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We encounter persuasion in many ways throughout every day. Whether we are influenced by the persuasive techniques varies on a number of factors. The Yale approach to persuasion (also known as the 'Yale attitude change approach') was developed by Hovland and colleagues (1953) following research after World War II that was in part designed to understand the impact of wartime propaganda. The model discusses three key features of persuasive messages: the source, the message and the audience – effectively, these are more 'W questions' – who, saying what, to whom (Select the following to reveal more details):

The source should be credible and attractive.

  • Messages should be subtle and should not appear to be designed to persuade
  • Two-sided arguments should be presented (the 'wrong' argument being refuted)
  • If messages are delivered one after the other, the first tends to be the most influential (the primacy effect)
  • If messages are delivered with a delay between them, the last message may be the most influential (the recency effect)
  • The audience must be paying attention in order to be persuaded
  • Persuasion is more likely when there is lower intelligence and moderate self-esteem
  • Younger adults (18–25 years) appear to be more open to persuasion

Petty and Cacioppo (1986) state that there are two routes to persuasion in their elaboration likelihood model: the central route and the peripheral route.

The central route requires us to be aware of and focus on the message. This is hard to do if we are distracted (Petty et al., 1976), and we also need to be motivated to process the message. We may rely more on peripheral cues such as message length or speed to process (Smith & Shaffer, 1991). In general, as our level of interest in the topic or message increases, our motivation to engage in central/systematic processing increases.

Being upset or feeling sad can result in more-peripheral/heuristic processing, particularly if the information is rather ambiguous (Bohner et al., 1994), while being in a good mood can enhance the likelihood of greater consideration and attention on the message (Bruner, 1990).

There are some well-documented techniques that are often employed in an attempt to persuade us, particularly by companies trying to get us to part with our money.

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The persuader makes a large, unrealistic request before making a smaller, more realistic request that is likely to be successful. Cialdini et al. (1975) asked students to chaperone a group of juvenile delinquents on a trip to the zoo; 83% said no. But when students were first asked to participate in a counselling programme for juvenile delinquents, 50% then agreed to chaperone the juveniles. Cialdini et al. (1975) argued that this technique capitalises on a contrast effect: the smaller request seems reasonable in contrast to the larger, intrusive request.

If you have ever had a cold call from a charity collector, asking you to sign up to a monthly payment, you are likely to have experienced this technique first-hand!

In a similar vein, wine menus will often have a very highly priced option to persuade drinkers to go for a relatively inexpensive (but still expensive in reality) 'second choice'.

This technique involves the persuader first making a small and relatively unobtrusive request before making the intended (larger) request. Freedman and Fraser (1966) asked members of a community to display large boards in their front gardens depicting the message: 'Drive carefully'. Initially, only 17% agreed to do this. However, of participants who had agreed to display a smaller sign two weeks earlier, 76% then agreed to display the larger sign.

There are also times when attempts to persuade people fail. These can include when the message causes a negative reaction. For instance, people may react strongly to blatant or persistent influence attempts because they are a direct threat to their personal freedom (Brehm, 1966), such as a 'hard sell' from a salesperson. Forewarning (prior knowledge of a persuasion attempt) often renders the attempt less effective (Petty & Cacioppo, 1979), such as when you've been alerted to something by someone you trust.