Easy Back Here, Hard Up There

Task difficulty is a fundamental persuasion play that typically trips the WATTage switch. Difficulty throws Other Guys down the Peripheral Route where They skip along with Cues. Easy tends to produce higher WATTage and increase use and scrutiny of Arguments along the Central Route. Now. How can you manipulate that sense of difficulty?

Thomas and Tsai provide a four experiment package that manipulates distance, both physical and psychological, as a key lever in manipulating difficulty. Consider the tasks they manipulate.

pronouncing fluent and disfluent strings of letters (Whittlesea, Jacoby, and Girard 1990; Whittlesea and Williams 2000). We asked participants to pronounce meaningless strings of letters that varied in their pronunciation complexity.

Compare two words they used here: hension and meunstah. The first appears and sounds like a real word while the second looks and sounds foreign. Consider the difficulty differences in reading, comprehending, and saying each.

we used a word-generation task that has been used successfully to induce abstract and concrete construal (Fujita et al. 2006). Participants viewed 39 words, such as “Soda,” “Computer,” “Newspaper,” and “Professor,” one at a time on the computer screen. For each target word, participants had to think of a related word and enter it into an open-ended response box using the keyboard. Those assigned to the abstract condition were instructed to generate a superordinate category label for each word by answering the question, “_________ is an example of what?” Those in the concrete condition were instructed to generate a subordinate exemplar for each word by answering the question, “An example of __________ is what?”

Category (abstract) is typically more difficult to produce than is Example (concrete). People have to work to find a higher level term, the Category, the covers a bunch of Examples. By contrast, people can more easily generate Examples.

we manipulated psychological distance by asking participants to assume a certain body posture that varied the bodily distance from the task (leaning forward toward the computer screen vs. leaning backward away from the screen).

Here’s a screen shot of the manipulation.

Leaning in is more difficult. You get your face in it, you are up close and personal. In recline, the world is your oyster and you can do with it what you wish at your leisure.

The researchers also used a self report trait measure.

We measured participants’ construal mind-set after they had made their choices for the products using the Behavior Identification Form (BIF; Vallacher and Wegner 1989). The BIF is a 25-item questionnaire that assesses the level at which individuals construe everyday behaviors.

This scale gets at the Abstract-Exemplar distinction, but measures your typical preference for thinking style. It does not measure the action while you are doing it.

Thomas and Tsai execute several experiments that randomly assign people to these different difficulty manipulations or measures then observe their responses to a variety of outcomes – mere rating of the difficulty in performing the manipulation; preference for complex or simple choices. Across all the experiments, difficulty always operated as that Low WATT switch and at Medium Windowpanes or better.

This research did not run standard ELM designs and that was not the purpose, but the manipulations are of great use for both researchers and practitioners. If you want to move the Other Guy on the Peripheral Route, then you would ask them Category questions, give them difficult words to say, and have them get close to detailed information. After just a few moments of this, you could then bring in whatever Cue you had to move the Other Guy to the desired TACT.

See, too, that embodiment manipulation as an older idea. Body posture has been proven a difficulty manipulation in a Petty, Wells, Keesacker, Brock, and Cacioppo study. They had participants test new headphones either standing up or lying down on a cot to simulate typically body postures people employ while using headphones. Participants heard a radio station that played music then a spoken editorial that varied in Argument Quality. Participants who reclined on the cot took the Central Route and followed the Arguments while those standing showed no attitude effects related to Argument Quality. We see the same kind of distancing mechanism in the Thomas and Tsai work with that body lean manipulation.

So, from experimental research, you can take proven actions that alter the Other Guy’s WATTage in simple ways. You just need to figure out how to work in these task to your Local.

Manoj Thomas and Claire I. Tsai. (2012). Psychological Distance and Subjective Experience: How Distancing Reduces the Feeling of Difficulty. Journal of Consumer Research

doi: 10.1086/663772

Petty, R. E., Wells, G. L., Heesacker, M., Brock, T. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1983). The effects of recipient posture on persuasion: A cognitive response analysis Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 9, 209-222 (pdf available at Rich Petty’s academic website).