Psychology of Persuasion and Social Influence

Skyscrapers, billboards, and crowds with busy traffic and yellow cabs in Times Square
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When you think about persuasion, what comes to mind? Some people might think of advertising messages that urge viewers to buy a particular product while others might think of a political candidate trying to sway voters to choose his or her name on the ballot box. Persuasion is a powerful force in daily life and has a major influence on society and a whole.

Politics, legal decisions, mass media, news, and advertising are all influenced by the power of persuasion and influence us in turn. Sometimes we like to believe that we are immune to persuasion. That we have a natural ability to see through the sales pitch, comprehend the truth in a situation, and come to conclusions all on our own.

This might be true in some scenarios, but persuasion isn’t just a pushy salesman trying to sell you a car, or a television commercial enticing you to buy the latest and greatest product. Persuasion can be subtle, and how we respond to such influences can depend on a variety of factors.

When we think of persuasion, negative examples are often the first to come to mind, but persuasion can also be used as a positive force. Public service campaigns that urge people to recycle or quit smoking are great examples of persuasion used to improve people’s lives.

What Is Persuasion?

So what exactly is persuasion? In The Dynamics of Persuasion, Perloff defines persuasion can be defined as "...a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice."

The key elements of this definition of persuasion are:

  • Involves a deliberate attempt to influence others
  • People are not coerced; they are instead free to choose through self-persuasion
  • Persuasive messages are transmitted in a variety of ways, including
    verbally and nonverbally via television, radio, internet, or face-to-face communication
  • Persuasion is symbolic, utilizing words, images, sounds, etc

How Does Persuasion Differ Today?

While the art and science of persuasion have been of interest since the time of the Ancient Greeks, there are significant differences between how persuasion occurs today and how it has occurred in the past.

Perloff offers five major ways in which modern persuasion differs from the past. Today, persuasion is:

  • Big business: In addition to the companies that are in business purely for persuasive purposes (such as advertising agencies, marketing firms, public relations companies) and many other businesses are reliant on persuasion to sell goods and services.
  • More common: Think for a moment about how many advertisements you encounter on a daily basis. The average U.S. adult is exposed to a large number of advertisements each day.
  • More complex: Consumers are more diverse and have more
    choices, so marketers have to be savvier when it comes to selecting
    their persuasive medium and message.
  • More subtle: Of course, there are plenty of ads that use very obvious persuasive strategies, but many messages are far more subtle. For example, businesses sometimes carefully craft a very specific image designed to urge viewers to buy products or services in order to attain that projected lifestyle.
  • Travels more rapidly: Television, radio, and the internet all help spread persuasive messages very quickly.
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  1. Perloff RM. The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century. London: Routledge; 2003.