Friday, July 15, 2011

Persuasion and Persuasive Speaking: Credibility (Continuation of a Series)

I am posting these parts backward, so see above (or more recent) for the preceding sections.

Moving from ethics to the related word ethos, it’s time to move from the human characteristics of the persuadee to the credibility characteristics of the persuader.  Since persuasion takes time and depends on relationships (see liking principle), the value of the speaker’s character and personality was recognized thousands of years ago, and it is one of the most researched aspects of persuasion.

We will refer to the personal persuasiveness of a source as “charisma.”  This word comes from a Greek term meaning “gift.”  Some people are, or seem to be, gifted, with charisma and persuasive power, but more than likely they have developed the gifts we all have.  Charisma consists of three areas:

3.1.1          Authority.  Not all of us are equally susceptible to authority.  The power of authority is a mix of the speaker’s characteristics and the audience’s values.  Respect for authority is a value we are taught as children, that is, trust in the legitimacy of figures, groups, and symbols that society imbues with authority.  So respect for authority is almost always wrapped up in deference to societal entities and to tradition or the past.

A person of authority has higher status, and a person of higher status has a certain amount of authority.  Along with authority goes our acceptance of a lower status or position.  It could be as simple as “I just don’t know as much about this subject as someone else” or as problematic as “I don’t trust my own judgment.”  Along with authority also comes the fear of punishment. 

What are some authority figures and symbols?  How are they used in persuasion?  Does authority have a place in business communication?  Where?

3.1.2          Credibility.  Authority comes from social position; credibility comes from the audience’s perception of the speaker’s earned or innate characteristics, specifically,
a.    expertise
b.    trustworthiness
c.    good will
Our perceptions of these characteristics in a speaker are affected by the size of the audience (social pressures), the speaker’s role, and the time and place.  One thing we do know about credibility is that it is not stable.  A source’s credibility grows and wanes based on how the three characteristics act out and are perceived and especially how they are mediated (shown on TV, for example).  Credibility is also affected by our expectations.  If a speaker says the opposite of what we expect him or her to say (due to the speaker’s job or position), generally the speaker will have higher credibility.  (There are exceptions).  For example, if a well-known smoker begins to make anti-smoking advertisements, he or she will be perceived as trustworthy. 

3.1.3          Social attractiveness.   This aspect of charisma depends on
a.    Likability
b.   Similarity.  Probably the strongest one, this characteristic brings up the question, “When should a persuader emphasize his or her expertise, and when should similarity be emphasized?”
c.   Physical attractiveness.  Why is a physically attractive person more persuasive?  First, it should be noted that a physically attractive person is only persuasive when the decision in question is a low-involvement one, not one that addresses deeply held values and beliefs.  Secondly, attractiveness’s persuasiveness is often short-lived (because of the first reason; what’s in question is not all that important to the person).  And attractiveness can work against some people.
However, none of this negates the fact that attractive people are persuasive. Why?  The attractiveness (that is, the pleasure associated with looking at a pretty person) is connected to the message.  Secondly, receivers pay more attention to a good-looking person. Third, we identify with pretty people and believe (foolishly, but nonetheless we do) that being around them enhances our status.  Fourth, it could be the attractive persuader is just a better and more confident speaker.  Fifth, it may be that the issue is not all that important to us and we’re open to change in that area.

To end this discussion of charisma, is it possible that credibility is all about the audience and very little about the speaker?  There is an argument to be made there, since charisma and credibility wane over time and will be different for each group the speaker encounters.  Finally, is it possible that some people are just more easily persuaded (we might say gullible) than others?  Yes, but generalizations based on gender or socio-economic group have not stood up in the research.  Obviously, a person with low self-esteem (and what is called low self-efficacy, discussed below) may be more easily persuaded, but they might also believe themselves incapable of making the behavioral changes required!  And self-esteem does not correlate with gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic group.

In discussing the characteristics of the audience, we must examine more closely the subject of emotion.  There are three basic negative emotions:  fear, guilt, and anger.  These are effective in moving people.  While it’s nice to say that positive emotions—sympathy, joy, contentment, pride—are “better” to use in persuasion for humanistic or ethical reasons, the likelihood that negative emotions will stop being used is low.  Guilt is a short-lived motivator, and like anger, often sends the audience in a different direction than the persuader might really want.  For example, I might just avoid the source of guilt rather than try to comply with a message that is supposed to relieve my guilt.  Anger can also cause frenetic responses. 

Fear, however, is in a class by itself.  It is probably the most researched emotion in persuasion theory (O’Keefe, 2002, p. 228).  That doesn’t mean the results of the research are conclusive.  Is fear effective in persuasion because we are experiencing the fear directly, and looking for relief in the message’s promises, or is it effective because of more logical and cognitive connections, or is it effective because we want to avoid fear in the future?

Research seems to indicate the second, but again, there is debate.  In other words, fear and our response to it is mediated through four cognitive beliefs:  the belief that we individually are affected by the fear or fear-causing agent, that the fear-causer is actually severe enough to hurt us if encountered, that the proposed solution to the fear is actually efficacious (it will work), and that we are personally or corporately capable of performing the action proposed as the solution (termed self-efficacy).

For example, I might want to persuade you to begin an exercise program to retard heart disease.  I can provide all sorts of data about the likelihood that you will experience heart disease by a certain age and what it will do to you physically, emotionally, and financially, and I can present evidence that exercise is effective.  But I have to get past those four filters (and remember, since persuasion is about change, we have natural barriers to change):
1.    You must accept that you are in the group that will have heart disease (maybe no one in your family has heart disease and they live to ripe old ages; maybe you don’t fit the profile);
2.    You must believe heart disease is more dangerous than other diseases or things that might happen to you;
3.    You must accept that heart disease is caused by lifestyle factors such as poor exercise habits and thus affected by changes in exercise habits;
4.    You must believe you have the self-discipline to exercise regularly (self-efficacy).

Ironically, a self-efficacious person (for more information, read Alfred Bandura’s work on this subject) may be more persuaded because he/she believes in his/her own capability and discipline, but they may also be less persuasible because of belief in his/her own viewpoints!

Other research has pointed out that the availability of a solution is important to the success of fear appeals, and further studies have shown that there is a limit, although that limit is hard to find.  Sometimes fear appeals can be so strong (translated, so gross, disgusting, or over the top) that they backfire.  Therefore, low fear appeals are often more persuasive than high fear appeals, but only if the solution is readily accessible and reasonably attainable.  For example, if I’m told I have to spend an hour a day in an expensive gym to improve my chances of preventing heart disease, I’m likely to take my chances.  That’s why cognitive dissonance and the Foot-in-the –Door methods are so important to persuasion.  Other factors involved in motivating people based on fear have to do with the availability of role models, mentors, and clear directions to provide accountability and support. 

The last section of this lecture has to do with not being susceptible to deceptive persuasive appeals.  Any number of websites (for example, this one is pretty good and textbooks can introduce or review for you the common logical fallacies and propaganda techniques.  Seeing them in the real world is another matter.  The problem with learning the fallacies is that they make us aware of false arguments but don’t necessarily make us see the merits of good arguments.  In reality, what psychological research has shown us is how irrelevant pure logic is to most human decisions and behaviors, and even worse, logic is often in the eye of the beholder. The essence of No Child Left Behind (but not necessarily all the particulars) makes perfect sense to some intelligent people, based on their basic premises about education; NCLB makes no sense at all to others.  The ultimate decision is based on the effectiveness of NCLB in reaching the goals that it set out to reach and the educational goals of our system, but it would take years to know that. 

That doesn’t mean we’re all totally irrational, just that our decisions are mixed.  Think about the major decisions you made in life—marriage, attending Dalton State, having a child, your career.  They often had only partially to do with logic and rationality, but that didn’t make them bad choices.  Furthermore, logic and rationality are often class- or ethnicity-based.  I might see a choice that enhances my opportunities for individual career success (and thus status or money) to be the most “logical” choice, but someone from a different culture might see a choice that enhances the status of his or her whole family to be “logical.”   

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Attention, Ego, Spirituality, and Drugs

This title may seem really odd coming from me, but this article has some interesting things to say.