The Standard Model Conceptual View
What’s the Big Idea?

Okay, quick review here.  Just scan the diagram.

Standard Model Diagram

Right.  Got it.  The Communication Cascade says that messages move through three stages, Reception, Processing, and Response.  The Standard Model fills in each of these stages with Principles that guide action.  In this chapter we’ll take a conceptual view on the Model so that we understand the ideas behind it.  In the next chapter we’ll take an operational view of the Model so that we can understand how to apply these ideas into action.

Reception – Did You Get It?

The first stage is the most obvious one.  If they don’t get it, they can’t change because they didn’t hear you.  Reception occurs at that point where you realize, hey, there’s a new picture up on the billboard.  Reception is not understanding, comprehension, consideration; it’s that first dawn of awareness that there’s something new out there and a sense of what it’s about.  When you look through a stack of mail and observe some details:  who its from, what’s that picture, oh, it’s another credit card offer . . . you’re in Reception.  You’re probably old enough to remember radios that had tuning dials on them.  You’d swing the dial until you hit a signal, scratchy at first, but when you fine tuned it, reception came through strong and clear.  Reception:  getting the message.

Let’s consider now each Principle of Reception.

Principle of Placement:  A message is more likely to be received if it is placed where your receivers go.

“Where your receivers go” has both a physical and a psychological meaning.  Physically, if you’re trying to persuade someone in an interpersonal setting (face to face), then obviously you need to be within speaking distance.  When you’re trying to persuade someone through a mediated channel (the web, broadcast or cable TV, radio, print, etc.) “where your receivers go” means pretty much the same thing except you want them to be within communication distance of the technological device that is carrying the message.

We can also understand “where your receivers go” in a psychological sense.  Simply because someone is physically near the communication source (either a real person in a face to face setting or else a technological device when mediated) does not mean that they are really listening.  We’ve all had the experience of seeing a cool new ad on TV or hearing a new song on the radio, then telling our friends about it only to get a derisive laugh from them as they tell us it’s old news.  Chances were good that we were physically exposed to the new message, but we weren’t psychologically tuned in.  Kids learn this lesson early with their parents as they realize that the folks are more receptive to some requests at different times.  Dad is much more likely to listen to a request when he’s in a good mood sitting around the house, but more likely to ignore it when he’s watching his favorite sports team on TV.

Thus, receivers are more likely to get the message when you place it where they go both physically and psychologically.

Principle of Frequency:  A message is more likely to be received if it is made available over many different times.

Frequency is another name for repetition.  You enhance the likelihood that your receivers will get the message when you repeat the message.  It also helps if you vary the style of the message so that it “looks” different even if it is saying the same thing.  A person’s life is a nonstop message machine.  Your message is competing against the thousands of words and images each of us is exposed to every day.  In such a busy message environment, you cannot expect one statement from you to be the one message everyone gets, remembers, considers, and acts upon.  Thus, frequency with variation is necessary to generate Reception.

Principle of Contrast:  A message is more likely to be received if it “sticks out” in the environment.

One of the earliest scientific studies of contrast comes out of the field of Gestalt psychology.  You’ve probably seen some of their famous visual examples that illustrate how the human eye and brain organize information.  Here is a common one.

Gestalt Contrast Circles

The main point with these illustrations is that people actively make meaning and that this meaning-making process is highly variable.  That is, given the same stimulus object, people can see different things at different times.  This is hardly an earth shaking revelation, but it points up the need for contrast.  You must make a message stand out in the message environment as this nice black and white illustration demonstrates.

Quick review:  Reception, did they get the message.  PFC.  Placement.  Frequency.  Contrast.

The Cascade moves from Reception to Processing or did they think about the message.

Processing – Did You Think About It?

After they get the message, what do they do with it?  Do they toss that glossy print card for a new car into the garbage bin?  Do they change the channel?  Do they simply stare dumbly off into space?  Do they put on that Fake Interested Student Face we all use when the Professor is asking rhetorical questions?  Or do they engage in the cognitive work needed to understand and consider the meaning of the message?

Processing is all the effort needed to interpret a received message.  Processing by its nature may be fairly shallow where we think only as hard as we have to or it may be fairly deep where we effortfully consider all the implications and ramifications a message holds.

One of the most interesting elements about processing is that it does demand work from us.  The best commonplace illustration of this occurs when people drive cars while talking on cell phones.  Talking requires thinking.  Thinking requires cognitive effort.  Cognitive effort is a limited resource.  And you can see the limitations talking on a cell phone imposes upon a lot of drivers.

Once we get people to Receive our message, we must now get them to Process (or consider, ponder, ruminate, mull, reflect, judge, deliberate, contemplate, or . . .) that message.  What does it mean to “Process” a message?  In the Standard Model, that meaning is expressed in the three Principles.

Principle of Mental State:  Messages that generate high levels of Willingness and Ability to Think (WATTage) will produce greater argument attention and processing.

Imagine that your mind is a light bulb on a dimmer switch.  When you are highly thoughtful, the bulb is burning brightly.  When you are completely thoughtless (drugged, injured, asleep; dreams don’t count as thoughts here even though they are clearly some kind of mental activity), the bulb is not burning.  And, since we’re on a dimmer switch the bulb brightness can range between these two extremes.

Using the light bulb on a dimmer we can analogize to what our minds are like.  In some persuasive situations where we have high willingness and ability to think, our minds are burning brightly.  In other situations where we have lower levels of either willingness or ability, our minds still generate light, but not as much.  The light bulb analogy provides an interesting difference between those higher light moments and those lower light moments.

When our minds are in the brighter light, we can “see” more of what’s going on and we are more interested in understanding what’s going on.  In persuasion terms, we are looking for “arguments” or crucial pieces of information about the persuasion object or issue.  And when we find these arguments, we think hard about them.  By contrast, when our minds are not so bright, we lack willingness and ability to think, and in our low WATT state we don’t want arguments, but instead let bright shiny objects out there attract and fascinate us.  We call those bright shiny things, “cues.”  A persuasion cue is easy to see and understand in our low lit mind and a cue requires little WATTage to process.  Thus, in persuasion terms, we can persuade people under both bright high WATT conditions and dim low WATT conditions, but there are very different things.  However, the key insight to get here is that the high WATT bulb is a lot more interesting and useful for persuasion.

Principle of Elaboration:  A message that generates strong new cognitive responses is more likely to produce belief and intention change.

When high WATT receivers shine light on arguments, they engage in more thinking about that argument.  Those new thoughts about the argument are called “cognitive responses” or “elaborations.”  Let’s understand this through another metaphor.  Imagine that you have a big beautiful Christmas tree.  It is a healthy Scotch Pine tree with bright green needles and a thick trunk with lots of supple branches shooting out.  And it has that lovely triangular cone shape.  Now, what do you do with a beautiful Christmas Tree?  That’s right.  You add lights and shiny ornaments and hang icicles and, of course, the angel capping the Tree top.  In our persuasion metaphor, the Tree is an Argument and each Ornament is an Elaboration or Cognitive Response.  Some arguments, like some trees are big, compelling, and very strong.  Other arguments, like other trees, are small, unconvincing, and very weak.  And, on some trees, we hang many different ornaments and in persuasion terms we generate many elaborations, while on other trees we put just a few ornaments; we generate few elaborations.

To continue our Christmas Tree metaphor, a good persuasion agent wants to give receivers lots of Big Trees that the receivers will then decorate with many, many different ornaments of many different shapes, types, and sizes.   Stated more academically, a persuasion source should provide strong arguments to receivers and get those receivers to generate a lot of elaborations.

Principle of Outcomes:  Messages that generate strong new cognitive responses will produce changes that last longer, resist counterarguments, and drive future behavior.

Let’s just consider two states of brightness in our WATT light bulb.  The first is very bright, indicating a high WATT receiver.  The second is much dimmer, a low WATT processor.  We know that the high WATT thinker can see, find, and devour arguments and in the act of seeing, finding, and devouring arguments, the high WATT thinker will generate many elaborations.  By contrast, the low WATT thinker works in a dim environment and tends to be attracted to fascinating shiny cues, which require little brightness for processing and as a result, generate fewer elaborations.  Which thinker, high WATT or low WATT, is more likely to experience more significant change?  While both may experience some immediate change (the high WATT through arguments, the low WATT through cues), it should be obvious that the high WATT receivers should experience change that lasts longer, is more resistant to counterarguments, and is more motivating for future behavior.

Response – Did It Change You?

Okay, we got Reception and Processing.  We are two-thirds of the way through the Cascade.  Now, we’ve got to get our receivers out of the eternal cycle of thought and translate all that mental work into action.  We do that through the four Principles of Response.

Arguments (and cues) are about “something.”  They reference specific behaviors and offer evidence and reasoning about various attributes of the behavior.  What should arguments be “about?”  What are the key types of information a smart persuasion agent should use to guide the development of arguments?

Principle of Attitude:  A message that makes people generate strong evaluations (positive or negative) toward the behavior is more likely to control intentions.

“If I do this action, what are good things and bad things that will occur?”  This question is the essence of the Principle of Attitude.  Attitude is that evaluative reaction a person has.  It is the costs and benefits, the pros and cons, the good and the bad of doing a particular behavior.  “If I go on a diet, the advantages are that my clothes will fit better, I’ll feel better about myself, and I’ll save money.  The disadvantages are that I’ll be hungry, frustrated, and mean!”  Do you see the evaluations here?  Do you see the Attitude?  Arguments that express either the good or the bad will change a person’s Attitude, which then affects their Intention to perform the action in the future.

Principle of Norm:  A message that makes people perceive normative pressures (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control intentions.

“If I do this action, who will approve and who will disapprove of me?” is the essential question for the Principle of Norm.  Norms are that external pressure we experience from our social environment.  Sometimes we want to know and follow the Norm because we really want to fit in with some group and we positively seek the Norm and embrace.  Other times, we might fear the Norm because we like the group we’re in, but we’re also really compelled by something the group dislikes.  “If I regularly visit Internet pornography websites, who will approve?  Well, all the other perverts out there would, and lot’s of other people who do it, but don’t admit it.  And, who would disapprove?  Well, if they caught me doing it, a lot of people like some of my family, and some of my friends, and don’t even think about my religious family!”  Do you see the Norms?  Do you see who approves and disapproves?  Arguments that provide compelling normative pressures are more likely to change our Norms, which in turn will affect our intention to perform the action in the future.

Principle of Efficacy:  A message that makes people see efficacy outcomes (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control intentions.

“What would make it easier or harder to perform this behavior?” is the essential question for the Principle of Efficacy.  Efficacy gets at the sense of control you need to perform the behavior.  Some behaviors may be “good” and “approved” but require external resources like money, equipment, housing, space, and time or require internal resources like confidence, courage, experience, or training.  For example, you might receive a great job offer that is your career dream, but the job is located in a place far from your home and family and in a very different environment (say, a big city and you grew up in East Rainbarrel County).  You might have a lot of “goods” for the job and maybe all the right people “approve,” but you don’t feel a sense of Efficacy with the move and it would be “easier” if you knew some people out there or had seen a cool place to rent or buy or you had a chance to visit for a week or so before your decision.  All of these elements address Efficacy.  Arguments that help receivers overcome the barriers of inadequate resources, internal or external, will change Efficacy, which in turn will improve the intention to perform the future behavior.

Principle of Intention:  A message that makes people form stronger intentions (positive or negative) toward a behavior is more likely to control behavior.

“Do I intend to perform the behavior?” is the essential question for the Principle of Intention.  Intention means planning, willfulness, aim, goal, target, objective, likelihood, probability or . . . you get it?  When we have a positive intent, it is more likely we will, “Just Do It.”  When we have a negative intent, it is more likely we will buy Reebok.  Intention in the Standard Model predict Behavior.  Attitudes, Norms, and Efficacy predict Intention.  Make sure you catch that little trick.  There’s a difference between intention and behavior.  According to the Model, we first change Attitude, Norm, and Efficacy so that we move Intention.  Then Intention drives Behavior.  Got it?

Doesn’t this make sense?  If a source creates Arguments that form positive Attitudes (it’s fun!), positive Norms (it’s popular), and positive Efficacy (it’s easy), then receivers will have positive Intentions (I’ll likely do it) which means they will Just Do It.

Behavior – Just Do It!

Principle of TACT Behavior:  Behavior should be defined as Target, Action, Context, and Time or Who Does What When and Where.

This Principle highlights perhaps the most important element in the Standard Model.  If you don’t know exactly what behavior you are trying to change, it will be extremely difficult to be successful.  Now, what exactly is behavior?

In many of the examples, you’ve read in the Primer you seen terms like “vote,” “buy,” “exercise,” and so on.  While these are good terms for a quick illustration in a textbook chapter, they are not exact enough for a Standard Model intervention.  They communicate a sense of the action, but they are silent about who, what, when, and where.  The Principle of Behavior requires these exact specifications.

Target (Who)  Action (What) Context (Where) and Time (When) provide the necessary screws to tighten down the definition of behavior.  Let’s work an example, voting.

Are we electing the President of the United States or the President of the 6th Grade Class?  Must we vote in person or by mail or some other means?  Does voting occur on just one day or may we vote over several weeks?  How many times may we vote?  With all these considerations, we quickly realize that a Standard Model intervention aimed at “getting people to vote” is aimed at a nebulous target.

How about:

We want to get more registered voters in Washington County to attend polling precincts in person and cast a ballot for our candidate on November 4.  Or . . .

We want to get more eligible citizens in Washington County registered to vote in time for the November 4 election.  Or . . .

We want to increase the amount of early voting (mailed ballots) in voters of Washington County before the November 4 election.

In each example we are dealing with an action that is both similar and different in each case.  People are always “voting” but the exact who, what, where, and when varies in important ways.  If you want more voters at the polls, you need more cars, but if you want more voters casting early ballots, you need more stamps.

If you take a moment, you begin to realize how important the behavior step is.  This definition determines virtually every next step you take in the Standard Model.  It tells you the kind of people you will target, the resources you will need to reach them, the kind of research you need to do to understand them, and it tells you how you can measure the progress and outcome of your intervention.

A good behavior definition explicitly identifies the person (Target-Who), the activity you want to change (Action-What), and the situation all this occurs (Context-Where and Time-When).  As we’ll discover in the Operational View on the Standard Model, there is a lot of art in the science of behavior change.


After reading this chapter you might be struck by how obvious and simple the Principles are.  I mean, gee whiz, like you didn’t know people have to “get” the message and it helps if it “sticks out” and, wow, if you make it sound “easy, fun, and popular” people are more likely to agree.  We’re right on the edge of rocket science, brain surgery, and theoretical astrology with this Standard Model!

If you feel this way, great.  The Model should be easier to remember and easier to apply.  At the very least this will help you get a better grade in my persuasion course.  Past that I’d observe that if you think all this is just mere common sense to you, then you’ll feel pretty good when you pull out your Grand Theory of Persuasion box and compare it to this obvious idea.

References And Recommended Readings

The Standard Model is based obviously in the Theory of Planned Behavior, the Elaboration Likelihood Model, and principles from Mass Communication.  I’ve supplied my own labels for the basic constructs (e.g. WATTage for Elaboration Likelihood; fun, popular, and easy for TpB) and metaphors (light bulb, Christmas Trees, and ornaments) for descriptions of theory operation.  There are specific Primer chapters on TpB and ELM, so you can read all about them there and get References, too.  There is not a “theory of mass communication” in quite the same sense of theory that we use with the ELM and TpB.  The Principles of Reception are drawn from the empirical record (what seems to work) and then argued back to concepts.  For example, it is clear that when a message “sticks out” in the information environment, it is more likely to be noticed, but what the hell is “sticks out?”  For me, that goes back to Gestalt psychology as described in this chapter, but I suppose someone else could come up with a different explanation.

The best source I’ve encountered on principles of mass communication is found in:

Shimp, T. (2002).  Advertising, Promotion, and Other Aspects of Integrated Marketing Communications, 6th Edition.  South Western College Publishing.

I like this book because one smart experienced person with a strong point of view writes it.  There’s a coherence to the effort that is not found in other books that are edited, otherwise known as camel-books because they are made by committee.  Camel-books provide a lot of perspective and conflict which is helpful, but for me, when I’m trying to just get it, just understand it, I usually prefer a book with one voice and one point of view.  Plus, Professor Shimp is an excellent teacher and technical writer.