The scenario in chapter nine of Bel Canto that inspired my research for this week was Cesar in the tree. It took two three people to ultimately coax him down out of the tree. As I read this, I was intrigued by the art of persuasion. How could Cesar have been coaxed down more quickly? What techniques are most effective in persuading people? Does it matter whether the persuasion is for the persuader’s benefit or for the persuadee’s benefit? These are the questions I sought to answer as I embarked on my research journey.
One fairly common way to persuade people of an issue’s validity or importance is by providing evidence of one’s claims. In one study conducted by Enny Das and his associates, which types of evidence worked well to influence perception of personal health risks and convince people to take a preventative health measure were observed. An online convenience survey was given to 118 men who have sex with men (MSM). Each survey reflected one of four conditions: personal narrative evidence, statistical evidence, a brief statement of risk with no evidence to support, or no mention of risk. What these researches found is that only the personal narrative evidence supporting the risk of HBV and encouraging the MSM to get vaccinated significantly increased the perception of risk, and had a marginally significant effect on these people’s intention to get the vaccine (Das, p. 4).
The main discussion of these findings centers on the defensive reaction that could have been elicited based on the negative connotation of risk of HBV. The authors discuss dual-process models of persuasion that predict even consideration of a message depends on whether those receiving it are highly involved in the issue (Das, p. 2). However, this consideration often turns into highly defensive measures or counter-arguing when a message is in disagreement with a person’s beliefs (Das, p. 2). This could definitely be the case when a person’s health is called into question, especially when people often believe themselves to be invincible. Narrative evidence is thought to be less vulnerable to defensive responses because it is less associated with message scrutiny. In addition, narrative evidence is thought to help better project a mental image, and be more tied to emotions that can better influence decision-making than empirical evidence (Das, p. 2). This is particularly relevant in regard to a negatively-framed health risk. One question that remains then is whether statistical evidence would have better persuasive effect within a positive-framed message.
Distraction from counter-arguing while receiving a persuading message is another proven technique to influence greater persuasive impact in certain situations. But why or how does this work? Penny H. Baron and her associates compiled the results of early distraction and persuasion experiments to determine this. Two studies conducted by Miller and Levy in the 1960’s taken in conjunction begin to demonstrate the complexity of the distraction/persuasion relationship. Generally, they demonstrate that credibility is a key component in determining whether the persuasion message is effective. Evaluation instructions do not just uniformly distract from counter-arguing, but actually work to increase persuasive effect when a source is credible and decrease effectiveness when a source lacks credibility (Baron, p. 4).
The Effort Hypothesis draws from the theory of cognitive dissonance to help explain this distraction/persuasion relationship. Cognitive dissonance is caused by the increased effort to take part in attitude-discrepant behavior. In this case, listening to a message aimed to persuade against something backed by personal belief would cause cognitive dissonance. Because increased effort caused by the distraction to hear and understand the message would create greater cognitive dissonance, it could be argued that this would contribute to the increase in persuasive effect (Baron, p. 8). The reasoning behind this assumption is that attitude change either by overvaluing the message or discrediting an original attitude would be the optimal way to alleviate this effort that increases cognitive dissonance (Baron, p. 8). Because it is assumed that the effort produced by the distractions involves ignoring (rather than receiving) the information, this hypothesis also accounts for the idea that pleasant distraction has greater persuasive effect than unpleasant distraction (Baron, p. 9). This has to do with the increased effort to ignore pleasing distractions over unpleasant ones. This is perhaps the most compelling argument offered by the authors of this article.
One article written and one study conducted by Benedicte Marfaing and Lohyd Terrier describes the well-supported theory that binding communication positively influences persuasive impact. This binding communication refers to the idea that “the impact of a persuasive message is greater if it is accompanied by a specific behavior creating a link between an individual’s attitudes and behavior” (Marfaing, p. 2). This integral assumption of commitment psychology was later expanded to include pledging or binding a person to behavioral actions (Marfaing, p. 2). To be most effective, this behavioral act must be sufficiently important, publicly visible, and motivated by internal beliefs and attitudes rather than fear of retribution or expectation of external reward (Marfaing, p. 2). The third requirement seems to be lacking in both previous sources discussed.
The case study performed by these Marfaing and Terrier demonstrated that binding communication contributed persuading hotel guests to engage in conservation behavior. All guests received one of two messages left in hotel bathrooms. Both explained a towel reuse policy to conserve natural resources and explained that only towels left in the shower would be washed and replaced. The binding communication message contained an additional request for guests to hang the card on their door to support the commitment to conservation (Marfaing, p. 4). At all three opportunities for reuse of towels, there were significantly less towels left in the showers of those who had received the message with the binding communication component (Marfaing, p. 4). This supports the theory that binding communication creates a bridge between cognitive process and physical actions that increases persuasiveness.
To review, provision of evidence, particularly narrative over statistical when the message is negatively-framed, is an effective technique in persuasion. In addition, distraction techniques to circumvent counter-arguing are persuasive tools made effective possibly by cognitive dissonance processes. Binding communication in which the behavior is public, important, and motivated by internal beliefs has been demonstrated to increase persuasive effect of a message. My research seems to indicate that the way in which a message is framed, i.e. positively or negatively, determines what techniques are most effective. This goes beyond my original question of whether it matters if the persuasion is for the persuader’s benefit or for the persuadee’s benefit. However, if I was to continue in this direction of research, I would be interested to look into how self-interest bias influences both the persuader’s techniques and the persuadee’s reactions. I am also intrigued by how the theory of cognitive dissonance would fit into this.
Baron, Penny H., Robert Steven Baron, and Norman Miller. “The Relation between Distraction and Persuasion.” Psychological Bulletin. 80.4 (1973): 310-323. PsycARTICLES. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Das, Enny, John B. F. de Wit, and Raymond Vet. “What Works Best: Objective Statistics or a Personal Testimonial? An Assessment of the Persuasive Effects of Different Types of Message Evidence on Risk Perception.” Health Psychology. 27.1 (2008): 110-115. PsycARTICLES. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.
Marfaing, Benedicte, Lohyd Terrier. “Using Binding Communication to Promote Conservation Among Hotel Guests.” Swiss Journal of Psychology. 74.3 (2015): 169-175. PsychARTICLES. Web. 4 Nov. 2015.