Persuasion and Social Influence

Learning Objectives


13.1  Explain the characteristics and importance of persuasion.

13.2 Distinguish between values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and explain how those distinctions influence persuasion.

13.3  Explain balance theory and cognitive dissonance theory.

13.4  Describe the influence source, message, and receiver characteristics have on persuadability.

13.5  Explain the workings of the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion.

13.6  Distinguish between different processes of attitude change and types of resistance.




We are always persuading, even if it is at a very basic level. This chapter looks at efforts to influence others through communication—instances when we consciously, actively intend to alter another’s thoughts or actions.



  • Activity: Persuasive Appeals in a Magazine Ad

Find two magazine ads for very different products, for example a luxury car and a frozen dinner. Be imaginative. Maybe even involve a friend and see if your analyses match. Now, for each ad, answer these questions:

1. What product does this ad attempt to persuade you to buy?

2. What route of persuasion do the advertisers use (e.g., central route vs. peripheral)? Was that a good choice? Specifically, what central or peripheral cues are used?

3. Does the ad attempt to describe the source of the product information it hopes will be persuasive (e.g., "dentists agree that… " or "experts suggest… ?") Are these sources credible and/or attractive?

4. What about the persuasive attempt itself? Are the arguments weak/strong, one-sided/two-sided, explicit/implicit, or not present at all? Were these good choices?

5. What about the target of the effort? Who are the advertisers targeting, how can you tell, and was that a good decision? How might this ad be different if directed towards an audience for the other ad you chose?

6. Are other concepts from your text present? For example, is there an attempt to reduce dissonance; is there a fear appeal; is there an appeal to emotions?

  • Activity: Fear Appeals and the War on Drugs

Fear appeals are a long-standing staple of anti-drug commercials. Visit the essay “Great Moments in Drug War Propaganda” ( and watch with one or more friends its 25 classic spots. Identify which made the best use of fear appeals and which made the worst. Each of you should rate them from least to most effective and discuss your rankings.

  • Activity: Who Did it Better, My Candidate or the Other One?

Visit the Museum of the Moving Image’s Living Room Candidate Page ( and choose the year of a presidential election that interests you and a friend; for example, if you choose 2012 you’ll get Obama vs Romney. If you choose 1960 you’ll get Nixon vs Kennedy. 2016 will give you Trump vs Clinton. Then watch the collection of campaign video commercials from each candidate the site provides. Given all you’ve read in the text about persuasion, evaluate who made the most effective use of his persuasive efforts. Debate your judgments with your co-viewer.



1.      Differentiate between speech acts and persuasion.

Sample answer: The theory of speech acts says that whenever we speak, we want to accomplish some goal; we have intentions. As a result, we choose how we want to express ourselves based on what we want others to think, accept, or do. So, yes, you can say that we are always “sorta” persuading. But persuasion is communication specifically intended to shape, reinforce, or change the responses of others. Response shaping is when people encounter new information, requiring some judgment or evaluation. Response reinforcing occurs when communication deepens people’s commitment to already-held attitudes or behaviors. Response changing is when communication moves our attitudes or behaviors from an existing or established position to another. So, although you might say that all communication is persuasive and that many activities might affect the responses of others (speech acts), real persuasion involves communication behaviors that are intended to affect the responses of others.


2.      What are the selective processes? Name and describe each process and explain how it allows people to maintain cognitive consistency.

Sample answer: People want to have cognitive consistency. That means they want their attitudes to be in synch with one another, and those attitudes and behaviors must also match. When there is non-consistency, there is cognitive dissonance, a psychological discomfort that they must relieve when they encounter information that is inconsistent with their already-held attitudes and beliefs. One way to relieve the dissonance is to engage in the selective processes. Selective exposure is when we expose ourselves to messages that are consistent with the values, beliefs, and attitudes we already hold. We also tend to avoid messages that are inconsistent with those things. Selective retention is our tendency to most accurately remember information that is consistent with the values, beliefs, and attitudes we already hold. Selective perception is when we interpret messages in ways that are consistent with the values, beliefs, and attitudes we already hold. So, we can maintain cognitive consistency by not creating dissonance (selective exposure), forget information that might create dissonance (selective retention), and by changing the meaning of the information so it conforms to what we already think (selective perception).

Go to the Source

Allport, G. W., and L. J. Postman. (1945). “The Basic Psychology of Rumor.” Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, 8: 61–81.

Andersen, K. E. (1978). Persuasion: Theory and Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Baker, S., and D. L. Martinson. (2001). “The TARES Test: Five Principles for Ethical Persuasion.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16: 148–175.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hastorf, A. H., and H. Cantril. (1954). “They Saw a Game: A Case Study.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49: 129–134.

Heider, F. “Attitudes and Cognitive Organization.” Journal of Psychology, 21: 107–112.

Hovland, C. I., I. L. Janis, and H. H. Kelley. (1953). Communication and Persuasion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychological Review, 50: 370-396.

Petty, R. E., and J. T. Cacioppo. (1986). “The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion.” In L. Berkowitz, ed., Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 19. New York: Academic Press.


This is the page on the site of the national trade organization of the advertising industry that presents its position on the ethics of advertising.

The AAA is made up of advertising scholars and professionals who are interested in advertising and advertising education. The site talks about research relevant to advertising and provides a forum for the exchange of ideas among its academic and professional members.

This is the page on the site of the national trade organization of the public relations industry that presents its position on the ethics of PR.