third step, acceptance. They tried to establish which factors played the greatest role in the acceptance or rejection of messages.
Over a long period, the Yale programme came up with various answers like the credibility of the communicator, different channels for persuasion, and, especially, the presentation of messages. Nonetheless, it failed to explain why persuasion was either successful or abortive in certain circumstances. Another problem encountered by persuasion theorists focusing on attitude change was that they could not determine why attitude change did not necessarily result in altered behaviour. It seems that there are various factors, apart from attitude, which ultimately cause behaviour to change.
Researchers who focus on learning theory regard persuasion simply as a specialised form of learning process. The basic assumption is that we learn to behave in a certain way and change our behaviour in accordance with circumstances. Most learning theories are rooted in the behaviourist tradition, which is characterized by experimental proof. The aim is to predict behaviour, and ultimately control it, by means of methods like conditioning.
Classical Conditioning and Skinnerian Behaviourism
Classical conditioning dates back to Pavlov’s famous study of dogs. The crux of the theory is that, given the right positive or negative association, behaviour can be established or learnt. The problem with classical conditioning is that it relies on irrational, unconscious forces in human beings: it robs them of their humanity by regarding them simply as beings that react to stimuli.
Social learning theory is derived from the work of Albert Bandura (1977), which proposed that social learning occurred through four main stages of imitation:
Julian Rotter (1954) moved away from theories based on psychosis and behaviourism, and developed a learning theory. In Social Learning and Clinical Psychology (1954), Rotter suggests that the effect of behavior has an impact on the motivation of people to engage in that specific behavior. People wish to avoid negative consequences, while desiring positive results or effects. If one expects a positive outcome from a behavior, or thinks there is a high probability of a positive outcome, then they will be more likely to engage in that behavior. The behavior is reinforced, with positive outcomes, leading a person to repeat the behavior. This social learning theory suggests that behavior is influenced by these environmental factors or stimuli, and not psychological factors alone.
Bandura (1977) expanded on Rotter’s idea, as well as earlier work by Miller & Dollard (1941). This theory incorporates aspects of behavioral and cognitive learning. Behavioural learning assumes that people’s environment (surroundings) cause people to behave in certain ways. Cognitive learning presumes that psychological factors are important for influencing how one behaves. Social learning suggests that a combination of environmental (social) and psychological factors influence behavior. Social learning theory outlines three requirements for people to learn and model behavior including attention, retention (remembering what one observed), reproduction (ability to reproduce the behavior), and motivation (good reason) to want to adopt the behavior.
This theory rest on the assumption that human beings do not like disequilibrium and continually strive to maintain equilibrium (balance) in their attitudes and behaviour. Consistency theory assumes that behaviour changes as a result of disequilibrium experienced by recipients. Consistency theory evolved systematically from Heider’s (1958) simple balance theory into the more sophisticated theory of cognitive dissonance. Consistency theory postulates that when our inner systems (beliefs, attitudes, values, etc.) all support one another and when these are also supported by external evidence, then we have a comfortable state of affairs. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance occurs when things fall out of alignment, which leads us to try to achieve a maximum practical level of consistency in our world. Furthermore, we also have a very strong need to believe we are being consistent with social norms, especially when there is conflict between behaviors that are consistent with inner systems and behaviors that are consistent with social norms, the potential threat of social exclusion often sways us towards the latter, even though it may cause significant inner dissonance.
Festinger (1957) opines that the ways we achieve consistency between conflicting items include:
If you make a promise, you will feel bad if you do not keep it.
Highlight where people are acting inconsistently with beliefs, etc. that support your arguments. Show how what you want is consistent with the other person’s inner systems and social norms.
You will always be inconsistent in some areas. When changing to fit in with the inconsistencies that someone else is pointing out, think about the other, potentially more serious, inconsistencies that you will be opening up.
This was one of the first consistency theories. It was originated by Fritz Heider (1958) and later expanded by Theodore Newcomb (1959). Newcomb applied the theory to the most elementary form of human
communication, namely when one person communicates with another on a single topic.
In such a very basic situation, disequilibrium may arise if, for instance, the two parties have very different opinions on a subject. Your (inconsiderate) friend may, for example, try and sell you a car. You do not like the car, so you feel uncomfortable (in terms of the theory, imbalance arises). There are only a few ways to restore the balance. First, you can try to convince yourself that the car is the right one after all. Or you may decide that if your friend likes such a car, he isn’t as smart as you thought. A third way would be to persuade your friend that you do not like the car until he realizes that it isn’t the right car for you.
The degree of discomfort will depend on how strongly you feel about the matter. A second-hand car is probably not such a serious issue. But if your friend tries to persuade you to vote for a political party whose ideas and policy you abhor, you will definitely revise your opinion of your friend because you will be disillusioned about her convictions.
It is good to know that those we respect and like share our values and ideas. It is also good to know that people whom we dislike differ from us on issues that matter to us.
A persuader who wants to reinforce existing attitudes in a target audience can do so by creating a balanced or comfortable situation for the recipients. Thus it is nice to know that your soccer hero drives the same kind of car as you do (you may have seen it in a television advert). Political rhetoric contains plenty of examples of political parties trying to establish rapport with their followers. In the 2011 election in Nigeria virtually all the opposition parties based their campaigns on criticism of the prevalent corruption as well as political crime and violence. In this way they linked up with their followers’ existing fears in an attempt to reinforce the equilibrium of their target groups.
If persuaders want to change an audience’s attitudes or beliefs, on the other hand, they will try to create imbalance by causing psychological discomfort. There are two ways of doing this:
If the communicator and the recipient like one another, any disagreement on an object or idea will cause the recipient to experience imbalance.
If the communicator and the recipient do not like each other but share an attitude towards an object or idea, the recipient will experience imbalance.
Here is example:
a.You need a new car and your employers provide a car allowance. You have no liking for a particular make of Korean car and did not really consider buying one. While going round the various car dealers’ showrooms in search of a new car, you happen to walk into one which is selling that particular car. The salesperson is pleasant, creates a good impression and tries to persuade you of the good prices of new models and the luxury features that outclass those of other cars in the same price range. The factor that makes you reconsider your disinclination to buy this car is when the salesperson tells you that both of the medical doctors in your town have traded in their German cars for top of the range models of this make. The fact that the doctors are also driving these Korean cars causes imbalance and you start looking at the car afresh.
b.Another example would be if a political party tries to expose a scandal in an opposition party. The imbalance this causes among the opposition party’s supporters enables the other party to canvass these people for their cause.
The value of this theory is that it demonstrates that the human striving for psychological comfort is a major factor in the persuasion process. The application to the simple situation envisaged by Heider and Newcomb inevitably made researchers wonder about the implications for more complex situations. This led to research that took balance theory a bit further.
This is a ‘theory of prejudice which proposes that the most important determinant of one person’s attitude toward another is the similarity or “congruence” between the two people’s belief systems. Where there is high similarity mutual attraction is thought to ensue; dissimilarity is presumed to lead to rejection. The rationale for this idea is similar to that derived from social comparison theory: that the perception of similarity of opinion is assumed to provide consensual validation for one’s own beliefs, and hence is socially attractive. The theory was proposed by Rokeach (1960). What lent controversy to the theory was Rokeach’s hypothesis that belief similarity (or dissimilarity) was a more important factor in determining people’s attitudes toward outgroups than the ingroup-outgroup category difference itself. That is, he suggested that members of ethnic minorities are discriminated against not because they belong to a particular group but because they are assumed to have different beliefs from the discriminators. In the final analysis, he proposed, an outgroup member who agreed with us would be preferred to an ingroup member who disagreed.
The following example illustrates this:
Both of the theories discussed here – equilibrium theory and congruence theory – allow for attitude and behavioural change. These changes may be regarded as qualitative, since they relate to degree of difference (ie they presuppose a before and after difference). But they do not take account of quantitative differences (ie we can modify our judgment a little, a lot or not at all).
Cognitive dissonance theory, which was originally evolved by Leon Festinger, tackles the problem of both qualitative and quantitative differences between people and ideas. Whereas earlier theories predicted changes in attitudes, judgments or evaluations, cognitive dissonance theory predicts that when two things do no follow logically, we experience psychological tension. We will then try to reduce this tension in some way.
Another feature of cognitive dissonance theory is that it considers this tension to be caused by dissonance within the person’s psychological system, as opposed to balance and congruency theory which attribute it to logical inconsistencies. Our attitudes and opinions are shaped by how we feel about different ideas and how they relate to our past experience and distinctive individuality. The theory also allows for individual differences and how we feel at a given moment.
Festinger(1957), defines dissonance as the feeling one gets as a result of exposure to two pieces of knowledge about the world that do not accord. Consonance, on the other hand, is the term he uses to describe equilibrium between two elements which complement and accord with each other can vary from one instance to another – something for which balance theory and congruency theory do not allow (for example, I thoroughly like Communication as a subject and the fact that I am less keen on the compulsory paper on research methodology causes only mild feelings of dissonance or discomfort.
Rokeach and Rothman’s (1965) belief-hierarchy theory is relevant particularly to persuasion situations where people are so committed to a particular viewpoint that their self-concepts enter into it. It goes must
further than the other consistency theories to accommodate the complex medley of human attitudes, beliefs and values.
Choosing between two brands of detergent does not ask much from a person, so it is relatively easy to persuade people to change to another brand. But when it comes to something like religious beliefs, there is much more at stake, in the sense that what people are and how they perceive themselves enter into it. Hence it is not so easy to persuade them that the religious beliefs that they grew up with and are personally involved with can change.
Some people support their political party so fervently that their self-images are directly committed to that position. These people can only be persuaded to question their position if the inconsistencies, incongruence or dissonance become so great that they will be prepared to question their self-concepts.
This theory hinges on two key concepts: anchor points and ego involvement. Both concepts represent internal points of reference that we all have. When we assess people, issues, opportunities, ideas, products and the like, we compare them with these internal points of reference in order to make a decision.
Anchor points refer to information on a specific issue which we have come across before and which thus forms part of our frame of reference. We compare the situation we are facing with our existing knowledge about it in order to arrive at a decision. Here is an example:
You would be able to support the proposal quite easily if it accorded fairly well with your established anchor points. You would not be able to support it, however, if it is too remote from these anchor points (that is, if it conflicts with your existing views of the matter).
The second key concept in this theory is ego-involvement. This concept relates closely to those elements in consistency theories that refer to attitudes about which recipients feel strongly and which form part of their being. In particular, it links up with Rokeach’s notion of self-concept. People may be very much involved with a particular group and may even go so far as to describe themselves in terms of a specific social orientation, by regarding themselves as feminists, liberals, environmental activists and the like. Sherif considers the degree to which people seek social affiliation with like-minded people as a critical factor in determining their ego-involvement with an issue. The degree of ego-involvement determines the extent of message distortion, which in its turn determines people’s judgment in a specific situation. Highly involved people tend to look at things in terms of extremes (right or wrong) and are unable to compromise on an issue. Less involved people, on the other hand, are better able to exercise sound judgment because they are able to see all sides of the matter.
Advertising uses ego-involvement a lot to secure product loyalty. The men drinking beer with a famous brand name in an advertisement represent more than just a beverage: they represent a life style and social acceptance.
When people are heavily involved with an issue, to the extent that their self-concepts are associated with it, it is almost impossible to persuade them. Hence, persuasion is usually aimed at people with little or no ego-involvement with a particular issue.
Relationship-Based Persuasion Theory
Richard Shell and Mario Moussa (2007), present a four-step approach to strategic persuasion which they described as “Relationship Based Persuasion Theory”. They explained that persuasion means to win others over, not to defeat them. Thus it is important to be able to see the topic from different angles in order to anticipate the reaction others have to a proposal.
Source:National Open University of Nigeria
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