Two Routes to Persuasion



15 ❖

Two Routes to Persuasion

Persuasion is everywhere—at the heart of politics, marketing, court-ship, parenting, negotiation, evangelism, and courtroom decision making. Social psychologists therefore seek to understand what leads to effective, long-lasting attitude change. What factors affect per- suasion? As persuaders, how can we most effectively “educate” others? Imagine that you are a marketing or advertising executive. Or imagine that you are a preacher, trying to increase love and charity among your parishioners. Or imagine that you want to promote energy conservation, to encourage breastfeeding, or to campaign for a political candidate. What could you do to make yourself and your message persuasive? And if you are wary of being influenced, to what tactics should you be alert? To answer such questions, social psychologists usually study persua- sion the way some geologists study erosion—by observing the effects of various factors in brief, controlled experiments. The effects are gradual and are most potent on weak attitudes that don’t touch our values. Yet they enable us to understand how, given enough time, such factors could produce big effects.

THE TWO ROUTES In choosing tactics, you must first decide: Should you focus mostly on building strong central arguments? Or should you make your message appealing by associating it with favorable peripheral cues, such as sex appeal? Persuasion researchers Richard Petty and John Cacioppo (Coss-ee-oh-poh) (1986; Petty & others, 2005) and Alice Eagly and Shelly Chaiken (1993)

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report that persuasion is likely to occur via either a central or a periph- eral route. When people are motivated and able to think about an issue, they are likely to take the central route to persuasion—focusing on the arguments. If those arguments are strong and compelling, persuasion is likely. If the message offers only weak arguments, thoughtful people will notice that the arguments aren’t very compelling and will counterargue. But sometimes the strength of the arguments doesn’t matter. Some- times we’re not motivated enough or able to think carefully. If we’re distracted, uninvolved, or just plain busy, we may not take the time to reflect on the message’s content. Rather than noticing whether the argu- ments are particularly compelling, we might follow the peripheral route to persuasion—focusing on cues that trigger automatic acceptance with- out much thinking. Smart advertisers adapt ads to their consumers’ thinking. They do so for good reason. Much of consumer behavior—such as one’s spontaneous decision, while shopping, to pick up some ice cream of a particular brand—is made unthinkingly (Dijksterhuis & oth- ers, 2005). Something as minor as German music may lead customers to buy German wine, whereas others, hearing French music, reach for French wine (North & others, 1997). Billboards and television commer- cials—media that consumers are able to take in for only brief amounts of time—therefore use the peripheral route, with visual images as periph- eral cues. Instead of providing arguments in favor of smoking, cigarette ads associate the product with images of beauty and pleasure. So do soft-drink ads that promote “the real thing” with images of youth, vital- ity, and happy polar bears. On the other hand, magazine computer ads (which interested, logical consumers may pore over for some time) sel- dom feature Hollywood stars or great athletes. Instead they offer cus- tomers information on competitive features and prices. These two routes to persuasion—one explicit and reflective, the other more implicit and automatic—were a forerunner to today’s “dual pro- cessing” models of the human mind. Central route processing often swiftly changes explicit attitudes. Peripheral route processing more slowly builds implicit attitudes, through repeated associations between an attitude object and an emotion (Petty & Briňol, 2008). None of us has the time to thoughtfully analyze all issues. Often we take the peripheral route, by using simple rule-of-thumb heuristics, such as “trust the experts” or “long messages are credible” (Chaiken & Maheswaran, 1994). Residents of my community once voted on a complicated issue involving the legal ownership of our local hospital. I didn’t have the time or the interest to study that question myself (I had this book to write). But I noted that referendum supporters were all people I either liked or regarded as experts. So I used a simple heuristic—friends and experts can be trusted— and voted accordingly. We all make snap judgments using such heuristics: If a speaker is articulate and appealing, has apparently good motives, and has several arguments (or better, if the different arguments come from

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different sources), we usually take the easy peripheral route and accept the message without much thought (Figure 15-1).

THE ELEMENTS OF PERSUASION Among the ingredients of persuasion explored by social psychologists are these four: (1) the communicator, (2) the message, (3) how the mes- sage is communicated, and (4) the audience. In other words, who says what, by what method, to whom?

Who Says? The Communicator Imagine the following scene: I. M. Wright, a middle-aged American, is watching the evening news. In the first segment, a small group of radicals is shown burning an American flag. As they do, one shouts through a bullhorn that whenever any government becomes oppressive, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. . . . It is their right, it is their


Analytical and motivated

Not analytical or involved


High effort


Agree or counterargue

Low effort

Use peripheral cues

Rule-of-thumb heuristics


Cogent arguments evoke enduring agreement

Cues trigger liking and acceptance but often only temporarily


Ce ntra

l route

Peripheral route

“Leslie’s economic plan makes sense! I’ll vote for Leslie!”

“Leslie seems nice, I’ll vote for Leslie!”

FIGURE 15-1 The central and peripheral routes to persuasion. Computer ads typically take the central route, by assuming their audience wants to systematically compare features and prices. Soft-drink ads usually take the peripheral route, by merely associating their product with glamour, pleasure, and good moods. Central route processing more often produces enduring attitude change.

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duty, to throw off such government!” Angered, Mr. Wright mutters to his wife, “It’s sickening to hear them spouting that Communist line.” In the next segment, a presidential candidate speaking before an antitax rally declares, “Thrift should be the guiding principle in our government expenditure. It should be made clear to all government workers that cor- ruption and waste are very great crimes.” An obviously pleased Mr. Wright relaxes and smiles: “Now that’s the kind of good sense we need. That’s my kinda guy.” Now switch the scene. Imagine Mr. Wright hearing the same revo- lutionary line about “the Right of the People” at a July 4 oration of the Declaration of Independence (from which the line comes) and hearing a Communist speaker read the thrift sentence from Quotations from Chair- man Mao Zedong (from which it comes). Would he now react differently? Social psychologists have found that who is saying something does affect how an audience receives it. In one experiment, when the Socialist and Liberal leaders in the Dutch parliament argued identical positions using the same words, each was most effective with members of his own party (Wiegman, 1985). It’s not just the message that matters, but also who says it. What makes one communicator more persuasive than another?

Credibility Any of us would find a statement about the benefits of exercise more believable if it came from the Royal Society or National Academy of Sciences rather than from a tabloid newspaper. But the effects of source credibility (perceived expertise and trustworthiness) diminish after a month or so. If a credible person’s message is persuasive, its impact may fade as its source is forgotten or dissociated from the message. And the impact of a noncredible person may correspondingly increase over time if people remember the message better than the reason for discounting it (Cook & Flay, 1978; Gruder & others, 1978; Pratkanis & others, 1988). This delayed persuasion, after people forget the source or its connection with the message, is called the sleeper effect.

Attractiveness Most of us deny that endorsements by star athletes and entertainers affect us. We know that stars are seldom knowledgeable about the prod- ucts they endorse. Besides, we know the intent is to persuade us; we don’t just accidentally eavesdrop on Jennifer Lopez discussing clothes or fragrances. Such ads are based on another characteristic of an effective communicator: attractiveness. We may think we are not influenced by attractiveness or likability, but researchers have found otherwise. We’re more likely to respond to those we like, a phenomenon well known to those organizing charitable solicitations and candy sales. Even a mere fleeting conversation with someone is enough to increase our liking for that person, and our

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responsiveness to his or her influence (Burger & others, 2001). Our liking may open us up to the communicator’s arguments (central route persua- sion), or it may trigger positive associations when we see the product later (peripheral route persuasion). Attractiveness comes in several forms. Physical attractiveness is one. Arguments, especially emotional ones, are often more influential when they come from people we consider beautiful (Chaiken, 1979; Dion & Stein, 1978; Pallak & others, 1983). Similarity is another. As Module 26 will emphasize, we tend to like people who are like us. We also are influenced by them, a fact that has been harnessed by a successful antismoking campaign that features youth appeal- ing to other youth through ads that challenge the tobacco industry about its destructiveness and its marketing practices (Krisberg, 2004). People who act as we do, subtly mimicking our postures, are likewise more influential. Thus salespeople are sometimes taught to “mimic and mirror”: If the cus- tomer’s arms or legs are crossed, cross yours; if she smiles, smile back. Another example: Theodore Dembroski, Thomas Lasater, and Albert Ramirez (1978) gave African American junior high students an audiotaped appeal for proper dental care. When a dentist assessed the cleanliness of their teeth the next day, those who heard the appeal from an African American dentist had cleaner teeth. As a general rule, peo- ple respond better to a message that comes from someone in their group (Van Knippenberg & Wilke, 1992; Wilder, 1990).

What Is Said? The Message Content It matters not only who says something but also what that person says. If you were to help organize an appeal to get people to vote for school taxes or to stop smoking or to give money to world hunger relief, you might wonder how best to promote central route persuasion. Common sense could lead you to either side of these questions:

• Is a logical message more persuasive—or one that arouses emotion?

• Will you get more opinion change by advocating a position only slightly discrepant from the listeners’ existing opinions or by advocating an extreme point of view?

• Should the message express your side only, or should it acknowledge and refute the opposing views?

• If people are to present both sides—say, in successive talks at a community meeting or in a political debate—is there an advan- tage to going first or last?

Let’s take these questions one at a time.

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Reason Versus Emotion Suppose you were campaigning in support of world hunger relief. Would you best itemize your arguments and cite an array of impressive statis- tics? Or would you be more effective presenting an emotional approach— perhaps the compelling story of one starving child? Of course, an argu- ment can be both reasonable and emotional. You can marry passion and logic. Still, which is more influential—reason or emotion? Was Shakespeare’s Lysander right: “The will of man is by his reason sway’d”? Or was Lord Chesterfield’s advice wiser: “Address yourself generally to the senses, to the heart, and to the weaknesses of mankind, but rarely to their reason”? The answer: It depends on the audience. Well-educated or analytical people are responsive to rational appeals (Cacioppo & others, 1983, 1996; Hovland & others, 1949). Thoughtful, involved audiences often travel the central route; they are more responsive to reasoned arguments. Unin- terested audiences more often travel the peripheral route; they are more affected by their liking of the communicator (Chaiken, 1980; Petty & others, 1981). To judge from interviews before major elections, many voters are uninvolved. As we might therefore expect, Americans’ voting prefer- ences have been more predictable from emotional reactions to the can- didates than from their beliefs about the candidates’ traits and likely behaviors (Abelson & others, 1982).

The Effect Of Good Feelings Messages also become more persuasive through association with good feelings. Irving Janis and his colleagues (1965; Dabbs & Janis, 1965) found that Yale students were more convinced by persuasive messages if they were allowed to enjoy peanuts and Pepsi while reading the mes- sages. Similarly, Mark Galizio and Clyde Hendrick (1972) found that Kent State University students were more persuaded by folk-song lyrics accompanied by pleasant guitar music than they were by unaccompa- nied lyrics. There is, it seems, something to be gained from conducting business over sumptuous lunches with soft background music. Good feelings often enhance persuasion, partly by enhancing posi- tive thinking and partly by linking good feelings with the message (Petty & others, 1993). As we noted previously, people who are in a good mood view the world through rose-colored glasses. But they also make faster, more impulsive decisions; they rely more on peripheral cues (Bodenhausen, 1993; Braverman, 2005; Moons & Mackie, 2007). Unhappy people rumi- nate more before reacting, so they are less easily swayed by weak argu- ments. (They also produce more cogent persuasive messages [Forgas, 2007].) Thus, if you can’t make a strong case, you might want to put your audience in a good mood and hope they’ll feel good about your message without thinking too much about it.

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The Effect of Arousing Fear Messages can also be effective by evoking negative emotions. When per- suading people to cut down on smoking, get a tetanus shot, or drive carefully, a fear-arousing message can be potent (de Hoog & others, 2007; Muller & Johnson, 1990). By requiring cigarette makers to include graphic representations of the hazards of smoking on each pack of cigarettes, the Canadian government assumed—correctly, it turns out—that showing cigarette smokers the horrible things that can happen to smokers adds to persuasiveness (O’Hegarty & others, 2007; Peters & others, 2007; Stark & others, 2008). But how much fear should you arouse? Should you evoke just a little fear, lest people become so frightened that they tune out your painful message? Or should you try to scare the daylights out of them? Experiments by Howard Leventhal (1970), by Ronald Rogers and his collaborators (Robberson & Rogers, 1988), and by Natascha de Hoog and her colleagues (2007) show that, often, the more frightened and vulnerable people feel, the more they respond. The effectiveness of fear-arousing communications is being applied in ads discouraging not only smoking but also risky sexual behaviors and drinking and driving. When Claude Levy-Leboyer (1988) found that attitudes toward alcohol and drinking habits among French youth were changed effectively by fear-arousing pictures, the French government incorporated such pictures into its TV spots. An effective antismoking ad campaign offered graphic “truth” ads. In one, vans pull up outside an unnamed corporate tobacco office. Teens pile out and unload 1,200 body bags covering two city blocks. As a curi- ous corporate suit peers out a window above, a teen shouts into a loud- speaker: “Do you know how many people tobacco kills every day?. . . . We’re going to leave these here for you, so you can see what 1,200 people actually look like” (Nicholson, 2007). While teens who viewed a simulta- neous cerebral Philip Morris ad lecturing, “Think. Don’t Smoke” were not less likely to smoke, those viewing the more dramatic and edgy ad became significantly less inclined to smoke (Farrelly & others, 2002, 2008). Fear-arousing communications have also been used to increase peo- ple’s detection behaviors, such as getting mammograms, doing breast or testicular self-exams, and checking for signs of skin cancer. Sara Banks, Peter Salovey, and their colleagues (1995) had women aged 40–66 who had not obtained mammograms view an educational video on mammography. Of those who received a positively framed message (emphasizing that getting a mammogram can save your life through early detection), only half got a mammogram within 12 months. Of those who received a fear-framed message (emphasizing that not getting a mammogram can cost you your life), two-thirds got a mammogram within 12 months. People may engage in denial because, when they aren’t told how to avoid the danger, frightening messages can be overwhelming (Leventhal,

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1970; Rogers & Mewborn, 1976). For that reason, fear-arousing messages are more effective if they lead people not only to fear the severity and likelihood of a threatened event but also to perceive a solution and feel capable of implementing it (DeVos-Comby & Salovey, 2002; Maddux & Rogers, 1983; Ruiter & others, 2001). Many ads designed to reduce sexual risks will aim both to arouse fear—“AIDS kills”—and to offer a protec- tive strategy: Abstain, or wear a condom, or save sex for a committed relationship.

To Whom Is It Said? The Audience It also matters who receives a message. Let’s consider two other audience characteristics: age and thoughtfulness.

How Old Are They? As evident during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign—with John McCain the decided favorite of older voters and Barack Obama of younger voters—people’s social and political attitudes correlate with their age. Social psychologists offer two possible explanations for age differences. One is a life cycle explanation: Attitudes change (for example, become more conservative) as people grow older. The other is a genera- tional explanation: Attitudes do not change; older people largely hold onto the attitudes they adopted when they were young. Because these atti- tudes are different from those being adopted by young people today, a generation gap develops. The evidence mostly supports the generational explanation. In sur- veys and resurveys of groups of younger and older people over several years, the attitudes of older people usually show less change than do those of young people. As David Sears (1979, 1986) put it, researchers have “almost invariably found generational rather than life cycle effects.” The teens and early twenties are important formative years (Koenig & others, 2008; Krosnick & Alwin, 1989). Attitudes are changeable then, and the attitudes formed tend to stabilize through middle adulthood. Gallup interviews of more than 120,000 people suggest that political atti- tudes formed at age 18—relatively Republican-favoring during the pop- ular Reagan era, and more Democratic-favoring during the unpopular George W. Bush era—tend to last (Silver, 2009). Young people might therefore be advised to choose their social influences—the groups they join, the media they imbibe, the roles they adopt—carefully. In analyzing National Opinion Research Center archives, James Davis (2004) discovered, for example, that Americans reaching age 16 during the 1960s have, ever since, been more politically liberal than average. Much as tree rings can, years later, reveal the telltale marks laid down by a drought, so attitudes decades later may reveal the events, such as the Vietnam war and civil rights era of the 1960s, that

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shaped the adolescent and early-twenties mind. For many people, these years are a critical period for the formation of attitudes and values. Adolescent and early-adult experiences are formative partly because they make deep and lasting impressions. When Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott (1989) asked people to name the one or two most impor- tant national or world events of the previous half-century, most recalled events from their teens or early twenties. For those who experienced the Great Depression or World war II as 16- to 24-year-olds, those events overshadowed the civil rights movement and the Kennedy assassination of the early sixties, the Vietnam war and moon landing of the late sixties, and the women’s movement of the seventies—all of which were imprinted on the minds of younger people who experienced them as 16- to 24-year-olds. We may therefore expect that today’s young adults will include events such as 9/11 and the Iraq war as memorable turning points. That is not to say that older adults are inflexible. Studies conducted by Norval Glenn in 1980 and 1981 found that most people in their fifties and sixties had more liberal sexual and racial attitudes than they had in their thirties and forties. Given the “sexual revolution” that began in the 1960s and became mainstream in the 1970s, these middle-aged people had apparently changed with the times. Few of us are utterly uninflu- enced by changing cultural norms. Moreover, near the end of their lives, older adults may again become more susceptible to attitude change, per- haps because of a decline in the strength of their attitudes (Visser & Krosnick, 1998).

What Are They Thinking? The crucial aspect of central route persuasion is not the message but the responses it evokes in a person’s mind. Our minds are not sponges that soak up whatever pours over them. If the message summons favorable thoughts, it persuades us. If it provokes us to think of contrary argu- ments, we remain unpersuaded.

Forewarned Is Forearmed—If You Care Enough to Counterargue. What circumstances breed counterargument? One is knowing that someone is going to try to persuade you. If you had to tell your family that you wanted to drop out of school, you would likely anticipate their pleading with you to stay. So you might develop a list of arguments to counter every conceivable argument they might make. Jonathan Freedman and David Sears (1965) demonstrated the diffi- culty of trying to persuade people under such circumstances. They warned one group of California high schoolers that they were going to hear a talk: “Why Teenagers Should Not Be Allowed to Drive.” Those forewarned did not budge in their opinions. Others, not forewarned, did budge. In courtrooms, too, defense attorneys sometimes forewarn juries

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about prosecution evidence to come. With mock juries, such “stealing thunder” neutralizes its impact (Dolnik & others, 2003).

Distraction Disarms Counterarguing. Persuasion is also enhanced by a distraction that inhibits counterarguing (Festinger & Maccoby, 1964; Keating & Brock, 1974; Osterhouse & Brock, 1970). Political ads often use this technique. The words promote the candidate, and the visual images keep us occupied so we don’t analyze the words. Distrac- tion is especially effective when the message is simple (Harkins & Petty, 1981; Regan & Cheng, 1973). Sometimes, though, distraction pre- cludes our processing an ad. That helps explain why ads viewed dur- ing violent or sexual TV programs are so often unremembered and ineffective (Bushman, 2005, 2007).

Uninvolved Audiences Use Peripheral Cues. Recall the two routes to persuasion—the central route of systematic thinking and the peripheral route of heuristic cues. Like a road that winds through a small town, the central route has starts and stops as the mind analyzes arguments and formulates responses. Like the freeway that bypasses the town, the peripheral route speeds people to their destination. Analytical people— those with a high need for cognition—enjoy thinking carefully and prefer central routes (Cacioppo & others, 1996). People who like to conserve their mental resources—those with a low need for cognition—are quicker to respond to such peripheral cues as the communicator’s attractiveness and the pleasantness of the surroundings. This simple theory—that what we think in response to a message is crucial, especially if we are motivated and able to think about it—has generated many predictions, most of which have been confirmed by Petty, Cacioppo, and others (Axsom & others, 1987; Haddock & others, 2008; Harkins & Petty, 1987). Many experiments have explored ways to stimulate people’s thinking

• by using rhetorical questions. • by presenting multiple speakers (for example, having each of

three speakers give one argument instead of one speaker giving three).

• by making people feel responsible for evaluating or passing along the message.

• by repeating the message. • by getting people’s undistracted attention.

The consistent finding with each of these techniques: Stimulating thinking makes strong messages more persuasive and (because of counterar- guing) weak messages less persuasive.

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The theory also has practical implications. Effective communicators care not only about their images and their messages but also about how their audience is likely to react. The best instructors tend to get students to think actively. They ask rhetorical questions, provide intriguing exam- ples, and challenge students with difficult problems. All these techniques are likely to foster a process that moves information through the central route to persuasion. In classes where the instruction is less engaging, you can provide your own central processing. If you think about the material and elaborate on the arguments, you are likely to do better in the course. During the final days of a closely contested 1980 U.S. presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan effectively used rhetorical questions to stimu- late desired thoughts in voters’ minds. His summary statement in the presidential debate began with two potent rhetorical questions that he repeated often during the campaign’s remaining week: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?” Most people answered no, and Reagan, thanks partly to the way he prodded people to take the central route, won by a bigger-than-expected margin.

THE TWO ROUTES TO PERSUASION IN THERAPY One constructive use of persuasion is in counseling and psychotherapy, which social-counseling psychologist Stanley Strong views “as a branch of applied social psychology” (1978, p. 101). By the 1990s, more and more psychologists had accepted the idea that social influence, one person affecting another, is at the heart of therapy. Early analyses of psychotherapeutic influence focused on how ther- apists establish credible expertise and trustworthiness and how their credibility enhances their influence (Strong, 1968). Later analyses focused less on the therapist than on how the interaction affects the client’s think- ing (Cacioppo & others, 1991; McNeill & Stoltenberg, 1988; Neimeyer & others, 1991). Peripheral cues, such as therapist credibility, may open the door for ideas that the therapist can now get the client to think about. But the thoughtful central route to persuasion provides the most endur- ing attitude and behavior change. Therapists should therefore aim not to elicit a client’s superficial agreement with their expert judgment but to change the client’s own thinking. Fortunately, most clients entering therapy are motivated to take the central route––to think deeply about their problems under the therapist’s guidance. The therapist’s task is to offer arguments and raise questions calculated to elicit favorable thoughts. The therapist’s insights matter less than the thoughts they evoke in the client. The therapist needs to put

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things in ways that a client can hear and understand, comments that will prompt agreement rather than counterargument, and that will allow time and space for the client to reflect. Questions such as “How do you respond to what I just said?” can stimulate the client’s thinking. Martin Heesacker (1989) illustrates with the case of Dave, a 35-year-old male graduate student. Having seen what Dave denied—an underlying substance abuse problem—the counselor drew on his knowledge of Dave, an intellectual person who liked hard evidence, in persuading him to accept the diagnosis and join a treatment-support group. The coun- selor said, “OK, if my diagnosis is wrong, I’ll be glad to change it. But let’s go through a list of the characteristics of a substance abuser to check out my accuracy.” The counselor then went through each criterion slowly, giving Dave time to think about each point. As he finished, Dave sat back and exclaimed, “I don’t believe it: I’m a damned alcoholic.” In his 1620 Pensées, the philosopher Pascal foresaw this principle: “People are usually more convinced by reasons they discover themselves than by those found by others.” It’s a principle worth remembering.

persuasion The process by which a message induces change in beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors.

central route to persuasion Occurs when interested people focus on the arguments and respond with favorable thoughts.

peripheral route to persuasion Occurs when people are influ- enced by incidental cues, such as a speaker’s attractiveness.

credibility Believability. A credible communicator is perceived as both expert and trustworthy.

sleeper effect A delayed impact of a message that occurs when an initially discounted mes- sage becomes effective, as we remember the message but forget the reason for discounting it.

attractiveness Having qualities that appeal to an audience. An appealing communicator (often someone similar to the audience) is most persuasive on matters of subjective preference.


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