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The Nature of Persuasion

Persuasion is communication that attempts to change, create, or strengthen attitudes. Attitudes are cognitions or thoughts that are developed through direct experience and communication (no attitudes are inborn) and influence our behavior. Attitudes have two components: beliefs (“facts”; descriptions of people, objects, and events) and values (favorable or unfavorable evaluations). Fishbein and Ajzen's theory of reasoned action (2010) discusses beliefs and values (see also Benoit & Benoit, 2008). In order to have an attitude, we must have both components: a belief and a relevant value. For example, we know that Mitt Romney is a Republican (a belief), and most people either like Republican ideology (a positive value) or dislike Republican ideology (a negative value). Therefore people are inclined to have a favorable attitude toward Romney if they like Republican ideology or a negative attitude toward Romney if they dislike Republican ideology. On the other hand, if we like Republican ideology but do not know whether a particular candidate is a Republican, we cannot have an attitude toward that candidate. Similarly, if we know a certain candidate is a Republican but we have no political party preference (do not have either a positive or negative value about Republicans), we cannot have an attitude toward that candidate. So we must have both a belief and a relevant value to have an attitude.

We know several things about some attitude objects (people, organizations, events) and have values about those beliefs, which means that many attitudes comprise multiple relevant belief/value pairs. For example, a person's attitude toward Bill Clinton can be based on a number of beliefs including the following:

• Bill Clinton was president of the United States for two terms.

• Bill Clinton is a Democrat.

• Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

• Bill Clinton signed the Brady Bill with a waiting period for handgun purchases.

• Bill Clinton is married to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

• Bill Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

• Bill Clinton had a dog named Buddy.

A person's beliefs combine with his or her values to form an attitude. Different audience members can (and usually do) have a variety of belief/value pairs. For example, one person may like dogs, whereas another one may dislike canines; this difference would incline the former to have a more positive attitude toward Clinton and the latter to have a more negative attitude. Or one person may, in addition to the previous beliefs, know that Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks; this belief would influence that individual's attitudes if he or she also had a value related to cats. Yet another person might know that Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have a daughter name Chelsea. Some beliefs are associated with favorable values for many people (e.g., most people feel that presidents deserve respect). Some of these beliefs are associated with unfavorable values for many people (e.g., his affair with Monica Lewinsky). Other beliefs can polarize the audience: Some people prefer the Democratic Party, whereas others do not; similarly, some people like Hillary Rodham Clinton, whereas others intensely dislike her. Some of these beliefs may not be associated with values for some people (e.g., some do not have strong feelings about another person's pets). Some of these beliefs overlap between different people, but a given audience member can have some unique cognitions. An individual's attitude toward Bill Clinton is a conglomeration of all the belief/value pairs that are salient or remembered by that person at a given point in time.

It is important to realize that all a person's belief/value pairs might not give rise to the same attitude. For example, a person might have favorable values related to being president, being a Democrat, and signing the FMLA and the Brady Bill but have an unfavorable attitude toward Hillary Clinton and having an affair. This person might, all things considered, have a favorable attitude toward Clinton. Someone who instead had negative values associated with Democrats and the FMLA might have a negative attitude toward Clinton.

There are many, many facts (beliefs) that people can know about Bill Clinton. However, some of these facts a person does not know or might have forgotten. If you are unaware of a fact or have forgotten it, that belief cannot influence your attitude. Fishbein and Ajzen (2010) explain,

A person's attitude toward an object is, at any given moment, primarily determined by no more than five to nine readily accessible beliefs about the object. Of course, given sufficient time and motivation, people can actively retrieve additional beliefs from memory, and these additional beliefs may also influence the attitude at that point in time. We are merely suggesting that under most circumstances a relatively small number of beliefs serve as the determinants of a person's attitudes. (p. 99)

So a person's attitude comprises the beliefs that individual holds (and their associated values) that are salient to that person at the time an attitude is activated. Notice that allegations of a scandal are often highly publicized, likely to be salient, and therefore likely to be a large component of current attitudes toward the target of allegations.

Similarly, people have attitudes about companies and other organizations that are shaped by multiple belief/value pairs. For example, Yahoo is a company about which people have beliefs. Some people could hold these beliefs:

• Yahoo is a large company.

• Yahoo has an Internet search engine.

• Yahoo offers e-mail.

• Yahoo's former CEO Scott Thompson falsified his resume.

• Scott Thompson resigned from his position as Yahoo's CEO after the controversy arose over his resume.

People's values probably vary about whether a large company is a good thing (positive value) or a bad thing (negative value), so the belief that a person is Yahoo's CEO could be a polarizing belief. Some people may like and use Yahoo's Internet search engine and/or Yahoo e-mail; they would presumably have a favorable attitude toward Thompson. On the other hand, most people probably feel it is bad to falsify a resume (an unfavorable value); those who hold this value could be inclined to have an unfavorable attitude toward Thompson. Again, a person's attitude emerges from all the belief/value pairs about a target that are salient to that person at a given time.

As noted, different people frequently have different sets of beliefs; they often have some beliefs in common but also some unique beliefs. Different beliefs can yield different attitudes for the people holding those beliefs. Furthermore, a given belief may be polarizing—associated with a favorable value for some people but an unfavorable value for others. So even two people who have the same beliefs about a person or organization will have different attitudes if they have different values. These two factors, beliefs and values, explain why attitudes vary between individuals. Two people may have similar but not identical attitudes; it is also possible for two people to have very different attitudes. The person or organization intending to persuade an audience to change its attitudes, including changing attitudes to repair an image, must know the basis of those attitudes, the belief/value pairs that constitute an attitude for an audience.

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