Persuasive Communication (Psychology of Persuasion)

persuasive communication

Some of the most chilling examples of persuasive communication come from the middle of the last century – in particular the speeches made by Adolf Hitler at the gigantic Nazi Party rallies in the 1930s and early 1940s. The assembles masses appeared mesmerized to the extent that they would do whatever the dictator willed them to do. More generally, the study of persuasive communication connects with the study of leadership, rhetoric, and social mobilization and crowd behavior.

However, social psychological research on the relationship between persuasive communication and attitude change is more narrowly focused, and is most closely associated with advertising. According to Schwerin and Newell, behavioral change ‘obviously cannot occur without [attitude change] having taken place;. For a long time, social psychologists have been interested in the nature of successful versus unsuccessful persuasion. Yet, despite the large part that persuasive messages play in influencing social behavior, only in the past thirty or so years have social scientists studies what makes persuasive messages effective.

Systematic investigation began towards the end of the Second World War. Carl Hovland was employed by the United States War Department to investigate research questions arising from the extensive use of wartime propaganda. After the war, Hovland continued this work at Yale University in what was the first coordinated research program dealing with the social psychology of persuasion. Research funding was again politically motivated, this time by Cold War considerations – the United States’ perception of threat from the Soviet Union, and its ‘wish to justify its ways to the classes and win the hearts and minds of the masses’. The main features of this pioneering work were outlines in the research team’s book, Communication and Persuasion (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953). They suggested that the key to understanding why people would attend to, understand, remember and accept a persuasive message was to study the characteristics of the person presenting the message, the contents of the message, and the characteristics of the receiver of the message.

The general model of the Yale approach, shown in the table below, is still employed as the basis of contemporary communications theory in marketing and advertising (see Belch & Belch).





  • Order of arguments
  • One- vs two-sided arguments
  • Type of appeal
  • Explicit vs implicit conclusion



Opinion change


  • Expertise
  • Trustworthiness
  • Likeability
  • Status
  • Race


Perception Change


  • Persuability
  • Initial position
  • Intelligence
  • Self-esteem
  • Personality


Affect change



Action Change

Hovland, Janis and Kelley asked, ‘Who says what to whom and with what effect’ and studied three general variables involved in persuasion:

  1. the communicator, or the source (who);
  2. the communication, or message (what);
  3. the audience (to whom).

Hovland and his colleagues identified four distinct steps in the persuasion process: attention, comprehension, acceptance and retention. This research program spanned nearly three decades and produces a vast amount of data.  Bellow is a summary of the main findings.

Characteristics of a communication likely to lead to attitude change
Finding         Factor
  • Experts are more persuasive than non-experts (Hovland & Weiss, 1952). The same arguments carry more weight when delivered by someone who presumably knows all the facts.
  • Popular and attractive communicators are more effective than unpopular or unattractive ones (Kiesler & Kiesler, 1969).
  • People who speak rapidly are more persuasive than people who speak slowly (Miller, Maruyama, Beaber, & Valone, 1976). One reason is that rapid speech conveys the impression that the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.
  • We are more easily persuaded if we think the message is not deliberately intended to persuade or manipulate us (Walster & Festinger, 1962).
  • Persuasion can be enhanced by messages that arouse fear in the audience (Leventhal, Singer, & Jones, 1965). To persuade people to stop smoking, for instance, it may be useful to create a fear of dying from lung cancer by showing a cancerous lung to smokers. You have seen this approach in television adverts designed to reduce the road toll or promote safely in the workplace.
  • Persuasion can be enhanced by using evaluatively biased language, but these effects depend on the amount of cognitive effort (van Schie, Martjin, & vab der Pligt, 1994). [Evaluatively biased language refers to using evaluatively biased terms in judging an attitudinal issue.]
  • People with low self-esteem are persuaded more easily than people with high self-esteem (Janis, 1954).
  • People are sometimes more susceptible to persuasion when they are distracted than when playing full attention, at least when the message is simple (Allyn & Festinger, 1961)
  • When persuasion is tough – that is, when the audience is hostile – it is more effective to present both sides of the issue than just one side (Hovland, Lumsdaine, & Sheffield, 1949).
Message and audience
  • A message is less persuasive when given in a powerless linguistic style (frequent hedges, tag questions and hesitations) than in a powerful linguistic style (absence of the mentioned features). The speakers and the arguments are perceived more negatively with a powerless linguist (Holtgraves &Lasky, 1999).

Not all findings from the early Yale research program have lasted. Baumeister and Covington (1985) found that people with high self-esteem are just as easily persuaded as those with low self-esteem are just as easily persuaded as those with low self-esteem, but they do not want to admit it. When persuasion does occur, people may even deny it. Bem and McConnell (1970) found that when people do succumb to persuasion they conveniently fail to recall their original opinion.

Most contemporary social psychologists view the persuasion process as a series of steps. They do not always agree about what the important steps are, but they do agree that the audience has at least to pay attention to the communicator’s message, understand the context and think about what was said (Eagly & Chaiken, 1984).  The audience’s thoughts are critical in this process (Petty and Cacioppo, 1981); the message will ultimately be accepted if it arouses favorable thoughts, whereas it will be rejected if the recipients argue strongly against it in their minds.

People are not oblivious to persuasion attempts. We can hardly avoid commercial advertising, public education programs and political propaganda. Interestingly, most people consider that they are less likely to be influenced than others by advertisements. This has been called the third-person effect (‘You and I are not influenced, but they are’). For example, if we see a mundane product being advertised by using attractive models in an exotic setting, we assume that we (and those like us) are wiser than others to the tricks of the advertising industry. In reality, we are just as susceptible.

Source: “Persuasive communications,” from Social Psychology, by Michael A. Hogg and Graham M. Vaughan

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