‘Persuasion is where a deliberate attempt is made to change people’s attitudes and is concerned with the cognitive process involved in how that change is bought about’ (Petty and Cacioppo 1981:190). In terms of social psychological research, do we know all that there is to know about persuasion? Can we use it to control manipulation? As people are likely to be exposed to some form of persuasion in everyday life, it is easy to overlook how our opinions can be influenced by external forces. Persuasive techniques are evident throughout society in areas such as: politics, advertising, media, religion and education. Psychological research can be used effectively by these institutions in order to change the attitude of the public. For example, this is evident in the transition from the use of behavioural techniques in advertising, to modern day usage of attractive communicators in society (Atkinson 1984). Psychological exploration of persuasion techniques formally began at the beginning of the 20th century where research has originated from two schools of thought; the traditional approach and the social psychological critique. The traditional approach believes that persuasion must be studied scientifically whereas critiques claim that there is no objective truth (Stainton Rogers 2003). This essay will outline the findings of these approaches and use them to demonstrate how the secrets of persuasion are becoming increasingly exposed.
This ‘science of persuasion’ was adopted by Traditional psychologists who believe that persuasion should be studied using scientific methodologies (Billig 1996:81). Their nomothetic approach aims to uncover trends amongst variables from which they can create laws of persuasion (Billig 1996). Arguably it was early Greek philosophers such as Protagoras and Aristotle, who first provided an insight into the secrets of persuasion. However, many argue that these insights are irrelevant as they did not know what we know now (Billig 1996). Petty, Ostrom and Brock (1981) claim that ‘although the first set of principles governing the art of persuasion was recorded in the fourth century B.C., it was not until the present century that attitude change was investigated experimentally’ (Billig 1996:94). On the other hand, Bryant (1965) claims that ‘though modern psychology is very different from that of the Greeks, and doubtless more scientific, modern enlightenment has produced no new method of analysing an audience which can replace Aristotle’s’ (Billig 1996,:94). If persuasion is to be studied from a scientific stand point, we can consider Kuhn’s notion of a ‘normal science’. He states that knowledge is not accumulated like building blocks; old blocks are simply replaced by new ones. This would suggest that any findings on persuasion by Greek philosophers have been ‘replaced’ by knowledge of modern social psychologists. Does this mean that ‘old’ knowledge concerning secrets of persuasion no longer holds any relevance? Many Traditional Psychologists would say yes however, Billig argues otherwise (Billig 1996).
Aronson (1976) claims that ‘although Aristotle first asserted some of the basic principles of social influence and persuasion around 350 B.C., it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that those principles were put to experimental tests by Carl Hovland and his associates’. (Billig 1996:94). This is argued to be the earliest influential research on uncovering the secrets of persuasion. Hovland (1949) and his colleagues served as chief psychologists for the U.S. War Department during World War II and carried out a scientific study on persuasion which placed focus of soldier morale. He presented a one-sided text which he gave to group A claiming that they were going to win the war. Then gave a two-sided text which including doubts such as geographical difficulties, death etc. to group B. They found that one sided arguments were more persuasive only when personal beliefs were not taken into account (Myers 1983). By failing to use comparable control groups, prior intelligence could not be measured however, it had a significant effect on his findings. Hovland (1949) argued that the addition of variables would lose simplicity, however he did recognise the vitality for more complex results. This prompted him and his colleagues to reflect on their research after the war, and focus on aspects of communication and processes of persuasion which increased the likelihood that a message would be persuasive (Myers 1983). Traditional critiques would dismiss Hovland’s research for being too infused with subjectivity due to the historic context within which his study was carried out (Stainton Rogers 2003). However, the fact that the concept of ‘intelligence’ was an exception to his one-sided rule of persuasion, agrees with Billig’s argument that there will always be infinite exceptions to laws. Quintilian’s findings would support this as he claimed that there were no such things as rigid rules of persuasion. He claimed that there is no guarantee that strategies that worked in the past will work again in new contexts (Billig 1996:92). Although this suggests that there are not one set of persuasive rules to be discovered, it can still be argued that Hovland’s research was pivotal as it set a benchmark, from which more research stemmed, on understanding the secrets of persuasion.
Michael Billig (1996) considers himself to be an ‘antiquarian psychologist’ meaning that he highlights the significance of a neglected history of rhetoric to modern social psychology (Billig 1996:2). He argues against contemporary social psychology and believes that psychologists should refer back to the findings of ancient Greek philosophers in order to understand the concept of persuasion. He claims that the classical studies of Aristotle and Protagorous in particular, provide valuable knowledge about secrets of persuasion (Billig 1996). For example, Aristotle spoke about the importance of ethos, this was later reinforced by Hovland and his team who discovered the significance of the source of the message and the acceptance of the audience. Billig’s focus on specific historical knowledge has been criticised as being a ‘schemata of collection’ (Billig 1996:3). However, this may not be negative. The fact that he has sifted through historical findings and extracted those he believed to have relevance to today, is arguably more beneficial to modern social psychologists. We can learn from Billig’s support of early findings that there are alternative ways of understanding a persuasive argument. Unlike Atkinson’s notion that physical and lexical factors hold importance, Billig believes in looking fundamentally at the arguments themselves (Billig 1996). In terms of persuasion, this may uncover the messages that are trying to be conveyed and affect the way that we might allow an argument to influence us. Billig’s rhetorical approach has been said to be ‘key to the discursive turn in the social sciences’ as his faith in historical knowledge has led to key developments in modern social psychology (Billig 1996:330).
Roman critics of oratory; Cicero and Quintilian, arguably provided a very memorable insight in history towards persuasion and rhetoric. Their influence in judicial and political speaking arguably held historical significance in uncovering the secrets of persuasion. (Billig 1996). However, it could also be disputed that they lacked any modern technology to analyse how particular tricks worked (Atkinson 1984). Atkinson carried out an ideographic study on political speeches. He focused on form and how features of rhetoric cause an audience to applaud during a political speech. His ethnomethodological study provided observation on a dependent variable in a real context as opposed to the Traditional scientific methods (Stainton Rogers 2003). Critiques argue that these techniques remain context dependent, e.g. appearance of source, intelligence of audience etc. (Myers 1983). With the rapid growth of the media in today’s society, the public are becoming increasingly exposed to politics. Atkinson’s findings have been highly influential in speech writing and have produced guidelines from which politicians and producers can use his secrets to form the material which is exposed to the public (Atkinson 1984). Arguably politicians may exploit his techniques of manipulation and subsequently the public are becoming more cynical as they become more conscious that they are targets of persuasion. This could be seen to have positive effects on persuasion, as we are being increasingly exposed to the secrets of persuasion, this is an inevitable need to increase the levels of sophistication in techniques of persuasion. Orators will be required to use more subtle techniques as they face increasingly cynical audiences (Atkinson 1984). From this point of view, Atkinson’s findings have posed threat to techniques of persuasion predominantly used in politics and advertising, such as 3-part contingencies (Gettysburg’s address 1863) and contrasting pairs (Churchill’s speech 1940), but at the same time he has encouraged development. Therefore it can be argued that his study has uncovered secrets of persuasion regularly used by two institutions which have major persuasive powers over society.
With reference to both the traditional and critical approaches to social psychology, it must be considered whether the concept of persuasion can now be fully understood. It could be argued that making comparisons between the works of ancient Greek philosophers and modern social psychologists shows the progress in uncovering rules and guidelines to manipulation. However, prior to Hovland’s study, there is a distinctive gap in history where the study of persuasion suffered neglect. This could suggest that there are many historical secrets which are yet to be discovered. In today’s media dominated society, the study of persuasion holds an increased relevance. Although research has uncovered many rules of persuasion, there is almost a certainty that many remain undiscovered. It is only once these secrets are uncovered, that attitudinal change can fully occur in an increasingly cynical society.