Friday, July 15, 2011

Persuasion and Persuasive Speaking: Hypothetical Constructs (Continuation of a Series)

See more recent posts (or above) for preceding parts of this article.  I am posting backward for continuity.
Students of persuasion also use a variety of hypothetical constructs to explain the process of persuasion.  These are valid, and they do contribute to understanding how people are persuaded, but they rarely work in a consistent, step-by-step flow.  I have defined the terms below with some information, but let me be clear that a strict linear flow between the constructs is rare.  

A hypothetical construct is a term for an entity we believe exists and have a name for but can’t objectively see.  For example, the fundamental construct in persuasion is belief.  I can define belief as “that which we hold to be true” but I can never see a belief, or measure it directly, weigh it, etc.  I only know it from human verbal and physical behavior.  For the most part, hypothetical constructs are measured by paper and pencil surveys or scales.  The following descriptions of hypothetical constructs comes from the work of psychologist Daryl Bem.

Belief comes from two sources:  sources we trust and sensory experience.  Belief is often supported by both or by a variety of sources or a variety of sensory experiences.  Beliefs that are supported by a number of unrelated experiences or sources are said to have horizontal structure, whereas one that is the product of a series of related arguments tied to one source is said to have a vertical structure.

For example, if someone supports the War in Iraq, it could be horizontally structured.

Friend                                                                        America has
who was there      Trust President     Saddam was evil     a duty to
                            Bush                                                spread democracy

On the other hand, someone might say, using a vertical structure: 
Saddam was a destabilizing force in the region.
 Saddam had to be deposed. 
The war put him out of power. 
Deposed dictatorships always leave a void that takes a while to fill.  Therefore, the war is worthy of support.

Basically, the horizontal structure is inductive, while the vertical is deductive or syllogistic.  The horizontal is easier to maintain, because you have many reasons for your belief.  The vertical will probably be more entrenched. 

Furthermore, beliefs have the characteristics of
Strength (less likely to be changed)
Stability (the longer they are held, the stronger they become)
Centrality (the importance to a person’s self-concept)
Saliency (how much the person thinks about the belief and how much power it has over his/her behavior and lifestyle)

Attitude is the second hypothetical construct, one which has received the most attention in research.  This is because attitudes are considered to be the most direct link to behavior, and to be composed of the other hypothetical constructs.  There are literally dozens of definitions of attitude in the psychological literature, but they present attitude as
1.    learned
2.    evaluations (and thus involve emotions to some level)
3.    oriented toward a specific person, place, issue, or object
4.    global, or large, summary evaluations
5.    influencing thought and action.  Hypocrisy, or not practicing what you preach, is greatly discouraged in our culture.
6.    relatively stable; in other words, they don’t change day to day (one of the differences between emotions and attitudes)

One of the difficult aspects of understanding attitudes is that our own attitudes are often inconsistent—a situation of imbalance, as Fritz Heider called it—and that attitudes and behavior are often very inconsistent—we don’t practice what we claim to feel or believe.  Think about yourself in this regard.  Are there attitudes you have that are inconsistent:  for example, do you support President Bush but not the war in Iraq?  Or, do you believe a healthy body is important, but you have a habit that hurts your body? 

Discussion:  So why are people inconsistent in behavior and attitudes?  There are specific reasons, but what do you think?  And what do we do when we hold attitudes that are inconsistent with other attitudes?

Where do attitudes come from?  A variety of researchers posit that we adopt or learn attitudes because they function in the following ways:

  • “They help people make sense of the world and explain baffling events” Perloff, 2003, p. 74).  The world is a big, scary, confusing place.  If I adopt an attitude that government aid programs are bad because they are mostly used by lazy people, that means I have a way to interpret political appeals.  Religious faith is also an example; submission to and adherence to a religious system gives meaning and interprets the world for the faithful.
  • Social adjustive.  Adopting an attitude helps us fit in, get along, and be accepted.  We all did this in high school, but that’s not the only place.  To fit in at a work place, you might decide the competitors’ products are low quality and that your company’s are the best—an attitude that would never have occurred to you before your employment at that company.
  • Utilitarian.  Looking on the bright side helps.  If you hate a course, you can decide to have a positive attitude toward it.  Let’s face it, the professor will probably respond to you better if you show interest in the class and your nonverbal communication is positive.  And you’ll probably end up with a better grade, all things being equal, along with the fact of less stress on your body and spirit.  The point that’s important here is to remember that attitudes are learned and chosen.  We are not victims of our attitudes.  We commonly hear people say, “I have a bad attitude today” as if they had no choice, but they have all the choice in the world.  In fact, in some cases, the only choice we do have is attitude.  Victor Frankl’s famous work on the Holocaust survivors is testimony to this truth.
  • Social identity.  “People hold attitudes to communicate who they are and what they aspire to be” (Perloff, 2003, p. 75).  T-shirts we choose to wear are one common example, as well as other products and logos. 
  • To express core values.  I may express the attitude, “I love Dalton State College” because it is consistent with my value of service to my community through teaching and I am able to use my ability to teach here. 
  • Ego defensive.  Along the same line, I may have the attitude, “I love teaching at Dalton State College” because I used to teach other colleges in the area but I’m here now and I want to defend my decision to work here, not there. 

This last function of attitude is similar to cognitive dissonance, a very important psychological theory about persuasion and behavior that will be discussed later in this lecture. 

Values, the third hypothetical construct, are ideals, “overarching goals that people strive to obtain” or “our conceptions of the desirable means and ends of action” (Perloff, 2003, p. 41).  Values are abstract.  We do not value our house; we value what the house represents—security, comfort, status--which is not a physical thing.  Much marketing sells values, not just objects.  Values can be terminal—the ultimates we strive for—or instrumental—a means to an end.  Education is a good example.  Some value education for itself, and they just want to be well-informed, knowledgeable people who are curious about the world, while others value it as a means to get them job security or status (this is the most common view of education today). 

The next hypothetical construct is need, which is related to emotion, the fifth.  Like attitude, need is complex and learned, and so is emotion.  When we say we need something, we mean we consider it necessary for us to reach our goals or our happiness, not that it’s an issue of survival.  “Need” has been classified in a variety of ways, but most business-related communication addresses social and psychological needs (what Maslow calls safety/security, love/belongingness, and esteem needs), not biological needs. 

Emotion comes from the frustration or satisfaction of an intense need, and emotional reactions have an element of learning to them as well.  For example, most fear is learned, either directly (by messages) or by experience. A toddler might reach out to pet a dog naturally, not realizing it could bite him, because the family pet is friendly and cuddly.   He hasn’t learned the difference.  

So, you can see that any attempt to say something like:  “Belief creates attitude which creates values which is then influenced by need and emotion to create behavior” is really rather futile.  Attitude, belief, and values result from each other and from need, and need is largely psychological, therefore coming from attitude and belief—and round and round it goes.  The point I want to make here is that you can never know your audience too well if you want to motivate and persuade them.  Knowing why an otherwise trustworthy employee is engaging in an unwelcome behavior that you want stopped will only help you decide how to motivate the employee. 

In regard to the complexity of human characteristics, I’d like you to read the following article about incentives.  One of these links should work.

On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B, by Steven Kerr, Academy of Management Executive, 1995, 9(1): 7-14

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