The Origin of Persuasion Research

17.05.2016 |

Episode #1 of the course The psychology of persuasion by Jake Teeny


If humans could answer one question to solve the world’s problems, it would be this: How do you persuade someone to believe something different?

From friendly bickering to continental wars, one side always has an opinion different than another. Thus, if we could unfailingly convince people to see eye-to-eye, there would be nothing more to fight about.

Of course, the empirical study of persuasion does not yet possess such omnipotent insight; however, research has grown extensively over the last 70 years and is only continuing to develop. With knowledge that has influenced marketing strategies to political propaganda and public policy, the psychological study of persuasion has become one of the most influential endeavors of our time.

Empirical research on the topic didn’t begin until World War II, when the need for understanding how to influence people’s opinions became urgent. The economy was already struggling, class antagonisms were high, and then, the country committed to entering a potentially long and wearing war. So in order to persuade people to support the cause, the government recognized the need for expert advice.

With funds from the “Information and Education Division” of the War Department, the government recruited top social psychologists from across the nation to research how qualities about the source of a persuasive message, the content of that message, and the recipient of it influenced attitudes toward the topic.

And from this research on persuasion, public fliers were soon designed with two-sided (instead of one-sided) arguments. Soldier orientation films now had the men reciting sections aloud. In fact, the results of this project helped develop one of the largest-scale attempts yet made in the country to influence public opinion.

After the conclusion of the war, the researchers all returned to their respective institutions, where some independently continued to study the mental processes underlying persuasion. And over the following decades, they expanded their understanding of how others and our environment can change our beliefs.

However, as the research approached the 1980s, a troubling account of the science began to emerge. While some studies showed an effect in one direction, other studies were now showing the exact opposite. For example, the advantage of two-sided messages recorded in earlier research had now been reversed in subsequent studies.

As such, many psychologists were beginning to lose faith in the field, declaring the study of persuasion a waste of scientific efforts. But that would all change a year later, when two renegade graduate students discovered the psychological theory that unified it all.

Interested in how else the government utilizes social psychology research? See here!


Recommended book:

“Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert B. Cialdini


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