The Standard Model Big Picture
Heave, Swell, Gush . . . the Cascade
While the theory and research of persuasion may be interesting and compelling to a few of us, for most folks persuasion attracts because it is useful. After teaching, researching, and doing persuasion for over thirty years now, this chapter is my best shot at a comprehensive practical blueprint for executing persuasion in the real world. The unique proposition I offer is not to be found in any one component in the Standard Model, but rather from the simple template used to hold all these components together. Thus, the Standard Model is like a file cabinet for holding all of your files. Sure, the most important part is all that information in the files, but it sure is nice having the files organized and easy to use.
The Standard Model starts with an observation from early modern research in persuasion by Dr. Carl Hovland. (Dr. Hovland is the godfather of most persuasion concepts developed since 1950 and if you want to understand the history of the field you should read everything he wrote.) Hovland made the common sense observation that a message does not have a simple monolithic effect as if all you have to do is say the magic word once and voila, you’ve got persuasion. Hovland noted that a message has to go through several stages – exposure, attention, comprehending, remembering, etc. – before you get to the ultimate downstream effect of behavior change. I call this the Communication Cascade.
Communication produces behavior change by taking receivers through three cascading stages. First, the receivers must get the message (Reception). Second, the receivers must think about the message (Process). Third, the receivers must change beliefs and intentions (Response). When a message successfully takes receivers through all three stages of the Cascade, behavior change will occur. Consider the Cascade in a simple schematic diagram.
Virtually everyone would agree with Hovland, but would dicker over the number of stages (or steps or progressions or sequences or whatever). Some folks want to make many fine distinctions and generate many stages. Some people, like me, want something that works in the real world. Creating a Cascade that has a lot of steps might be a good way to get a lot of research grants. It is, however, a certain recipe for failure in the real world. And just to be argumentative about it, if you disagree then I’ll bet $4.58 that you’re a nerdy academic who’s never run a successful and proven persuasion project in the real world with real people in real time.
Let’s keep it simple. Three stages: Reception, Processing, and Response. You’ve got to take receivers through all three if you want to have any chance of getting behavior change. And, if you fail at any stage, then the whole march stops and the tuba players trip over the flute players in a fine heap. The persuasion fails, you fail, the world is not made better from your pathetic efforts, you don’t make your monthly sales target, and your boss tries to throw you out of the window. Okay, then. Successful persuasion has to move receivers through three stages!
Now, even with this common sense insight of cascading stages, reception to processing to response, we’re still left hanging in space. How do you fill in these stages with specific principles that guide action? Yeah, right, we’ve got to get reception first; any dolt can figure that out. But how do you act, what are the specific steps you take to make sure every target gets the message? This is where you find all the art and science of persuasion. And, if you go to a bookstore and look at all of those practical books on practical persuasion for the practical persuader, you’ll find a lot of answers. I call mine the Standard Model.
To operationalize each stage of the Cascade, use the principles of the Standard Model. Let’s consider them all in one fell swoop.
Principle of Placement: A message is more likely to be received if it is placed where your receivers go.
Principle of Frequency: A message is more likely to be received if it is made available over many different times.
Principle of Contrast: A message is more likely to be received if it “sticks out” in the environment.
Principle of Mental State: Messages that generate high levels of Willingness and Ability to Think (WATTage) will produce greater argument attention and processing.
Principle of Elaboration: A message that generates strong new cognitive responses is more likely to produce belief and intention change.
Principle of Outcomes: Messages that generate strong new cognitive responses will produce changes that last longer, resist counterarguments, and drive future behavior.
Principle of Attitude: A message that makes people generate strong evaluations (positive or negative) toward the behavior is more likely to control intentions.
Principle of Norm: A message that makes people perceive normative pressures (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control intentions.
Principle of Efficacy: A message that makes people see efficacy outcomes (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control intentions.
Principle of Intention: A message that makes people form stronger intentions (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control behavior.
Principle of TACT Behavior: Behavior should be defined as Target, Action, Context, and Time or Who Does What When and Where.
This is a lot of stuff all in one place. Let’s master the principles first before we detail them. What you want to do right now is be able to recall the Standard Model as a template or schematic even if you don’t know all the details just yet. Consider this diagram.
Right now, take out a sheet of paper and draw the Cascade in a way that illustrates the flow, sequence, and hierarchy of the stages. Then write in the one word Principle for each stage. Here are the mnemonics: RPRB for the Cascade, then PFC, MEO, ANEI, and TACT. Now sketch in lines that make the whole scene look like a waterfall.
Play this game now.
The PFC is waiting at the . . .
While processing the cheese the cats . . .
The government announced the creation of a new federal agency, ANEI, which stands for . . .
My charm school teacher told me my Behavior lacked . . .
The Way Ahead
We’ve got the Cascade: Reception to Processing to Response to Behavior. We’ve filled in the Cascade stages with specific actions called the Standard Model. Through eleven Principles we detail how to use messages that move receivers across the Cascade. We have a large general blueprint for creating and executing a persuasion plan that aims at behavior change. In the next two chapters we will:
1. Detail the concepts behind the Principles in the Standard Model (the Conceptual View).
2. Detail the operations you perform to make the Principles come alive in messages (the Operational View).
References And Recommended Readings
Booth-Butterfield, S., Welbourne, J., Ott, S., Hartley, T., Clough-Thomas, K., & Lawryk, N. (2008). A Communication Matrix Intervention to Increase Adoption of Federal Government Safety Recommendations. Health Communication, 23, 307-312.
Booth-Butterfield, S., Welbourne, J., Williams, C., & Lewis, V. (2007). Formative field experiments of a NIOSH Alert to reduce the risks to fire fighters from structural collapse: Applying the cascade framework. Health Communication, 22, 79-88.
Booth-Butterfield, S., & Reger, B. (2004). The message changes belief and the rest is theory: The “1% Or Less” milk campaign and reasoned action. Preventive Medicine, 39, 581-588.
Welbourne, J., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (2005). Using the theory of planned behavior and a stage model of persuasion to evaluate a safety message for firefighters. Health Communication 18, 141-155.