Psychology of Persuasion and Social Influence

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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? According to Perloff (2003), 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 that:

  • Persuasion is symbolic, utilizing words, images, sounds, etc
  • It involves a deliberate attempt to influence others.
  • Self-persuasion is key. People are not coerced; they are instead free to choose.
  • Methods of transmitting persuasive messages can occur in a variety of ways, including verbally and nonverbally via television, radio, Internet or face-to-face communication.

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.

In his book The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century, Richard M. Perloff outlines the five major ways in which modern persuasion differs from the past:

  1. The number of persuasive messages has grown tremendously. Think for a moment about how many advertisements you encounter on a daily basis. According to various sources, the number of advertisements the average U.S. adult is exposed to each day ranges from around 300 to over 3,000.
  2. Persuasive communication travels far more rapidly. Television, Radio and the Internet all help spread persuasive messages very quickly.
  3. 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.
  4. Contemporary persuasion is much 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 very specific image designed to urge viewers to buy products or services in order to attain that projected lifestyle.
  5. Persuasion is 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.
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Article Sources

  • Perloff, R. M. (2003). The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.