Why Influence?

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Persuasive Disciplines
Ways to Study Persuasion

How do you go about studying persuasion, compliance, or propaganda? Can you simply check out a book from the library, or attend a class or a seminar?

That would be a good start, if you choose the right book, class, or seminar. But if you take this approach, you will quickly discover, as I did, that the study of social influence is incredibly diverse, and spread across many established disciplines and career categories, including: law, language & rhetoric, classical studies, marketing, advertising, public relations, fundraising, communications, and sales, to name a few.

One of the first questions you'd want to ask yourself is: do I want to study influence as an art, or as a science? These various disciplines can be ordered from the historic and artistic field of rhetoric on one end of the scale to the rigorously empirical treatment of influence as a science, as is done in social psychology. Social psychology boasts a particularly strong research tradition into issues of persuasion (attitude change) and compliance (behavior change).

Following is my view of the major disciplines, arranged from the historic, artistic, and frequently intuitive (rhetoric) to the rigorously empirical and methodological (social psychology). And of course there's the usual assortment of just plain ol' bad information about persuasion, a topic addressed on a following page.


The field of rhetoric studies educational and persuasive discourse. It is usually taught within English or literature departments. By tradition, it focuses on formal, premeditated monologues, such as you might hear (I should say, used to hear) during a political campaign. Ancient Greek & Roman texts are studied, along with classical models of persuasion. Modern rhetoricians & rhetorical theories exist, too. My favorite rhetorician is Richard Lanham, a professor at UCLA, whose interest in persuasive forms of discourse is infectious.


Advertising excels in a particular realm of social influence: sales. Advertising agencies have traditionally emphasized the role of creativity and current trends in their influence attempts. Advertising is an evolutionary crucible of social influence, because of the great variety of influence techniques that are tried and discarded. Many techniques work wonderfully sometimes but the same techniques can fail miserably at other times.

There's a reason for this.

People who make a living by persuasion are interested in the results, not the processes. A busy advertising executive is going to use what she feels will work; she doesn't have the time, training, or the laboratory to verify why a particular technique works, or under what conditions it works, or in combination with which other variables it works.

A great deal of advertising is clever. And cleverness certainly has its place in attracting attention. It's my belief, however, that one can get carried away with cleverness while missing the boat when it comes to changing attitudes and behavior. Many advertising pundits point this out as well. David Ogilvy, a pragmatic ad man, writes that "When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me you find it 'creative.' I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product." OK, he obviously thinks that interest equals compliance, which isn't entirely accurate, but he's on the right track. There are several excellent marketing and advertising journals available, which provide a more empirical approach to both mass media and one-on-one persuasion attempts. The Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Advertising represent this genre.


While advertising is the most visible component of marketing, advertising operates in a specific domain and doesn't represent the more comprehensive approach of an overall marketing strategy. Good marketing begins by matching an inherent consumer need with a specific product or service. The more precisely a product can be targeted to a specific consumer, the greater the marketer's ability to influence people to buy that particular product.

This explains why, for instance, there are many different types of soap. All fulfill the consumer's need for cleanliness, but each has its specific purpose--whether it's dish soap, laundry soap, or bar soap, which can be further divided into deodorant soaps, moisturizing soaps, facial soaps, and so on. In addition to the product itself, marketing concerns itself with where the product is sold, how it's packaged, how it's priced, and how it's positioned in advertising. Marketing concerns itself with the cues that a consumer uses to decide which product or service best meets her needs.

Detractors will opine that marketing is the sole reason a product or service is successful, suggesting that its influence unduly compensated for a lack of inherent consumer benefits. This is seldom the case. Where the product may not represent a proprietary benefit, its success may come instead from its ability to fulfill an image- or status-based need. Consumer needs can be both tangible in terms of product performance, or intangible in terms of product image and how owning a particular product makes a person feel. [Contributed by Kris Haynal]


Law research contains a fertile vein of persuasion studies. The social influence/law literature examines, of course, persuasion in the courtroom. Yet social influence also plays an important role in negotiation and arbitration, since in these situations attorneys are given more leeway to persuade the arbitrator, as court rules of evidence don't apply. You may also want to study the techniques of successful lawyers. I enjoyed Spence's How to Argue and Win Every Time, although I could quibble with his non-empirical approach. If you are attempting to persuade people in a highly structured atmosphere where the audience will hear both sides of an issue, you won't want to overlook the many influence studies found within legal journals. The journal Law and Human Behavior is seen by many as the flagship interface between law and psychology.


As a science, however, social influence has been studied most thoroughly by social psychologists and communication scientists. Here, scientists attempt to make general assertions about fundamental human nature. Some have estimated that approximately a third of social psychology's domain is dominated by influence issues. (Considerable overlap exists between social psychology & communications, and it's not uncommon for a student of one field to become a professor in the other. It is commonly put forward that, on the whole, social psychologists receive the more rigorous scientific training, but that's a point of debate certain to be contested.) In both psychology and communications, researchers enjoy a strong empirical tradition.

Hypotheses may start out as hunches, but a scientist's feet are held to the fire of objective reality. Therefore, the scientific journals from these fields yield a rich source of influence information--from individual tactics to fundamental laws of human nature which are universal in their scope. Periodicals such as the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology provide forums for research performed by scholars of social influence.

So, what's different about the social psychological approach? Please continue . . .

Copyright © 1997 by Kelton Rhoads, PhD
All rights reserved.

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