Gerald R Miller. The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice. Editor: James Price Dillard & Michael Pfau. Sage Publication. 2002.
A volume dealing with the process of persuasion should profit from a tentative answer to the question: What does it mean to be persuaded? The well-advised qualifier “tentative” underscores two limitations of the analysis offered in this chapter. First, as with most complex definitional issues, the author has no illusions that his answer will satisfy every reader—or, for that matter, any reader. After all, a lively debate has raged for centuries over the defining characteristics of the term persuasion, and it would be the height of naïveté or arrogance to assume that this brief analysis will lay to rest all outstanding definitional controversies. Second, at a more modest level, this chapter certainly does not address all of the questions raised in succeeding chapters of this volume. The authors of these chapters have attacked numerous theoretical and applied issues of Persuasion from various vantage points; to subsume all the nuances of their remarks about the Persuasive process is a formidable, if not impossible, task far exceeding the capabilities of this writer.
Notwithstanding these disclaimers, this chapter can assist readers in making sense out of many of the issues explored later by providing a general frame of reference for viewing the process of Persuasion. Stated differently, the chapter seeks to establish broad definitional boundaries for the phase “being Persuaded.” Furthermore, in the process of staking out these boundaries, certain Persistent issues will inevitably be identified, issues that heavily influence some of the positions taken in other chapters. Thus, this chapter anticipates rather than resolves subsequent scholarly debates.
Being Persuaded: The Central Elements
Persuasive attempts fall short of blatant coercion; Persuasion, as typically conceived of, is not directly coercive. Coercion takes the form of guns or economic sanctions, while Persuasion relies on the power of verbal and nonverbal symbols. Frequently, of course, coercive acts are preceded by Persuasive messages; seldom is a child’s allowance suspended or an armed attack launched on a neighboring state without a Period of message exchanges. These messages are aimed at Persuading the child to study harder at school or at Persuading the neighboring state to relinquish claim to a parcel of disputed territory. If Persuasion proves inadequate to the task at hand, economic or military force may be employed to achieve the desired compliance.
From these examples, it follows that much Persuasive discourse is indirectly coercive; that is, the Persuasive effectiveness of messages often depends heavily on the credibility of threats and promises proffered by the communicator. If the child Perceives that the threatening parent is, for some reason or another, unlikely to suspend the child’s allowance, the parent’s Persuasive messages will have minimum impact on the child’s study habits. Similarly, threats of armed attacks by nations with powerful defense establishments usually cause potential adversaries to take Persuasive appeals quite seriously, while the same threats uttered by countries of limited military might are likely to be greeted with scorn or amusement. One can only speculate how the ensuing 1962 scenario might have differed had the government of Haiti, rather than that of the United States, called on the Soviet Union to dismantle its missiles in Cuba under threat of naval blockade and possible attack on the missile sites themselves.
Some students of Persuasion have found it distasteful to ponder the indirectly coercive dimension of many Persuasive exchanges, Perhaps because the notion of means control— Kelman’s (1961) term for describing a situation where the influence agent, or Persuader, is successful because of his or her ability to dispense rewards or punishments—conflicts with the way Persuasion ought to function in a democratic society. Simons (1974) captured the crux of this ideological opposition well:
Although Persuasion is often characterized as a weak sister in relation to its relatives within the influence family—note such expressions as “talk is cheap,” “talk rather than substance,” and “mere rhetoric”—it is nevertheless regarded by many as a more ethical method of influencing others. One generally shuns the coercive label like the plague, takes pains to deny that he is bribing others when he offers them inducements, and represents himself as a Persuader—if possible, as someone using “rational Persuasion.” Persuasion is especially valued as an instrument of democracy … Officials of government proudly proclaim that ours is indeed a system run by Persuasion … Inducements and constraints are said to have no place in ideally democratic forms of government; they are the coinage of the realm of corrupt governments or of totalitarian regimes. (pp. 174-175)
Simon went on to argue convincingly that in the rough-and-tumble world of everyday social conflict, as distinct from the polite confines of drawing room controversy, coercive potential determines the relative impact of most Persuasive messages.
The prevalence of indirectly coercive elements in many Persuasive transactions can also be detected by examining the symbolic weapons readily available to would-be Persuaders. Marwell and Schmitt (1967) have generated a list of 16 strategies that can be used to gain compliance from others. Several of these strategies—among them promise, threat, and aversive stimulation—clearly derive their effectiveness from the Persuader’s ability to dispense rewards or mete out punishments to the intended Persuadee(s). More subtlety dependent on coercive pressure are strategies stressing the harmful social consequences of failure to comply with message recommendations as well as strategies underscoring the social rewards resulting from compliance—such as moral appeal, altruism, esteem position, and esteem negative. To be sure, many people would hesitate to equate blackballing with blackjacking. Nevertheless, in a society where the Pervasive importance of “being respected,” “being popular,” and “being ‘in’” extends to matters so trivial as the name tag one sports on a pair of denim jeans, it would be a mistake to underestimate the coercive potential of social approval and disapproval, a fact readily grasped by those who create the country’s daily diet of media advertisements and commercials.
The preceding discussion has alluded to a second defining characteristic of the phrase “being Persuaded”: Persuasion relies on symbolic transactions. Although a Mafia hireling in a Hollywood production may remark menacingly, “It looks like you need a little Persuading,” as he starts to work over a stubborn merchant who has refused to purchase mob protection, the scholarly endeavors of Persuasion researchers—and, for that matter, the ordinary language uses of the term Persuasion—have consistently centered on the manipulation of symbols. In the domain of verbal utterances, this distinction fosters little ambiguity because language is inherently symbolic. When Chairman Brezhnev recently appealed for Senate ratification of the SALT II treaty by linking its adoption with “divine” approval, most observers probably would have agreed that he was embarked on a Persuasive campaign, albeit one employing symbolic weapons not usually found in Communist arsenals. In the nonverbal realm, however, the distinction does not emerge as crisply, and there is often room for disagreement as to whether a particular nonverbal act is or is not symbolic. When Chairman Khruschev banged his shoe on a United Nations table during his 1959 visit to the United States, some observers might have interpreted his behavior as symbolic and reflecting Persuasive intent, but others might have interpreted it as nothing more than a manifestation of poor manners by an uncouth visitor. Granted, the latter interpretation also involved a symbolic inference, but not one directly linked to conscious Persuasive intent.
In view of the ambiguous status of some nonverbal behaviors, the utility of restricting the term Persuasion to symbolic transactions may seem questionable. Unfortunately, the conceptual alternative is even more troublesome, for it would Permit any act that sought to modify another’s behavior to qualify as an instance of Persuasion. Rather than falling prey to the unmanageable generality fostered by such definitional Permissiveness and allowing the Persuasive process to be conceived of so broadly that it embraces nearly every instance of social behavior, it seems wiser to struggle with occasional uncertainty. In most instances, language is an integral aspect of the Persuasive transaction, with nonverbal behavior coming into play as an instrument for reinforcing the meaning and/or credibility of verbal messages. Because the goal of this chapter is to identify the central definitional elements of the phrase “being Persuaded” rather than to fix its precise outer boundaries, imposition of a symbolic criterion is consistent with the prevailing theoretical and empirical concerns of Persuasion scholars.
On agreeing that individuals are Persuaded by symbolic means, the question can be raised as to whether certain types of symbolic strategies should be viewed as typifying the Persuasion process, with others being exempted. More specifically, some writers (such as Rowell, 1932a, 1932b; Woolbert, 1917) have explored the wisdom of distinguishing between convincing and Persuading—the so-called conviction/persuasion duality. This duality holds that Persuasion relies primarily on symbolic strategies that trigger the emotions of intended Persuadees, while conviction is accomplished primarily by using strategies rooted in logical proof and that appeal to Persuadees’ reason and intellect. Stated in evaluative terms, conviction derives its force from people’s rationality, while Persuasion caters to their irrationality.
While this distinction has unquestionably influenced some of the research carried out by contemporary Persuasion researchers—for example, studies comparing the relative Persuasiveness of logical and emotional appeals such as those conducted by Hartmann (1936), Matthews (1947), and Weiss (1960)—its utility seems dubious at best. Attempts to crisply conceptualize and operationalize distinctions between logical and emotional appeals have been fraught with difficulty (Becker, 1963). As a result of prior learning, nearly all ordinary language is laden with emotional overtones. Even the appeal to “be logical” itself carries strong normative force; indeed, Bettinghaus (1973, pp. 157-158) found that messages containing cues stressing the importance of logical thought were highly Persuasive, even though the arguments presented were themselves illogical. Faced with these considerations, it seems more useful to conceive of Persuasive discourse as an amalgam of logic and emotion while at the same time granting that particular messages may differ in the relative amount of each element. Furthermore, the motivation for distinguishing between conviction and Persuasion rests largely on value concerns for the way influence ought to be accomplished; influence resulting from rational reasoned messages is ethically preferable to influence resulting from appeals to the emotions—appeals that, in the eyes of some writers (e.g., Diggs, 1964; Nilsen, 1966), “short-circuit” the reasoning processes. Although questions regarding the relative moral acceptability of various means and ends of Persuasion are of vital import to all citizens of the democratic society (including Persuasion researchers), conceptual distinctions that make for sound ethical analysis may sometimes make for unsound scientific practice. The conviction/Persuasion duality strikes the author as such a conceptual animal. People are seldom, if ever, Persuaded by “pure” logic or “pure” emotion; indeed, as the previous comments suggest, it is doubtful that these “pure” cases exist in humanity’s workaday Persuasive commerce.
Thus, the phrase “being Persuaded” applies to situations where behavior has been modified by symbolic transactions (messages) that are sometimes, but not always, linked with coercive force (indirectly coercive) and that appeal to the reason and emotions of the Person(s) being Persuaded. This definition still suffers from lack of specificity concerning the kinds of behavioral modification that can result from Persuasive communication. Let us next turn our attention to this problem.
Being Persuaded: Three Behavioral Outcomes
In popular parlance, “being Persuaded” is equated with instances of behavioral conversion; that is, individuals are Persuaded when they have been induced to abandon one set of behaviors and to adopt another. Thus, the assertion, “I am going to try to Persuade Gerry to quit smoking,” translates into the fol lowing situation: (1) Gerry is presently engaged in smoking behaviors, and (2) I want to induce him to stop these behaviors and begin to Perform nonsmoking behaviors. On the surface, the phrase “nonsmoking behaviors” may seem nonsensical, but as any reformed smoker will attest, the transition from smoking to not smoking involves acquisition of a whole new set of behavioral alternatives ranging from substituting gum or mints for cigarettes to sitting in the nonsmoking rather than the smoking sections of restaurants. Indeed, the success of attempts to Persuade people to stop smoking may often hinge on inducing them to adopt certain of these new behaviors. Despite the tendency to equate Persuasion with behavioral conversion, it seems useful to distinguish among three different behavioral outcomes commonly served by the Persuasion process. Although some overlapping must be granted (the three outcomes are not always mutually exclusive), the utility of the distinction rests on the fact that the outcome sought sometimes affects the relative importance of variables contained in the Persuasive equation as well as the probable ease or difficulty with which Persuaders may hope to accomplish their goals.
Being Persuaded as a Response-Shaping Process
Frequently, individuals possess no clearly established pattern of responses to specific environmental stimuli. In such instances, Persuasion takes the form of shaping and conditioning particular response patterns to these stimuli. Such Persuasive undertakings are particularly relevant when dealing with Persons who have limited prior learning histories or with situations where radically new and novel stimuli have been introduced into the environment.
Although it may be fallacious to assert that the mind of a small child is a tabula rasa, it is indisputable that children initially lack a response repertory for dealing with most social, political, economic, and ethical matters. Much of what is commonly referred to as socialization consists of Persuading the child to respond consistently (shaping responses) to stimuli associated with these matters. Thus, at a relatively early age, the child can be observed responding as a “good” Catholic (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian-Universalist, atheist, etc.) should respond, expressing rudimentary opinions about political candidates or programs, and manifesting a relatively consistent code of conduct and ethics in dealing with others. In these instances, parents, teachers, ministers, peers, and others collectively shape and condition the responses the child Performs.
It should be emphasized that all instances of response-shaping are not commonly thought of as instances of being Persuaded. This distinction, while admittedly nebulous and slippery, implies that Persuasion is a species of the genus commonly labeled learning. For instance, it would sound strange to speak of children “being Persuaded.” It would sound strange to speak of children being Persuaded to tie their shoes correctly; typically, we assert that they have learned to tie their shoes. On the other hand, should children refuse to attempt shoe-tieing behaviors, rebel against feeding themselves, and neglect to pick up clothing or toys, they are likely to be bombarded with messages by parents and teachers aimed at shaping these behaviors. If such messages produce the desired effect, the communicators are likely to claim they have Persuaded the children to become more self-reliant or independent; if not, they will probably lament the failure of their Persuasive mission and devise other strategies for coping with the problem. In short, the behaviors associated with “being Persuaded” are usually directly linked with more abstract attitudes and values that are prized by society or some significant segment of it—or, as Doob (1947) phrased it, responses considered socially significant by the individual’s society.
As indicated earlier, response-shaping is not limited to small children. When the first nuclear device exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, humanity witnessed the advent of a radically new energy source whose effects were so awesome they could scarcely be compared with anything preceding them. Before that August day, no one, save Perhaps a few sophisticated physicists and technologists, had acquired patterns of responding to concepts such as nuclear warfare and nuclear power because these concepts were literally unheard of by most Persons. That considerable response-shaping has occurred during the interim from 1945 to 1980 is attested to by the currently raging controversy regarding the wisdom of developing nuclear power sources; members of the Clamshell Alliance have been Persuaded that the dangers of nuclear power far outweigh its potential benefits, while officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Agency have been convinced that the contributions of nuclear energy can be realized without serious attendant risks for humankind.
It must be granted, of course, that such instances of response-shaping are often confounded by elements of people’s prior learning histories. While citizens of 1945 had acquired no established patterns of responding to the concept of nuclear warfare, most of them had developed response repertories vis-à-vis the concept of warfare. For those who already viewed warfare as ethically and politically irresponsible, nuclear weapons were yet a further argument for the abolition of armed conflict, a powerful new Persuasive weapon in their pacific arsenal. Conversely, those who sought to defend the continued utility of war as an instrument of national policy were forced to reevaluate their strategic doctrines; post-World War II Realpolitik, as embodied in the messages of spokespersons like Henry Kissinger, spawned doctrinal concepts such as limited war and strategic deterrence. (As an aside, these concepts have not seemed to carry the same Persuasive force as earlier ones; people who were motivated to enthusiastic efforts by the battle cry for “unconditional surrender” in World War II grew quickly disenchanted with the “limited war/limited objectives” rhetoric of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.)
In the case of the concept nuclear power, the confounding influences of prior learning, while more subtle, are nevertheless present. Arguing for greater concern with values than with attitudes in studying Persuasion, Rokeach (1973) has contended that
a Person has as many values as he has learned beliefs concerning desirable modes of conduct and end-states of existence, and as many attitudes as direct or indirect encounters he has had with specific objects and situations. It is thus estimated that values number in the dozens, whereas attitudes number in the thousands. (p. 18; see also Rokeach, 1968)
Applying Rokeach’s contention to this example, it follows that while individuals may have no established response patterns for the stimulus “nuclear power”—to use his terminology, they may have no present attitude about the issue—they are likely to have well-developed response repertories for terminal values (Rokeach, 1973) such as family security and a comfortable life. Inevitably, messages seeking to Persuade these Persons to adopt a particular response stance regarding nuclear power will be linked to these values. Thus, an anti-nuclear power spokesperson may assert, “The existence of nuclear power plants, such as Three Mile Island, poses a threat to the safety of your family,” while an advocate of increased development of nuclear power facili ties may contend, “Only by expanded use of nuclear power can you hope to retain the many comforts and conveniences you now enjoy.” In both cases, success in shaping the responses of the intended Persuadee hinges on the linkage of these responses to strongly held values; that is, the public will be Persuaded to the extent it Perceives that maintenance of an important value, or values, mandates adoption of a particular set of responses regarding the issue of nuclear power.
In spite of the limitations and complications just outlined, it remains useful to conceive of response-shaping and conditioning as one behavioral manifestation of “being Persuaded.” Traditionally, the Persuasion literature has characterized this process as “attitude formation,” reserving the term “attitude change” for attempts to replace one set of established behaviors with another. From a pragmatic vantage point, messages seeking to shape and condition responses may have a higher likelihood of success than do communications aiming to convert established behavioral patterns; in addition, the two goals may imply the use of differing Persuasive strategies. Moreover, from a scientific Perspective, the two outcomes may suggest different theoretical and empirical literatures; for example, learning theories thus far have been most frequently and profitably employed in the arena of response-shaping and conditioning. Thus, for Persuasive practitioners and researchers alike, the distinction possesses potential utility.
Being Persuaded as a Response-Reinforcing Process
Rather than aiming at changes in attitudes and behaviors, much Persuasive communication seeks to reinforce currently held convictions and to make them more resistant to change. Most Sunday sermons serve this function, as do keynote speeches at political conventions and presidential addresses at meetings of scholarly societies. In such cases, emphasis is on making the Persuadees more devout Methodists, more active Democrats, or more committed psychologists, not on converting them to Unitarianism, the Socialist Workers Party, or romance languages. (Miller & Burgoon, 1973, p. 5)
The position espoused in the preceding quotation is certainly not earth-shaking, even though the popular tendency to view Persuasion as a tool for bringing about conversion may cause people to overlook, or shortchange, this important behavioral outcome. The response-reinforcing function underscores the fact that “being Persuaded” is seldom, if ever, a one-message proposition; instead, people are constantly in the process of being Persuaded. If an individual clings to an attitude (and the behaviors associated with it) more strongly after exposure to a communication, then Persuasion has occurred as surely as if the individual had shifted from one set of responses to another. Moreover, those beliefs and behaviors most resistant to change are likely to be grounded in a long history of confirming messages along with other positive reinforcers. One current theory of attitude formation and change holds that the strength of people’s attitudes depends entirely on the number of incoming messages about the attitude issue they have processed (Saltiel & Woelfel, 1975).
There are strong grounds for believing that much Persuasive communication in our society serves a response-reinforcing function. Although students of Persuasion disagree about the extent to which the selective exposure principle (Festinger, 1957) dictates message choices (Freedman & Sears, 1965; Sears & Freedman, 1967), few, if any, would question people’s affinity for supportive information (McGuire, 1969). Such an affinity, in turn, suggests that under conditions of voluntary exposure, the majority of individuals’ Persuasive transactions will involve messages that reinforce their existing response repertories. This possibility is further supported by early mass media research documenting the reinforcement function served by the media (e.g., Katz & Lazarsfeld, 1955).
If people do, in fact, relish hearing what they already believe, it may seem that the response-reinforcing function of Persuasion is so simple as to require little concern. Distortion of information is not as likely to occur, and the initial credibility of the communicator should have less impact than in cases where Persuasive intent centers on response-shaping or behavioral change—although even in the case of response reinforcement, the work of Osgood and his associates (Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957; Osgood & Tannenbaum, 1955) indicates that extremely low credibility may inhibit Persuasive impact. Logical fallacies and evidential shortcomings are likely to be overlooked, while phenomena such as counterarguing (Brandt, 1976; Festinger & Maccoby, 1964; Osterhouse & Brock, 1970) will be largely absent. Unquestionably, message recipients are set to be Persuaded; hence, would-be Persuaders are assured of optimal conditions for plying their communicative wares.
Nevertheless, there are at least three good reasons for not losing sight of the response-reinforcing dimension of “being Persuaded.” For the practicing communicator, this dimension underscores the importance of keeping old Persuasive friends as well as making new ones. In the heat of a political campaign or a fund-raising drive, it may be tempting to center efforts on potential converts at the expense of ignoring those whose prevailing response tendencies already coincide with the intent of the political candidate or the fund-raiser. Such a mistake can easily yield low vote counts or depleted treasuries. Turning to the interpersonal sphere, close relationships may be damaged, or even terminated, because the parties take each other for granted—in the terminology employed here, fail to send Persuasive messages aimed at reinforcing mutually held positive attitudes and mutually Performed positive behaviors. In short, failure to recognize that being Persuaded is an ongoing process requiring Periodic message attention can harm one’s political aspirations, pocketbook, or romantic relationship.
The need for continued reinforcement of acquired responses also constitutes one possible explanation for the ephemerality of many Persuasion research outcomes. The typical Persuasion study involves a single message, presented to recipients under controlled laboratory conditions, with a measure of attitude or behavior change taken immediately afterward. On numerous occasions, researchers have observed immediate changes, only to discover that they have vanished when later follow-up measures were taken. Although a number of substantive and procedural reasons can be offered for the fleeting impact of the Persuasive stimulus, one obvious explanation rests in the likelihood that the behaviors engendered by the message received no further reinforcement after the recipients departed from the research setting. Thus, the response-reinforcing dimension of being Persuaded has implications for the way Persuasion researchers design and interpret their studies.
Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that all response-reinforcing strategies and schedules are not destined to be equally effective. Research using cultural truisms (McGuire, 1964, 1969) has demonstrated the low resistance to change that results when behaviors and attitudes rest on a history of nearly 100% positive reinforcement; apparently, too much exclusively behavior-congruent information is not a good thing. Although studies such as those of McGuire and of Burgoon and his associates (Burgoon & Chase, 1973; Burgoon & King, 1974) have been characterized as dealing with the problem of inducing resistance to Persuasion, the conceptualization that has been offered here views this label as a misnomer. Research dealing with the response-reinforcing function of Persuasion is research on how to Persuade, albeit in a different sense from what the popular use implies, a position that has also recently been espoused by other writers (Burgoon, Cohen, Miller, & Montgomery, 1978). Including response reinforcement as one of the three behavioral outcomes subsumed under the phrase “being Persuaded” not only calls attention to the continued need for research concerning the workings of the reinforcing process but also results in a tidier conceptualization than has previously existed.
Being Persuaded as a Response-Changing Process
As has been repeatedly noted, “being Persuaded” is most typically thought of as a response-changing process; smokers are Persuaded to become nonsmokers, automobile drivers are Persuaded to walk or use public transportation, Christians are Persuaded to become Moslems, and so on. Popular use equates “being Persuaded” with “being changed.” Moreover, definitions of Persuasions found in most texts emphasize the notion of changing responses (Bettinghaus, 1973; Cronkhite, 1969), and even when other terms such as modify (Brembeck & Howell, 1952) and influence (Scheidel, 1967) are used, the lion’s share of the text is devoted to analysis of Persuasion as a response-changing process.
This view of Persuasion is, of course, consistent with the ideological tenets of democratic societies. Problems of social and political change are problems of Persuasion; the public must be induced to change current attitudes and behaviors to comport with the realities of new situations. The current energy crisis provides a convenient illustration of the process at work. Eschewing more coercive steps such as rationing, those charged with managing America’s energy resources have bombarded the public with messages urging behavioral changes calculated to conserve these resources: dialing down thermostats, driving at slower speeds (a message buttressed by the coercive power of speeding laws), and voluntarily sharing rides—to mention but a few. Naturally, patience and faith in Persuasion are not boundless; nevertheless, the democratic ethic strongly mandates that attempts to change behavior symbolically should precede more coercive remedies.
If one departs from the realm of public policy issues to conceive also of Persuasion as a process involving modification of people’s relational behaviors, a step recently urged by this writer (Miller, 1978), the same change-centered orientation is readily apparent. For instance, the continuing popularity of Dale Carnegie-type courses rests primarily on the following claim: Our instruction will motivate you to change your manner of self-presentation (i.e., to alter established patterns of social behavior); this change, in turn, will cause others to change dramatically their patterns of responding to you (i.e., others will be Persuaded by your changed behavior to relate to you in different ways). Similarly, the popularity of Zimbardo’s (1977) shyness volume and the spate of books and courses that deal with assertiveness training attest to the Pervasiveness of people’s attempts to alter their ongoing social behaviors and, concomitantly, to Persuade others to respond differently to them. Although these processes are typically treated under rubrics such as interpersonal communication and interpersonal relations, the conceptualization outlined here argues that they should be counted as instances of the response-changing dimension of “being Persuaded.”
The largely unchallenged hegemony of the response-changing conception of Persuasion obviates the need for further discussion. Most prior research in Persuasion deals with behavioral change; at best, it treats response-shaping and response reinforcement indirectly. What remains in order to complete this analysis of the phrase “being Persuaded” is a brief consideration of the way Persuasive effects have typically been characterized.
Although terms such as response and behavior have been employed herein to refer to the effects of Persuasive communications, the concept of attitude has also been mentioned on several occasions. Its emergence is not surprising, for concern with attitude formation and change has consistently guided the efforts of Persuasion researchers ever since Allport (1935) confidently proclaimed attitude to be the single most important concept in social psychology. Notwithstanding widespread faith in the utility of the attitude construct, certain of its conceptual aspects pose knotty problems for students of Persuasion. If “being Persuaded” is to be considered synonymous with “shaping, reinforcing, and changing attitudes,” these problems eventually must be resolved.
In Persuasion research, an attitude is an intervening variable; that is, it is an internal mediator that intrudes between presentation of a particular overt stimulus and observation of a particular overt response (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Triandis, 1971). Oskamp (1977) captured the crux of the matter, stating, “In social science, the term [attitude] has come to mean ‘a posture of the mind’ rather than of the body” (p. 7).
Given its conceptual status, all statements about the construct of attitude (or attitude formation or attitude change) are, of necessity, inferential; no means exist for directly observing or measuring an attitude. If someone asserts, “Roloff has a positive attitude about research,” it means that the speaker has probably observed one or more of the following behaviors: Roloff proclaiming the importance of research, Roloff gathering data, Roloff writing research reports, Roloff forgoing a recreational outing to analyze data at the computer center, Roloff investing substantial sums of money in journals containing research reports, and so on. What the Person has not observed is Roloff’s attitude toward research; instead, his “positive attitude” is an inference (in the terminology of one currently popular theoretical position, an attribution) based on observation of Roloff’s research-related behaviors.
Although this point is patently obvious, its implications have often escaped Persuasion researchers. Nowhere has the mischief Perpetrated by this oversight been more evident than in the countless pages written about the misleadingly labeled attitude-behavior problem (Liska, 1975). The crux of this problem lies in the minimal relationship often observed between verbal indicators of an attitude (i.e., paper-and-pencil “attitude” scales) and other attitudinally related behaviors. While the issue centers on lack of correlation between two behavioral measures, Persuasion researchers have fallen into the trap of reifying the paper-and-pencil verbal reports traditionally used as inferential measures of the attitude construct.
Despite any rational justification for doing so, Persuasion researchers have continued to equate responses to these scales with the intervening variable of attitude and to speak of other responses as behavior—hence, the roots of the so-called attitude-behavior problem. (Miller, 1980, p. 322)
Pointing out this basic conceptual confusion in no way suggests that the minimal relationships observed between verbal attitude reports and other attitudinally related behaviors are unimportant to Persuasion researchers. Because they are convenient to administer and lend themselves to a variety of statistical operations, paper-and-pencil verbal reports have been, and are likely to continue to be, widely used to measure Persuasive effects. Any useful, reasonably fully developed theory of Persuasion must seek to identify the conditions that determine when verbal reports will be correlated with other types of attitudinal behavior. Still, the continuing emphasis on attitude as the primary dependent variable, along with the prevailing tendency to view verbal reports as attitudes, may have done more to hinder this search than to help it.
Most writers also posit that attitudes are motivational or drive producing (Allport, 1935; Doob, 1947; Oskamp, 1977). Whether current methods of attitude measurement tap this drive-producing dimension is open to serious question. The motivational force of an attitude stems from the strength or intensity with which it is held. Most widely used attitude scales measure only the magnitude of the attitude’s deviation from zero, in other words, the degree of positiveness or negativeness respondents assign to their positions. If pressed, many Persuasion researchers would probably argue that extremely deviating responses—for example, plus three or minus three responses on a seven-interval, semantic differential-type scale—reflect more strongly held attitudes than do responses falling closer to the scale’s midpoint. There is no necessary relationship between the position of one’s attitude about an issue and the strength with which the attitude is held; position and intensity may be viewed usefully as two relatively independent dimensions. Undoubtedly, people frequently have middling plus three or minus three attitudes; they may, for example, say that killing harp seals is very good or very bad yet not feel strongly about the issue. Conversely, less sharply polarized viewpoints sometimes may be held with great intensity; after weighing the matter thoroughly, an individual may conclude that killing harp seals is slightly good or slightly bad and at the same time feel quite strongly about the issue. It should be noted that the drive-producing potential of the attitude is one potentially important determinant of the extent to which verbal responses will correlate with other attitudinally consistent behaviors; if a respondent consistently says that killing harp seals is very bad but the issue is relatively uninvolving, that Person will be unlikely to engage in more demanding, higher threshold responses (Campbell, 1963) such as giving money to naturalist organizations that oppose harp seal harvests, circulating anti-harp seal harvest petitions, and journeying to the scene of the harvest to demonstrate against it. On the other hand, if the issue is very involving and the drive-producing potential of the attitude is therefore high, these related behaviors are more likely to occur.
In some preliminary work, several of us (Miller, 1967; Peretz, 1974) have sought to index the drive-producing potential of attitudinal stimuli by measuring the vigor of the respondent’s behavior (Brown, 1961). Rather than marking responses to attitudinal stimuli on paper, respondents press the appropriate button and the vigor of the button press is recorded. Because respondents experiencing high drive states are expected to behave more vigorously, the magnitude of the button press is assumed to be directly related to the attitude’s intensity. Although findings have been mixed as well as confounded with numerous technical problems encountered in developing the instrumentation, some encouraging results have been obtained. In one study, Michigan State University football players responded quite vigorously to highly involving items dealing with the abolition of football scholarships and the presumed academic inferiority of athletes while at the same time responding less vigorously (yet positively or negatively) to items judged on an a priori basis to be less involving.
If using attitude as a primary behavioral indicant of “being Persuaded” poses Perplexing problems, what can be done to remedy the situation? One approach lies in retaining the construct while at the same time seeking to refine it and add to its utility by building more comprehensive models of attitude change (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975). A second possibility involves replacing attitude with some other intervening construct such as value (Rokeach, 1968, 1973). Finally, Persuasion researchers can abandon their reliance on mediating processes and focus exclusively on behavioristic analyses of Persuasive effects. Although this latter possibility has received limited attention, a recent controversial paper (Larson & Sanders, 1975) has questioned the utility of predispositional mediating constructs and suggested that the function of Persuasion might be viewed more fruitfully as the appropriate alignment of behavior in various social situations.
Regardless of the direction in which a researcher’s preferences may point, it remains clear that “being Persuaded” is a process grounded in behavioral data. No matter whether the goal is shaping, reinforcing, or changing responses, both practical and scientific successes hinge on careful observation and measurement of Persuasive impact. Perhaps inferences to intervening variables, such as attitudes and values, will eventually prove indispensable to theoretical success, but these constructs are not essential ingredients of the conceptual analysis of “being Persuaded” that has been offered in this chapter.