Defensiveness, Self-Relevance, and Routes to Persuasion

02.02.2018 |

Episode #3 of the course How to talk to teenagers by Andy Earle


Have you ever tried to persuade someone to do something when you had their full and complete attention? What about persuading someone who wasn’t paying attention to you? Which do you think is more likely to result in real, lasting influence?

In the world of persuasion research, these two situations are known as the central and peripheral routes to persuasion.

When people are persuaded through the central route, it means they have listened carefully to the message and have thought deeply about it. Then, based on all the evidence, they decided that they agree with your message and will do what you’re asking them to do.

When people are persuaded through the peripheral route, they might have done what you wanted because they found you intimidating or because your message sounded really good at first. But they didn’t think deeply about it.

You might be wondering, so what? Why should you care which route teens are persuaded through as long as they are persuaded? Actually, there’s a big difference.


Creating Lasting Behavioral Change

When you persuade someone through the peripheral route, they’re probably just going to comply for as long as you are nearby or as long as it is convenient for them. But as soon as they’re on their own, they will revert back to their old ways. But if you persuade someone through the central route, it is much more likely to result in lasting attitudinal and behavioral change.

With the peripheral route, you might have convinced them to do what you want, but you didn’t actually convince them to change their beliefs. As a parent, your goal is for your teen to deeply internalize your persuasive messages. You don’t just want them to comply with your requests while you’re watching and then stop as soon as you turn your back.

The goal of good parenting is to instill values in your teen that they will hold long after leaving the home. This means you need to convince your teen through the central route.


Targeting the Central Route

According to studies on persuasion, there are two main factors that determine whether someone will process a message through the central versus peripheral route:

Ability. Is the message simple and easy to understand? Is the listener intelligent enough to comprehend the message?

Motivation. How badly does the listener want to hear the message?

So, let’s think about confronting a teenager through these two lenses.


Enough Ability?

Essentially, when you confront your teen, you need to let them know that a certain behavior was not acceptable and needs to change in the future.This is a simple message. I’m going to assume that your teenager is relatively intelligent and can understand this message without any difficulty. So, ability is clearly not the problem.

The problem is motivation. How can you get your teen more motivated to listen as you lecture them about problem behaviors? Is this even possible?


Enhancing Motivation

Researchers have identified a number of factors that influence how motivated people are to process a message. But in my experience, when it comes to parent-teen communication, there are just two main things that consistently get in the way: defensiveness and self-relevance.

Defensiveness. Parents tend to communicate in a way that causes teens to react defensively. This often leads teens to completely ignore the message. The most common reasons teens get defensive in these kinds of talks is that they feel like:

• Their parents are trying to control them.

• They are being blamed for something that wasn’t their fault.

• Their parents don’t really understand what happened.

Self-Relevance. Teenagers usually feel like their parents are out of touch. This is because parents unconsciously give teens cues that the message is not relevant to them.

The solution is to present your message in a way that reduces defensiveness and enhances feelings of self-relevance for your teen.

The system for getting through to teens that you’ll learn in this course is built on these two fundamental principles. I have broken the process of talking to a teenager about an important issue down into seven easy steps, and In the remaining lessons, we’ll explore them in depth, one at a time.

We’ll start tomorrow with Step 1.




Recommended podcast

For more on the science of persuading teenagers, listen to this podcast episode featuring persuasion researcher Jake Teeny.


Recommended book

Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone by Mark Goulston


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