Understanding Persuasion and the Factors Affecting It


By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College

Persuasion can be understood as the process by which a person’s attitudes or behavior are influenced directly or indirectly by other people. Following Dale Carnegie’s theory from How to Win Friends and Influence People, it can be deduced—when dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.

Wooden blocks shaped as human head and set of arrows
Every act of persuasion has various elements that, along with an individual’s attention and motivation, lead them to be influenced and persuaded. (Image: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Shutterstock)

Theory on Persuasion

We are constantly exposed to different types of persuasive messages every day—advertisements follow us around the Web, political candidates ask for our vote, and a friend might urge us to try their favorite new restaurant. So, what influences whether these persuasion attempts work?

According to a theory pioneered in 1980, people can focus on central or peripheral components of persuasive messages. Which components they focus on depends on their involvement in the message; basically, whether they are motivated to pay attention to the message and whether they have the time and energy to do so.

Routes of Persuasion

Sometimes, we are highly motivated to pay close attention to a message, to really focus on the information presented. Let’s say is a person is buying a new car for a family member, they would probably want to make sure they make the right decision. So they pay careful attention to the information they receive about different car options.

This could be information about gas mileage, safety features, price, and so on. This process is known as the central or systematic route of persuasion.

In some other cases, we are not so motivated to devote this time of sustained attention and focus to a message. Maybe while thinking about trying a new perfume or cologne, one might be more influenced by superficial features within a message. This could be things like the music playing in the background, the attractiveness of the people in the ad, or anything. This process is known as the peripheral or heuristic route of persuasion.

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Attention and Motivation

It must be kept in mind that both of these routes can work to persuade someone; it’s not that one route is effective and the other is not. What matters is how motivated we are to pay attention to whatever the message is and how much attention we do or do not pay to it.

If you have the ability and motivation to focus, you use the central route and really carefully evaluate the content of the message. If the information is strong and compelling, you’re persuaded; if it’s not, you aren’t. But if you don’t have the motivation and ability to really evaluate the message, you rely on peripheral cues and if they’re compelling, you’re persuaded.

Types of Peripheral Cues

There are various factors guiding the peripheral cues that can influence a person enough to persuade them.

Close up of a hand writing 'persuasive techniques'
Based on the central and peripheral cues, various persuasive techniques are often devised and employed by advertisements. (Image: Vitalii Vodolazskyi/Shutterstock)

Attractive looks: One type of peripheral cue is the person’s appearance. Attractive people tend to be more persuasive. A cornerstone of advertising is that we may unconsciously assume that adopting whatever product attractive people are promoting—shampoo, car, soda—could lead us to become more attractive. Attractive people may grab and hold our attention more, meaning we also pay closer attention to the message content.

Relatability: We’re also more persuaded by people who are similar to us in some way because we assume that if people like us use a particular product or vote a certain way, then probably that choice makes sense for us as well. Hotel guests are more likely to re-use their towels if they are told that a majority of other guests do that and they are even more likely to do so if they are told that about other guests who stayed in the same room.

This is why advertisements try to feature people who are similar to members of their target audience in some way—overworked moms, busy executives, or cool teenagers. Some sales techniques rely directly on people reaching out to those within their network, to sell Tupperware, knives, or skin care products. This is also one reason defense attorneys want a “jury of peers” to include people who look like or are otherwise likely to identify with, the defendant.

Emotions: Another type of peripheral cue that leads to persuasion is emotion. That’s why many advertising appeals are specifically designed to tug at your heartstrings—look at all these starving children or shelter dogs waiting for a home.

Many messages designed to persuade people to adopt new health-related behaviors rely on so-called fear appeals, warnings about what will happen if you fail to follow a particular recommendation. Fear appeal campaigns are commonly used to warn teenagers about the dangers of unprotected sex and texting while driving.

Some of the most interesting research in psychology has examined the use of graphic warning labels on cigarette packs, both to reduce people’s intentions to start smoking and to help motivate smokers to quit. These labels are very common in many countries but are not yet used in the United States.

Empirical research shows that smokers who are given cigarette packs with pictorial warnings, featuring color photos of the consequences of smoking, such as neck cancer and heart disease, report thinking more about the harms of smoking and having more conversations about quitting. Most importantly, smokers who received packs with graphic warnings were more than twice as likely to attempt to quit smoking than those who receive text-only messages.

Sometimes the route of persuasion will be rational and systematic, but other times it may be based on heuristic cues or emotional appeals. Persuasion is definitely not one size fits all.

Common Questions about Understanding Persuasion and the Factors Affecting It

Q: What is persuasion?

Persuasion can be understood as the process by which a person’s attitudes or behavior are influenced directly or indirectly by other people.

Q: What is the systematic or central route of persuasion?

Sometimes we are highly motivated to pay close attention to a message. When we pay careful attention to the information or consider the central message presented which drives us to the act of persuasion, it is known as the systematic or central route of persuasion.

Q: Which factors can guide the peripheral cues that can influence a person?

Attractive looks, relatability, and emotions are the factors that can guide the peripheral cues that can influence a person enough to persuade them.

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