Changing Minds: The Science of Persuasion

Persuasion is incredibly hard, especially when people have different perspectives, worldviews, mindsets, and values in life. Our brains are faster at processing opinions we agree with than those we disagree with. It is often difficult, and may even seem pointless at times, to try to convince someone to even listen to our point of view, let alone agree to it. Therefore, many researchers wanted to try to examine the art of persuasion, and whether or not it is possible to persuade others, or just a fruitless endeavor. 


Carl Hoveland’s Model of Persuasion 


There are some important prerequisites that are crucial in attempting to try to convince someone to see your belief or ideology. Carl Hoveland was a psychologist who studied attitude changes and persuasion. His model for persuasion deals with attitude change as a process of communicating a message with the intent to persuade someone. Hoveland broke down communication into three components: the communicator, the communication, and the situation. The communicator, or the source, is the one that has taken a position on an issue and is trying to persuade someone to adopt his or her position. The communicator produces the communication, which is the presentation of the argument, that is constructed with the intent to persuade others. The situation is the surroundings in which the communication takes place. 

The communicator’s credibility is key in convincing someone to adopt the communicator’s position on an issue. It has been found that the more credible the source is perceived to be, the greater the persuasive impact. Credibility is defined as the degree to which he or she can be believed and it depends on how expert and how trustworthy a source appears to be. 

In 1952, Carl Hoveland and Walter Weiss performed an incredibly impactful study on source credibility. In this study, they prepared articles on some controversial topics at the time. For example, one of the articles that they prepared was on the topic of whether or not a practical, atomic-powered submarine can be built at the present time, which was a very hotly debated topic in the era. These articles were then given to American students to read over. In some cases the articles were said to be written by the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, while in other cases the articles were said to be written by the Russian newspaper Pravda. The opinions of the subjects were ascertained before, immediately after, and four weeks after reading the articles.

Not shockingly, the conclusions were that the communications by the highly credible sources were more effective in changing attitudes than were the communications by low credibility sources. For example, in measurements taken immediately after the subjects read the articles on submarines, the article “written” by Oppenheimer altered the opinion of thirty six percent of the subjects, while the article “written” by Pravda altered the opinion of no one. 

However, credibility is not only important for the communicator itself. It is also important for the sources that the communicator uses. If you want to persuade someone to see your belief, use proof and sources that are credible. Use “Oppenheimer” sources as opposed to “Pravda” sources. It is harder to refute credible sources than non credible sources. 

In addition, another important finding related to sources is that they can increase their credibility by arguing against their own self-interest. For example, drug addicts who argue against drugs or criminals who argue for greater police presence can be extremely persuasive- much more so than drug addicts that promote drugs or criminals who condemn the police. This concept makes sense in light of the theory that we generally expect someone to argue in his or her own defense or self-interest. Therefore, by arguing in a manner that appears to be going against self-interest, an individual produces significant attitude change. 


Two-Sided Messages Model of Persuasion 


Another communication technique that can be done to help persuade someone is to utilize two-sided messages, which contain arguments for and against a position. These arguments seem “balanced” and the listener will likely think that you are unbiased and neutral, and will be more inclined to hear what you have to say.  


The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion 

 

A more recent model of persuasion was introduced by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo called the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Their model suggests that there are two routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. If the issue is very important to us, then we are dealing with the central route to persuasion. If the issue is not very important to us or we cannot hear the message clearly, then we are dealing with the peripheral route to persuasion. 

Imagine a situation where a persuader is trying to change our minds about something. In the central route, where we care about the issue being discussed, we would follow the persuader’s arguments and mentally and critically evaluate the persuader’s arguments by generating counter arguments of our own. In this route to persuasion, stronger arguments will change our minds more often than weak arguments. 

However, in the peripheral route, where we do not really care about the topic being discussed or are otherwise distracted, we are not paying attention or cannot pay attention to the persuader’s message. Therefore, the strength of the persuader’s argument does not matter, because the persuadee is not listening anyway. 

Hence, if you want to try to convince someone of something, know who you are speaking to. If they care about what you are trying to persuade them to believe, make sure to elaborate and provide strong examples for your theory. However, if they do not care about what you are saying, then strong arguments will not matter. In this case, what matters is how the argument is being addressed, by whom, and what the surroundings are. 


Why are some people resistant to persuasion?


Many psychologists have also tried to understand what makes people resistant to persuasion. They found that under certain conditions, people will hold steadfast onto their beliefs even after they have shown to be false. This is referred to as belief perseverance. If you are induced to believe something and then provide your own explanation for it, you will tend to continue to believe the statement even when it is proven to be false. In addition, some people resist persuasion because of reactance. When social pressure to behave in a certain way becomes so blatant that the person’s sense of freedom is threatened, the person will tend to act in a way to reassert a sense of freedom. If you then try too hard to persuade someone of something, that person will choose the exact opposite of what you are trying to persuade them to believe. Therefore, if you want someone to try to see your opinion, try to not seem too eager about pushing them to believe in your opinion. 


Blaise Pascal’s Method for Persuasion 


The best psychology trick to use to try to persuade someone to see your opinion is to first show them how they are right. If you start any conversation by telling someone that they are wrong, they will immediately become defensive and they will become further entrenched in their beliefs. 

Rather, listen carefully, pay attention, be curious about their ideas and ask questions. Tell them all of the ways that they are right and then kindly guide them, in a non antagonistic manner, to realize that some of the points that they are making may be spurious. You may have to help them move past their own beliefs, perspectives, and biases. Show them what they may not be aware of. 

This approach of persuasion goes back to the seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal who found that the best way to help people change their own minds is to first show them how they are right. Arthur Markman, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says this approach works well because you are allowing someone the opportunity to lower their guard and permission to change their mind without fear of it making them look bad. When you tell someone that their belief is wrong, they will get offended because it feels like a personal attack on their intellect. Once you do that, your chance of connecting with them, or convincing them from a different perspective goes out the window. In your effort to persuade anyone, don’t aim to just win. Provide them with information that will lead them to their own enlightenment. Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their entrenched beliefs. It takes more than your own beliefs.

Although it may seem impossible to try to convince others of a different opinion or belief, there are in fact some techniques that can be utilized to try to persuade someone to see a different opinion. The most crucial aspect of persuasion, however, is to remember to be respectful and respect everyone’s ideas and opinions. 



References:

Belknap, G. M. (1954). Communication and persuasion: Psychological studies of opinion change. by Carl I. Hovland, Irving L. Janis and Harold H. kelley. (new haven: Yale university press. 1953. pp. xii, 315. $4.50.). The American Political Science Review, 48(2), 600-600. doi:10.1017/S0003055400274984

Shoben, E. J. (1954). Review of: Communication and persuasion. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 18(2), 152-152. doi:10.1037/h0053111

Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., & Petty, R. E. (2017;2018;). The neuroscience of persuasion: A review with an emphasis on issues and opportunities. Social Neuroscience, 13(2), 129-172. doi:10.1080/17470919.2016.1273851

Nestler, S. (2010). Belief perseverance. the role of accessible content and accessibility experiences. Social Psychology, 41(1), 35-41. doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000006

Flanagan, D. (2012). Pascal and the art of persuasion. Ploughshares, 38(1), 69-69.


By Elisheva Hoffman

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