CHAPTER 1 Why Study Persuasion?
ONE OF THE AUTHORS was enjoying a day at the beach with his wife. As he sat in a folding chair beneath an umbrella, he could hear the cries of seagulls and the pounding of the surf. He was relaxed as could be, oblivious to the world around him. Or so he thought. As he reflected more on the situation, however, he realized he was being bombarded by persuasive messages on all sides. A boom box was playing a few yards away. During commercial breaks, various ads tried to convince him to choose a new mobile phone provider, switch auto insurance companies, and try some “flamin’ hot mac ‘n Cheetos” from a fast-food chain. A nearby sign warned that no alcohol, glass objects, or smoking were permitted on the beach. Ten yards away, a family was unpacking their lunch from an upscale Yeti cooler. The author felt a pang of brand envy. Brands were on display elsewhere. Farther down the beach, a couple wore shorts from Pink and Hollister, favorites with millennials and Gen Z. Were they “advertising” those brands? The lifeguards’ truck was a specially equipped Toyota TRD that proclaimed it was the “officially sponsored vehicle of Newport Beach.” Oh, the indignity of being rescued by an unofficial vehicle!
And that was only the beginning. A skywriting plane flew overhead, displaying the message “#ThankYouHealthCareWorkers.” This was soon after beaches reopened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many beachgoers wore face masks. Others did not. Wearing or not wearing a mask was, to some extent, a litmus test of one’s political leanings.
There were oral influence attempts, too. “Would you mind keeping an eye on our things?” a nearby couple asked. I guess we look trustworthy, he thought. His wife asked him, “Do you want to walk down to the pier? They have frozen bananas.” She knew he would be unable to resist the temptation.
Those were just the overt persuasive messages. A host of more subtle messages also competed for the author’s attention. Some yards away, a woman was applying sun block to her neck and shoulders. The author decided he should do the same. Had she nonverbally influenced him to do likewise? A young man with a boogie board ran by, headed for the water. He sported a goodly number of tattoos and piercings. The author wondered whether such body art might dissuade some employers from hiring him. One woman wore a “trikini,” a bikini with a matching face mask. Was it a nod to fashion, a form of virtue signaling, or both? There seemed to be as many persuasive messages, or potentially persuasive messages, as there were shells on the beach.
The preceding examples raise two important issues. First, persuasion and social influence are pervasive. We are surrounded by influence attempts, both explicit and implicit, no matter where we are. As Cascio, Scholz, and Falk emphasize (2015):
social influence is omnipresent, occurring through implicit observation of cultural norms, face-to-face and mediated interpersonal communication, as well as mass mediated communication. Even though individuals are often unaware of the power of social influence, research shows its effects on behavior in a wide variety of circumstances.
Second, it is difficult to say with any certainty what is and is not “persuasion.” Where should we draw the line between persuasion and other forms of communication? We address the first of these issues in this chapter. Here we examine the pervasive nature of persuasion and offer a rationale for learning more about its workings. In the next chapter, we tackle the issue of what constitutes persuasion and related terms such as social influence and compliance gaining.
AIMS AND GOALS
This is a book about persuasion. Its aims are at once academic and practical. On the academic side, we examine how and why persuasion functions the way it does. In so doing, we identify some of the most recent theories and findings by persuasion researchers. On the practical side, we illustrate these theories and findings with a host of real-life examples. We also offer useful advice on how to become a more effective persuader and how to resist influence attempts, especially unethical influence attempts, by others.
If learning how to persuade seems a bit manipulative, remember, we don’t live in a society populated with unicorns, rainbows, and LOLlipops. The real world is brimming with persuaders. You can avoid learning about persuasion, perhaps, but you can’t avoid persuasion itself. Besides, we can’t tell you everything there is to know about persuasion. Nobody knows all there is to know about this subject. One of the points we stress throughout this book is that people aren’t that easy to persuade. Human beings are complex. They can be stubborn, unpredictable, and intractable, despite the best efforts of persuaders.
Persuasion is still as much an “art” as it is a “science.” Human nature is too complicated, and our understanding of persuasion too limited, to be certain which influence attempts will succeed or fail. There is an old axiom that half of every dollar spent on marketing is wasted, but marketers don’t know which half. One survey (cited in Benes, 2018) revealed that marketers suspect that a fourth of their ad spending is wasted. Think how often you flip the channel when a commercial costing millions of dollars to produce and air appears on television. Think how many candidates for public office have spent fortunes campaigning, only to lose their elections. Or think how difficult it is for the federal government to convince people to stop smoking, practice safe sex, avoid texting while driving, or get a vaccine—behaviors that are in their own self-interest.
The science of persuasion is still in its infancy. Despite P. T. Barnum’s adage that “there’s a sucker born every minute,” people are uncannily perceptive at times. It is tempting to believe that if one only knew the right button to push, one could persuade anybody. In reality, there are many buttons, which must be pushed in the right order, or in combination, and the order is constantly changing. Even so, persuasion is not entirely a matter of luck. Much is known about persuasion. Persuasion has been scientifically studied since the 1940s. 1
Written texts on persuasion date back to ancient Greece. 2
A host of strategies and techniques have been identified and their
effectiveness or ineffectiveness documented. Persuaders are a long way from achieving an Orwellian nightmare of thought control, but a good deal is known about how to capture people’s hearts and minds. Before proceeding further, we want to address a common negative stereotype about persuasion.
PERSUASION IS NOT A DIRTY WORD
The study of persuasion has gotten a bad rap. Everyone seems to agree that the subject is fascinating, but some are reluctant to embrace a field of study that conjures up images of manipulation, deceit, or brainwashing. There is, after all, a sinister side to persuasion. Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Osama bin Laden were all accomplished persuaders—much to the detriment of their followers. 3
We, however, do not think of persuasion as the ugly stepsister in the family of human communication. Rather, we find the study of persuasion enormously intriguing. Persuasion is the backbone of many communicative endeavors. We can’t resist the urge to learn more about how and why it works. Part of our fascination stems from the fact that persuasion is, on occasion, used for unsavory ends. It is therefore all the more important that researchers learn as much as they can about the strategies and tactics of unethical persuaders.
PERSUASION IS OUR FRIEND
Persuasion isn’t merely a tool used by con artists, chiselers, charlatans, cheats, connivers, and cult leaders. Nobel Peace Prize recipients and Pulitzer Prizewinning journalists are also persuaders. In fact, most “professional” persuaders are engaged in socially acceptable, if not downright respectable, careers. They include advertising executives, bloggers, campaign managers, celebrity endorsers, clergy, congresspersons, diplomats, doctors, infomercial spokespersons, lawyers, lobbyists, mediators, media pundits, motivational speakers, online influencers, political cartoonists, press secretaries, public relations experts, radio talk-show hosts, recruiters, salespersons, senators, social activists, syndicated columnists, and whistleblowers, to name just a few.
Let’s focus on the positive side of persuasion for a moment. Persuasion helps forge peace agreements between nations. Persuasion helps expose corruption and open up closed societies. Persuasion is crucial to the fundraising efforts of charities and philanthropic organizations. Persuasion convinces motorists to buckle up when driving or refrain from driving when they’ve had a few too many. Persuasion is used to convince a substance-abusing family member to seek professional help. Persuasion is how the coach of an underdog team inspires the players to give it their all. Persuasion is a tool used by parents to urge children not to accept rides from strangers or to allow anyone to touch them inappropriately. In short, persuasion is the cornerstone of a number of positive, prosocial endeavors. Very little of the good that we see in the world could be accomplished without persuasion.
Persuasion, then, is a powerful and often prosocial force. Having highlighted the positive side of persuasion, we address the question of why the study of persuasion is so valuable. The next section, therefore, offers a justification for the study of social influence.
THE PERVASIVENESS OF PERSUASION: YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE
We’ve already mentioned one of the primary reasons for learning about this subject: Persuasion is a central feature of every sphere of human communication. The cartoon (Figure 1.1
) takes this idea to the extreme. The same is true of social influence. We can’t avoid it. We can’t make it go away. Like Elvis impersonators in Las Vegas, persuasion is here to stay. Various estimates suggest that the average person is exposed to anywhe...