The Unifying Theory
In the late 1970s, the empirical, scientific study of persuasion was in shambles. With inconsistent and unreliable findings, social psychologists were calling for its abandonment—until two graduate students, Richard Petty and John Cacioppo, devised a solution.
The two roommates were very committed to resolving the contradictions within their field—so much so that they coated the walls of their apartment with chalkboard paint to help organize 30 years’ worth of the field’s findings. And from their efforts, one of the most widely cited and influential theories on persuasion emerged: the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM).
The theory states that for a message to be persuasive, you must first be paying attention to it in some capacity. However, the extent to which you’re paying attention (i.e., elaborating) makes a big difference. That is, are you thoughtlessly paying attention to the message (low elaboration)? Or are you carefully scrutinizing it (high elaboration)? Depending on the answer, different components of the message will be more or less persuasive.
For example, imagine that a TV commercial comes on for a newfangled spatula, and on the side of the screen, they list dozens of reasons why it’s so great. If you’re not really paying attention to the commercial, simply seeing lots of arguments acts as a cue or trigger for persuasion—“If there’s lots of arguments, then it must be good!”—without actually considering whether the arguments themselves are good.
This low-thinking, cue-based type of persuasion is called the peripheral route to persuasion, and it relies on automatic mental triggers to convince us. Most frequently, marketers employ this kind of persuasion, using tricks like celebrity advocacy or claiming that “millions have bought this product!” to automatically persuade us when we’re not paying close attention.
However, if you are paying attention (for example, if you actually read all those arguments in the spatula commercial), you will only be persuaded if the arguments themselves are genuinely convincing. This is known as the central route to persuasion.
This classification of persuasion processes really helped resolve the previously contrasting findings. That is, when researchers returned to those older studies, they were able to explain the conflicting results because some studies had the participants think a lot about the message, whereas others did not.
Determining how much people will think about a message depends on two factors: ability and motivation. First, you must be able to consider the persuasive message (e.g., not distracted by something else). And second, you must want to attend to the message (i.e., the message must be relevant to your life).
Understanding when we are more likely to pay attention to a persuasive message—and being aware of how much attention we’re actually giving—is very important for understanding how we and others will be most persuaded. For as the science of persuasion shows, it’s not always the content of the message that matters; often, other factors we’re oblivious to make all the difference.
For an award winning three-minute video on this topic, go here.
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