Emotions can be used to induce attitude change in a number of ways. In this lesson, we discuss how they can be used within persuasive communication to illicit both short-term and long-term attitude change.
Emotions & Persuading Attitude Change
Emotion is sometimes the driving force behind our attitudes and behavior. As such, emotion plays a major role in how other people influence us and can be the determining factor in attempts to persuade us to change our attitudes and behavior. Advertisements, campaigns, speeches, and other persuasive communication frequently try to appeal to our emotions because of this. In this lesson, we will discuss when these emotional appeals are most likely to be successful, and also a couple of specific strategies that are used to try and change our attitudes.
Persuasion & Types of Attitude
First, the success of persuasion can depend on the type of attitude someone is trying to change. In another lesson, we discuss the fact that attitudes can be based on facts about the attitude object, cognitively-based attitudes, and others can be based on emotions and values, affectively-based attitudes.
Research has shown that it is best to try and change an attitude in a way that is complimentary to the type of attitude. In other words, a cognitively-based attitude would be most likely to be changed through the central route to persuasion, which uses logical arguments. An affectively-based attitude would be most likely to be changed through the peripheral route to persuasion, which uses surface characteristics to trigger mental shortcuts, such as emotions.
For example, imagine you are shopping for a scarf. You browse through a display with several options, and finally choose one with a checkered design. A saleswoman walks up and tries to convince you to buy the striped one, instead. What do you think she would have to say to convince you to switch? According to the research we just discussed, it would depend on your attitude towards the checkered scarf, your reason for choosing that one.
If you had a cognitively-based attitude, say, you like that scarf the best simply because you believe it to be the warmest, the saleswoman would be the most successful by presenting a compelling argument. If she was able to demonstrate that the striped scarf is even warmer than the checkered, for example, you may change your attitude and decision.
On the other hand, if you had an affectively-based attitude, say, you like that scarf the best because the pattern reminds you of your favorite aunt, the saleswoman would be the most successful by appealing to your emotions. If she showed you a picture of your favorite actress wearing the striped scarf, for example, you may change your attitude and decision.
Emotions as Heuristics
This leads us into our next point. As previously mentioned, the peripheral route to persuasion uses surface characteristics to trigger heuristics, or mental shortcuts. Emotions sometimes act as heuristics, helping us to quickly determine our attitude.
For example, imagine you are listening to a debate between two political candidates. It is long and boring, and you zone out for a bit. At the end, though, you are asked which candidate you like best. As you can't attest to any logical argument because you weren't listening, you would probably use the 'how do I feel?' heuristic. This is an emotional mental shortcut we frequently use to determine our attitude without having to spend a lot of time analyzing the situation. You think of each candidate and feel better about the second one, so decide you must like him better.
The tricky thing about using emotional heuristics is that sometimes we are wrong about why we feel good or bad. In the case of the two political candidates, it's possible that when you were thinking about the second one, you were unaware of being exposed to positive stimuli. It's possible that, unbeknownst to you, you smelled some chocolate at the same time that you were thinking about the second candidate, and you mistakenly attributed your happy feelings to him.
Those who frequently use persuasive communication, such as politicians and advertisers, know that if we feel good in the presence of an attitude object, we often determine that we like it, even if those good feelings were caused by something else. This is why advertisers and retailers want to create good feelings when we are looking at their products. They try to appeal to our senses, with popular music, good smells, etc., in the hope that we will attribute some of our good feelings to the product they are trying to sell. If that does the trick, they will have succeeded in their persuasive communication.
Public service ads commonly use fear appeals to encourage behavior change.
The last link between emotion and persuasion and attitude change we'll discuss in this lesson is the popular use of fear appeals. A fear appeal is a type of persuasive message that attempts to change a person's attitude by invoking fear. Public service ads frequently use fear appeals to try and scare people into changing their attitude and behavior. For example, anti-smoking advertisements can be seen everywhere and seem to be increasingly graphic. Most are designed to scare smokers into quitting by presenting them with the worst consequences of continued smoking.
There is little doubt that this method is at least successful in grabbing people's attention. This is certainly important, as it is the first step in any persuasive communication. But, as we discussed in another lesson, an attitude change that is long lasting usually comes from the central route to persuasion, when people really think about the message. After grabbing their attention, then, you need to present a logical argument. Research shows that fear appeals are the most effective if they induce a moderate amount of fear and also provide the audience with the actions they can take to reduce the fear. If the message is too scary, or if a solution is not also presented, the fear appeal will fail because the audience will get defensive and tune out the message in order to not be afraid.
An example of a successful fear appeal can be seen in a study that was conducted in the 1960s. The participants were all smokers and were divided into three groups. One group was shown a graphic film about lung cancer, and then each member was given a pamphlet that outlined specific steps to quit smoking. The second group was only shown the film. The third group was only given the pamphlet.
As you may expect with what you know about fear appeals, the members of the first group reduced their smoking significantly compared to members of the other groups. Watching the film scared people, and giving them a pamphlet provided a way to reduce their fear by following the instructions on how to quit. Seeing only the film didn't work, though, because people are likely to ignore a message that raises fear but does not provide reassurance. Reading just the pamphlet didn't work, either, because there was little fear motivating people to pay attention to the message.
In summary, emotions can be used to induce attitude change in a number of ways, though the effectiveness of persuasive communication does depend on the type of attitude people have. Appealing to emotions works best if the attitude you are trying to change is based on emotion.
Emotions can be used as mental shortcuts to determine one's attitude, and those who frequently use persuasive communication, such as politicians and advertisers, know that if we feel good in the presence of an attitude object, we often determine that we like it, even if those good feelings were caused by something else. Also, fear appeals, a type of persuasive message that attempts to change a person's attitude by invoking fear, can cause lasting attitude change if:
- The message invokes enough fear that people pay attention, but not too much that they tune it out.
- The message also includes specific recommendations on how to reduce their fear.
After this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Tell how emotions can be used to change attitudes
- Discuss the link between effective persuasive communication and attitude
- Describe the effect of attitude objects on persuasive communication
- Explain how fear appeals can be used to cause a lasting attitude change