Persuasion and Influence

Persuasion, Big Deal, So What?

Why should anyone like you study persuasion?

Okay, so you’ll get credit for passing something called, “Persuasion.”  Is that the best reason anyone can offer?

Hey, Steve, I think there are three good reasons for studying persuasion.  First, studying will help you learn how to type the word, “persuasion,” correctly.  It’s a tough word and the more practice you get, the easier it is to spell it right!  Second, it sounds like a more difficult Communication class than Public Speaking or Interpersonal Communication.  I mean, gee whiz, everyone thinks that Communication majors are just a bunch of jabbering yahoos, so taking a class called “Persuasion” makes it sound like your work load is as difficult as “Molecular Genetics” or “Non Linear Geometry” or “Advanced Coaching Concepts for Scholarship Athletes Who Aren’t Comm Majors.”  Third, studying persuasion might help me pick up that great looking blonde in the Lair.  I mean aren’t pickup lines just applied persuasion?

Wake up, Steve.  It’s just a dream.  It’s just a bad dream.  It’s okay.  Nobody really thinks like that.  Really, all your readers want to study persuasion for good reasons.

Rationale for the Study of Persuasion

When everything stays the same, life gets boring.  When people change, life gets interesting.  How do people change?

There are two Great Forms of human change.  The first is learning and the second is persuasion.  Psychologists typically define learning as any change in behavior not caused by accident, development, or injury.  The emphasis here is on pure behavior change.  You show the behavior regardless of your internal state.  You can spend a lifetime studying Learning.  You’ll read about B.F. Skinner and Dr. Watson and Thorndike, Gagne, Tolman, Estes, and a lot of interesting, useful theories.  We’ll even look at some of them here.  However, the emphasis is on change of behavior without much concern for what’s going on inside of the person.

The second Great Form of human change is persuasion.  Persuasion occurs through the deliberate use of communication to change the way freely choosing people think, feel, or act.  Classically we think of Ancient Greece and the early stages of democracy as citizens gathered in public halls to hear great orators provide compelling arguments followed by a public vote on the issue.  This is the beginning of persuasion as an area of significant study and scholarship.  The goal here is similar to learning in that behavior change was the ultimate goal, but it was understood that achieving this outcome could be reached with Logos, the rational word, rather than other tools of learning.

I always find it interesting that persuasion theory is a much more developed area of study in Ancient Greek thought than learning theory.  Greeks in a free society immediately understood the power of speech and its capacity to affect change in others through nonviolent, noncoercive means.  It’s also interesting to observe that in the earliest recorded democracy, people immediately “got” persuasion.  They understood its implications and applications.  If you read much in political science and history, you rarely see much attention to relationship between persuasion and democracy.  Usually someone observes a great orator or a great speech, but they overlook how persuasion skill is absolutely required in a free society.

Thus, when you study persuasion you are studying a Great Form of human change (interesting in itself), an indispensable tool of democracy, and a practical instrument of change for more pedestrian pursuits like making money, getting volunteers, or any thing that requires a human to change.

Finally, observe that the social fabric of human civilization is built in part from the threads of persuasion.  It is difficult to imagine any interesting, volitional, freely chosen human behavior that is not open to persuasion.  If you have to think at some point before you do the behavior, then that behavior can be changed through persuasion.  You just have to know how to use words to change attitudes.  Persuasion is especially necessary for those situations in life where the future is complex, conditional, and specifically unknowable.

It is useful, therefore, to study persuasion because it is a Great Form of change, it is an indispensable tool of democracy, and it is a fundamental element of human social life.  Persuasion is an essential concept of the human experience.  If you want to be an educated person, you should understand it.

Okay, Define Persuasion For Me Again

Persuasion is the use of communication to change the way freely choosing people think, feel, or act. Most of the time persuasion focuses upon “attitude” as the primary target for change believing that if you change attitude other changes in thinking, feeling, or acting will occur.

Let’s tear this apart in reverse order.  What’s an attitude?  A handy thesaurus gives us:  Approach, outlook, stance, feelings, position, thoughts, opinion, posture.  You’ve probably used all of these meanings when you use the word, “attitude,” but in this Primer we’re going to apply a very specific meaning to it that encompasses these synonyms and adds an important attribute.  Whenever you see the word “attitude” in this Primer keep this meaning in mind and not the street values often used in common conversation.

An attitude is a person’s evaluation of an object of thought.

Evaluation means whether you assess the object as good-bad, favorable-unfavorable, helpful-hurtful, useful-useless, likable-dislikable, or wise-foolish.  While each of these polar pairs of adjectives veers into slightly different tones from one another, they all express that idea of evaluation.  And they make explicit that our evaluations of things range from “hey, this is pretty good” all the way to “hey, this is pretty awful.”  It is as if we carry Attitude Meters in our heads with a needle that moves from left to right.  When we think about something that has a positive attitude, the needle veers to the “Good” side of the meter and when we think about something that has a negative attitude, the needle veers to the “Awful” side of the meter.

Simply put, attitudes are evaluations.

Persuasion is communication that changes a person’s attitude (which may lead to other changes in thinking, feeling, or acting).

We’ve already defined communication as the process of stimulating meaning through the use of messages, right?  So, persuasion is pretty much using words to change attitudes.  Let’s throw another term in the mix, influence.  In this Primer, I’ll use “influence” to mean any source action aimed at changing another person’s behavior.  Influence here is the umbrella term.  When somebody does anything to change your behavior, that’s influence.  When somebody uses communication to change your attitude, that’s persuasion.

The influence-persuasion distinction also introduces a nice comparison.  Persuasion requires freely acting people operating in a fair marketplace of ideas.  If the source can lie, coerce, threaten or in any way reduce the freedom of thought and action in another, then by definition we’re moving out of persuasion and into influence.

Last point in the definition of persuasion:  Change.

Change requires some kind of comparison between two states.  In one state the person thought, felt, or did one thing.  In another state, the person thinks, feels, or does something different.  Change almost always means that time passes in the “before and after” sense of pictures on a Jenny Craig diet advertisement.  Now realize that “change” is a relatively neutral term regarding evaluation.  Let’s stay with Jenny Craig.  Someone is 40 pounds overweight.  If they go on a diet and lose 10 pounds, they are still overweight, but there was still a change, right?  If they go on a diet and gain 10 pounds, they are even more overweight, but there was a change, right?  Change means difference and that difference can be positive or negative.

Okay, quick review.

First, influence occurs when a source deliberately tries to change a receiver through any means in any setting. Second, persuasion occurs when a source deliberately uses communication to change a receiver’s attitude. Third, an attitude is a person’s evaluation of an object of thought.

Now, what’s the big deal with “attitudes?” I mean, why even define the thing and study it?  The answer as we’ll develop is simple as ABC.

I can think of two reasons why we should sometimes focus on changing attitudes. First, sometimes we can’t directly influence behavior and we have to find a proxy or indirect agent. Second, attitudes play a major role in determining behavior. Let’s consider each of these ideas.

Free Will or You Can’t Make Me

The most direct way to change somebody is influence. Change behavior, right? Behavior is the real deal, the main point, the focus, so why diddle around with things like attitude. Well, a lot of the time, you don’t have control over other people’s actual behavior. People do have free choice and pretty much do as they please. And we can’t make them do what we want by merely stomping our foot or asking pretty please with sugar on top.

Furthermore, there might be times when we do have direct control over someone’s behavior (“I’m vatching you!”), but the influence lasts only as long as we maintain that control. As soon as we exit the scene, our controlled receivers will revert to prior form and do pretty much as they please.  Argh.  Therefore, if you cannot directly control another person’s behavior, then you have to find a better way for getting that behavior.

Attitudes Drive Behavior or Maybe I Can Make You

Believe it or not one of the best ways to change other people’s behavior is to change their attitudes about the object in question. As we’ll develop in this Primer, attitudes often drive behavior. If we can change attitudes then we are in position to influence other people’s behavior.

Persuasion researchers have combined the results from hundreds of persuasion studies with thousands of participants that measured the connection between attitudes and behavior.  The average correlation across all these different studies, topics, people, attitudes, and behaviors is approximately .80!  This is an astoundingly high correlation for psychological effects.  Expressed as the Windowpane effect size that .80 correlation is a 10/90 difference.  (If these numbers don’t mean anything to you, check out Prove It!)

This is truly cool beans. We can still obtain the behavior we want from others but if that behavior is now driven by attitude rather than control, our lives are much easier. Most obviously, we don’t have to be in the room “vatching” the receivers to make sure they produced the desired behavior. They’ll do that themselves because their attitude is favorable toward that behavior. Yippy-skippy, we’ve discovered a secret: Attitudes drive behavior.

So, all we gotta do is figure out how to change attitudes and we’re off to the races, sitting there at the track with all those other cool change agents like the folks who invented the Thigh Master (and made over ten million bucks on a big plastic clothespin that has about as much impact on your fitness and appearance as wishful thinking does). But wait, put that mint julep down, and think a moment.

There are times when people do not behave consistently with their attitudes. The best (or worst) example of this concerns risky behaviors. Everyone at some point in their lives has performed some stupid, dangerous, or malicious behavior even they knew at the time that the action was stupid, dangerous, or malicious. Just think about peer group pressure. Simply because your buddies were doing “it” or urging you to try “it,” not because you had a positive attitude toward the action, you did the risky behavior.

So we got a two part problem here. First, we gotta figure out how to change the atttitude. Second, we gotta figure out how to make people use that attitude. This is important. You must see the two steps or else you’ll probably fail at persuasion. First get the attitude change. Second, get the attitude to drive behavior.

Making Attitudes Drive Behavior

Now, most of this primer and the course will help with the first problem. There are a lot of different ways to get attitude change. The rest of this chapter will focus on the second problem. How do you get attitudes to drive behavior? I’ve got the answer.

The Conceptual Model of Attitude-Behavior Consistency: The ABCs

To create our conceptual model, I’m going to integrate the thinking of two different researchers. Russ Fazio and Mark Snyder have made a strong case that certain conditions improve the likelihood that people will show attitude-behavior consistency. And, if these conditions are not met, then Fazio and Snyder predict attitudes will not drive behavior. Here’s the thinking.

The conceptual model of the ABCs says that two factors make attitude drive behaviors: Attitude availability and attitude relevance. These factors are straightforward and obvious. If a given attitude is available (or accessible or active or operative or vigorous or supply your own synonym here), then it is more likely to drive behavior. If a given attitude is relevant (or useful or applicable or pertinent or SYOSH), then it is more likely to drive behavior. Let’s dig on availability and relevance.

An attitude is available when you can think of it, when you know that you’ve got an attitude on this topic, and when that attitude is “turned on.” The best illustration of this concerns the “priming” paradigm. Priming is essentially a setup activity where you do something that gets a person fired up or poised to think about something. Consider this example.

If I want you to have a bad attitude about your dating partner’s attractiveness, I will prime you by having you look at pictures of very sexy models first. If I want you to have a good attitude toward your partner’s attractiveness, I’ll prime you by having you look at pictures of relatively ugly models first. The priming task (viewing pictures of models) activates your attitudes about “attractiveness.” Then when I ask you to make a judgment about your partner, those primed attitudes will be available to guide your behavior (and drive how you rate your partner).

See the implication? To produce the correct ABCs (attitude-behavior consistency), make sure the attitude is available.

Now what was the second factor? Yeah, right. Relevance.

An attitude is relevant when it applies to the situation at hand. When you’re sitting in Mountaineer Field and the crowd is cheering for the home team, your attitudes about this persuasion primer will have no impact on whether you join in with the cheer. That attitude and that situation is not relevant. However, when you’re in a class and you observe other people joining in the class discussion, your attitudes toward the class should determine your communication behavior. (And you’ll join right in, huh?)

Another obvious implication. Attitudes will drive behavior when the attitude is relevant in the situation.

Availability and relevance seem so obvious and simple that no one should even have to say this out loud. Of course attitudes will not drive behavior when you aren’t aware of your attitude (not available) or you’re aware, but the attitude isn’t useful (not relevant). Duh.

Well, they are obvious now that we’ve thought about it, but most people in the real world overlook this simple conceptual model. Most people most of the time think all they have to do is produce the attitude change and then forever onward the receiver will show the desired, attitude-driven behavior. It just ain’t so. The real world is littered with instances where people do not show the ABCs.  Hey, just take a moment to reflect on your own life.  Start with all the dangerous and dumb things you did.  Yeah, you had “positive” attitudes about health and safety, but there you were trying drugs, drinking and driving, oh, yeah and that one time when you didn’t use a condom . . . okay twice.  And, as you reflect you’ll see the missing link with attitude availability and relevance.

Okay, on a fairly abstract and general level we have a solution to our two part problem. To insure that the attitude change we created actually drives behavior we must also insure that the attitude is available and relevant when we want the behavior.

An Application

Let’s construct a real world application of the ABC Model. We’ve already done some heavy lifting and created attitude change in a receiver. Now we want to make sure that our hard won attitude change actually leads to behavior change. What do we do? Consider this example.

Melanie used to like a high fat diet, but I worked on her with a bunch of powerful persuasion tactics that now produce in her a negative attitude about a high fat diet. How can I make sure her new attitude shows in a new behavior?

As we get out of the car in the parking lot at the grocery store I ask her if she saw that story in the news about the new low fat substitute that the FDA has just approved. I make it sound natural and conversational so it’s no big deal. I get her to talk about the story. If she saw it, great. If not, I can tell her a little about it. Either way, I’ve activated the attitude and it is now available. And since I’m having this conversation as we’re enter the grocery store, the attitude is clearly relevant because she’s getting ready to buy food.

And if the ABC Model is correct, then all I have to do from here on out is keep my mouth shut and let her attitude guide her behavior. And when she moves through the store, she will automatically be thinking about the fat content of the food she’s buying.

An Implication

This discussion of the ABCs has one very practical implication. Mere attitude change is not sufficient to guarantee the behavior change we desire. We must take an additional step in the real world to obtain the attitude-behavior consistency we seek. We must make sure that the attitude is both available and relevant in a given situation. When these two conditions apply, we’ll get our ABCs quite nicely.


Persuasion is communication aimed at changing freely choosing people.  While we often want changes in various kinds of thoughts, feelings, or actions, persuasion research has strongly shown that if you can change attitudes, you can get the others kinds of change, too.

But, simply creating a change once is not sufficient to produce action in all future contexts.  Attitudes will drive action when the attitudes are available and relevant.  Thus, remember your persuasion ABCs of Attitude-Behavior Consistency:  change attitudes then make them available and relevant.

Persuasion is one of the coolest inventions or discoveries of human civilization.  It is a primary means for producing change in a free society without violence, intimidation, or threats.  With mere words, you can change free people and the world.

References and Recommended Readings

Fazio, R., (1990). Multiple processes by which attitudes guide behavior: The MODE model as an integrative framework. In M. Zanna (Ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, vol 23, (pp. 75-109). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Kim, M., and Hunter, J. (1993). Attitude-behavior relations: A meta-analysis of attitudinal relevance and topic. Journal of Communication, 43, 101-142.

Snyder, M. (1982). When believing means doing: Creating links between attitudes and behavior. In M. Zanna, E. Higgins, & C. Herman (Eds.) Consistency in Social Behavior: The Ontario Symposium, vol 2 (pp. 105-130). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.