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Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others


Social psychology is the study of everyday life – the self, one’s relationships, social influence, and how people view and behave toward others. Its overarching themes center on the principles of situationism, meaning that situations have a powerful influence over behavior, subjectivism, meaning that everyone sees the world through a filtered perception, emergence, or the idea that phenomena are constructed rather than fundamental, and the fact that phenomena are multidimensional – they are the result of many factors. This 101 series examines various introductory topics in social psychology.

Social Psychology 101 is divided into the following chapters of content:

Social Psychology 101: Persuading Others

Persuasion exists in many aspects of human life, from the small, everyday social interactions people experience to the more significant realms of politics, religion, and education (Petty & Briñol, 2008). It is in the advertisements one is subjected to and in the advice from a friend. When one person is persuaded by another, an attitude of theirs changes. Everyone holds certain attitudes or relatively ongoing evaluations about things, which involve a preference for or against those things (Stangor et al., 2022). Attitude formation and change are frequently social processes as attitudes are often learned from others, are affected by persuasion from others, and have the power to bind communities together (Albarracín et al., 2018). The principle of attitude consistency predicts that people’s attitudes are likely to guide their behavior, so attitude change by persuasion is a significant psychological phenomenon to examine (Stangor et al., 2022). Attitudes based on high levels of thinking are more “accessible, stable, [and] resistant to counter messages, and predictive of behavior” than attitudes built on little thought, so the most effective persuasive messages motivate people to think and enable them to understand the message at hand (Petty & Briñol, 2008). This article will explore the factors that make a message persuasive, describe how mental processing affects attitude change, and explain the techniques used to persuade others to comply.

Figure 1: Persuasion is the process of one person changing the attitudes of another person (Edwards, 2014).

The Factors of Persuasive Messages

When persuading others, there are several categories of characteristics that can make one’s message more persuasive, namely source, message, and audience characteristics. Source characteristics describe the person delivering the message. Attractiveness, similarity, likeability, and expertise are all factors that can make people more persuasive to their listeners (Stangor et al., 2022). Message characteristics describe the content of the persuasive message. Having a strong argument, backed up with statistics and logical reasoning is one way to make the content more persuasive. Including narrative transportation and story-telling, as well as delivering the message in a slightly elevated, rather than conversational, tone can also enact attitude change in listeners (Stangor et al., 2022). Audience characteristics describe the recipients of the persuasive message. The audience needs to care about the message they are hearing, and they need to be motivated to process what the speaker is saying in order to be persuaded. They also have to have the appropriate cognitive ability to understand the argument being made. Knowing one’s audience and matching their expectations, such as in tone, professionalism, or idioms, can make the audience more easily persuaded too (Stangor et al., 2022). Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech is an example of these characteristics at work. He was a persuasive figure because his audience felt similar to and liked him. He narrated his message with empathy in a strong, elevated tone, and his audience was receptive to him as they were motivated to fight for their freedoms during the civil rights movement.

The number one thing that can shut a persuasive message down is known as psychological reactance. This is a motivational state in which one experiences anger and negative thoughts that occur when the loss of freedom is threatened (Reynolds-Tylus, 2019). If people realize they are being communicated to solely for the purpose of persuasion, they may feel psychological reactance (Stangor et al., 2022). Individual differences lie in the level of psychological reactance to persuasive messages, and those who are highly reactant tend to resist rules and regulations, have high needs for autonomy and self-determination, are defensive, and have low concern for social norms (Reynolds-Tylus, 2019).

Figure 2: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech was incredibly successful in persuading others (Lewis, 2023).

The Dual Processing Model of Attitude Change

To change someone’s attitude, one must know how they are thinking and what they can be influenced by, and then use this information to change their mind. Depending on whether a person is thinking via superficial processing or thoughtful processing, they will be influenced by cues and heuristics or message arguments respectively (Stangor et al., 2022).

If the recipient of a persuasive message is not motivated to think about it, if it is boring or not personally relevant to them, they will not think deeply about it. Even if a person is motivated to listen to the message, if they do not have the cognitive resources to think deeply because they are either tired, stressed, or experiencing ego depletion or high cognitive load, they will also not be able to think deeply. This leads to superficial processing of the message and influence by cues and heuristics (Stangor et al., 2022). Processing heuristics and cues involves using simple, well-learned, and accessible associations, leading to persuasion by arousing positive feelings or content alliance with past experiences (Smith & Collins, 2009). For example, a person experiencing superficial processing will consider whether the person delivering the message is attractive or likable, as well as whether the message makes them feel good or happy. They are also more likely to be receptive if the message confirms their already-held biases.

Figure 3: When one's freedom feels threatened by persuasive messages, they may experience psychological reactance and resist the message (Weerd, 2018).

When the recipient of a persuasive message is motivated to think about it, and they have the appropriate cognitive resources to do so, they will think deeply about the message and thus engage in thoughtful processing. These people will be influenced by the message of the argument made (Stangor et al., 2022). They might assess possible biases of the message and consciously consider their relevance in the influence process (Petty and Wegener 1999). They will be more persuaded by strong arguments rather than weak ones, and they will not be as swayed by the attractiveness or the likeability of the speaker (Smith & Collins, 2009). Examples of thoughtful processing include comparing the cost of an advertised product to the cost of its competitors, contemplating whether the features of a message align with what they truly want, and considering the data and analysis involved in the argument.

Techniques for Gaining Compliance from Others

Sometimes, people attempt to persuade others by getting them to comply with a request. If a person wants someone else to do something for them, several techniques may be utilized. This section will describe a few of the most common of these techniques, namely reciprocity, the door-in-the-face technique, and the foot-in-the-door technique.

Figure 4: Reciprocity motivates one to do things for those who have done things for them (Raymond, 2022).

Reciprocity is an evolved social norm in which one does something for someone else because that person helped them in the past (Stangor et al., 2022). In reciprocal relationships, trust and bonds strengthen, and a feeling of indebtedness motivates helping behavior. Research has shown that, even when the person who gives a gift is unlikeable, the receiver of the gift is still just as likely to return a favor as if the giver was likeable (Regan, 1971).

The door-in-the-face technique is another compliance-gaining strategy in which an individual presents a request that is much greater than what they actually want, then they counteroffer with their real goal (Stangor et al., 2022). One study asked a group of college students if they would chaperone juvenile delinquents to the zoo for two hours, and initially asked another group of students if they would chaperone a group of juvenile delinquents to the zoo every weekend for the next two years, then backed down to two hours for one day. In the first group, 17% of students said yes, but in the second group, after the extremity of the request was decreased, 51% agreed (Cialdini et al., 1975). This technique works via the perceptual contrast of the requests, along with the feeling of reciprocity the receiver feels by being offered a lesser request.

Figure 5: The door-in-the-face technique works because asking for a difficult request, then following up with a simpler request makes the recipient more motivated to comply (Jamil, 2022).

The foot-in-the-door technique involves asking someone for a small request, gaining their compliance, and letting some time pass, then asking for a larger request (Stangor et al., 2022). People feel influenced to comply to the larger request after accepting the smaller request due to their initial commitment and pressure to remain consistent. In what is known as the “Yard Sign” study, one group of participants was asked to put a sign up in their yard, while another group of participants was initially asked to put up a sticker, then later asked to put the sign in their yard. In the first group, only 16% complied; in the second group, 76% complied (Freedman & Fraser, 1966).


In conclusion, persuasion plays a vital role in human interactions and is present in various aspects of people's lives. The attitudes one holds towards certain things are often learned from others and can be changed through persuasion. To be effective in persuasion, it is important to understand the factors that make a message persuasive, such as the characteristics of the person delivering the message, the content of the message, and the characteristics of the audience. Additionally, it is important to understand how the recipient of the message is thinking and what they can be influenced by in order to change their attitudes. Knowledge of compliance-gaining techniques is also useful for comprehending how one can influence or be influenced. Understanding these principles of persuasion can aid in effectively communicating with others and shape attitudes and behaviors.

Bibliographic References

Albarracín, D., Sunderrajan, A., Lohmann, S., Chan, S., & Jiang, D. (2018). The psychology of attitudes, motivation, and persuasion. In The Handbook of Attitudes, Volume 1: Basic Principles (pp. 3–44). Routledge.

Cialdini, R. B., Vincent, J. E., Lewis, S. K., Catalan, J., Wheeler, D., & Darby, B. L. (1975). Reciprocal concessions procedure for inducing compliance: The door-in-the-face technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 206–215.

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 195–202.

Petty, R. E., & Briñol, P. (2008). Psychological processes underlying persuasion: A social psychological approach. Diogenes, 55(1), 52–67.

Petty, R. E., & Wegener, D. T. (1999). The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In Dual-Process Theories in Social Psychology (pp. 37–72). The Guilford Press.

Regan, D. (1971). Effects of a favor and liking on compliance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(6), 627-639.

Reynolds-Tylus, T. (2019). Psychological Reactance and Persuasive Health Communication: A Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Communication.

Smith, E. R., & Collins, E. C. (2009). Dual-process models: A social psychological perspective. In J. St. BT Evans & K. Frankish (Eds.), Two minds: Dual processes and beyond (pp. 197-216).

Stangor, D. C., Jhangiani, D. R., & Tarry, D. H. (2022). Principles of social psychology — 1st international H5P edition. BCcampus.

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Madison Goode

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