People have an intuitive understanding of the science of persuasion

Psychologists have devoted entire careers to finding out how people can be persuaded, but far less time investigating what people know intuitively about persuasion.

Now Karen Douglas and colleagues at Kent University have bucked this trend with a paper which they say shows people have an intuitive understanding of how a person's thinking style affects their vulnerability to persuasion, known formally as 'the elaboration likelihood model'. This is the idea, supported by research findings, that people who have a greater inclination for thinking things through tend to be less swayed by adverts that use superficial tricks like beautiful models and slick graphics, but are more persuaded by adverts that make an intelligent argument. The jargon for the character trait in question is 'need for cognition'.

Douglas' team asked 132 non-psychology undergrad students to either rate themselves or 'other students in their class' on their weak-mindedness, their strong minded-ness and their 'need for cognition'. Next the students had to look at six colour advertisements that used style rather than intelligent argument to promote things like food and mobile phones, and their task was to say how much either they or typical undergrads in their class would be persuaded by those adverts.

The key finding was that the participants' judgments about either their own or other people's vulnerability to the adverts was strongly related to the scores they gave on 'need for cognition', even above and beyond the relation to strong and weak-mindedness. In other words, if they saw themselves or other students as low on this measure then the students also tend to say that they or other students would be swayed by the ads. It's as if they were applying the rules of psychology's 'elaboration likelihood model' even though it's highly unlikely they'd ever heard of such a thing.

Another finding to come out of the research was that the students tended to think other people would be swayed by the adverts far more than they would be themselves - a well-established phenomenon in persuasion research. Past studies have suggested that this tendency to think other people will be more prone to persuasion is just another expression of our egotistical tendency to see ourselves as better than average. However, the current study suggested instead that we think other people will be more prone to persuasion (by superficial ads) because we think they have less 'need for cognition'. We probably make this assumption, the researchers said, not for self-serving, egotistical reasons but simply because we 'have greater access to our own thoughts, and therefore to occasions in which we were personally motivated to think.'

Concluding their paper, Douglas's team said: 'This research provides the first evidence that people do indeed use their intuitive understanding of persuasion and the personal characteristics associated with persuasion, to judge the extent to which persuasive attempts will be successful.'

In as yet unpublished research Douglas has further shown how people are able to make effective use of their lay theories of persuasion. In one study participants tailored mobile phone adverts appropriately according to an audience who were described as being either high or low in need for cognition. For example, for consumers who think more, the participants chose an ad with more detail on technical specifications.

'We and Tobias Vogel at the University of Heidelberg have a lot of data on this topic ... it's very interesting because no research (to our knowledge) to date investigates people's lay theories of persuasion and certainly not how people use these theories to persuade people,' Douglas told the Digest.

'Our findings suggest that people do have some kind of awareness of how persuasion works and can use their knowledge to attempt to persuade people. It's just the beginning really - while people seem to have an intuitive understanding of how thinking style relates to persuadibility, it could plausibly extend to other aspects of persuasion and persuasive techniques such as social norms and the foot-in-the-door technique.'

ResearchBlogging.orgDouglas, K., Sutton, R., & Stathi, S. (2010). Why I am less persuaded than you: People's intuitive understanding of the psychology of persuasion. Social Influence, 5 (2), 133-148 DOI: 10.1080/15534511003597423
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