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ince the mid-1930s when Dale Carnegie first published his
best-selling book How to Win Friends and Influence People, the notion of how to persuade others has been both a popular and profitable subject. Concurrently, with the rise of mass media and the pervasiveness of propaganda used in both World Wars, the study and understanding of mass-mediated persuasive messages became critical to understanding political and social change. Today, the importance of understanding the power of persuasive messages is greater than ever. According to Kilbourne (1999), “the average American is exposed to at least three thousand ads every day and will spend three years of his or her life watching television commercials” (p. 58). Clearly, we are inundated with messages of persuasion and influence in all aspects of our lives— relational, social, political, and economic. Accordingly, we believe that having an understanding of how persuasive messages work (or don’t work!) is central for surviving in today’s advertising and media-blitzed society.
APPLYING COMMUNICATION THEORY FOR PROFESSIONAL LIFE
❖ PERSUASION DEFINED
Persuasion is typically defined as “human communication that is designed to influence others by modifying their beliefs, values, or attitudes” (Simons, 1976, p. 21). O’Keefe (1990) argued that there are requirements for the sender, the means, and the recipient to consider something persuasive. First, persuasion involves a goal and the intent to achieve that goal on the part of the message sender. Second, communication is the means to achieve that goal. Third, the message recipient must have free will (i.e., threatening physical harm if the recipient doesn’t comply is usually considered force, not persuasion). Accordingly, persuasion is not accidental, nor is it coercive. It is inherently communicational. Many theories in this chapter are concerned with shifts in attitude, so it is important to make clear what we mean by that term. An attitude is a “relatively enduring predisposition to respond favorably or unfavorably” toward something (Simons, 1976, p. 80). We have attitudes toward people, places, events, products, policies, ideas, and so forth (O’Keefe, 1990). Because attitudes are enduring, they are neither fleeting nor based on whims. Yet at the same time, attitudes are learned evaluations; they are not something that people are born with. As such, attitudes are changeable. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, attitudes are presumed to influence behavior. To illustrate, your attitude toward a product will influence whether you buy the product.
In this chapter, we present four theories that explore aspects of persuasive communication. Although portrayed as theories of persuasion, each of these viewpoints can be applied to a wide variety of communication contexts. From well-crafted public relations campaigns designed to foster positive attitudes about a company to telling a story to convince a customer that a salesperson is honest, the theories presented highlight the varied ways to conceive persuasive messages. The four theories we discuss in this chapter include social judgment theory, the elaboration likelihood model (ELM), cognitive dissonance, and the narrative paradigm.
❖ SOCIAL JUDGMENT THEORY
Consider your personal and professional network. It is likely easy for you to come up with at least one example of a person with whom you
Explaining Theories of Persuasion
cannot talk about a particular topic. Perhaps your father is a die-hard Democrat who will not listen to any conservative viewpoints. Or perhaps you know that your boss is incapable of having a discussion that involves spending any money. Social judgment theory suggests that knowing a person’s attitudes on...
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