Summary of "The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice"

Summary of

The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice

by James Price Dillard and Michael Pfau

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Dillard, James Price and Michael Pfau. The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002.

According to The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice, persuasion is a symbolic transaction, which uses reason and/or emotional appeals in an attempt to alter behavior. Persuasion is thought to fall short of direct coercive force, though the threat of coercion is often present. Both persuasion and coercion attempt to change the behavior of "others," but they differ in their approach. While coercion actively attempts to apply physical pressures to its targets, persuasion seeks to convince a target to change its behavior (though persuasive messages may include threats of coercion). Thus persuasive communication seeks to change behavior without direct force.

In Chapter One, Gerald R. Miller identifies three distinct behavioral outcomes that can be the ultimate goal of a persuasive communication: response shaping, response reinforcing, and response changing. A response shaping persuasive campaign is aimed at establishing a behavior or attitude when no "...clearly established pattern of response exists..." This type of persuasion entails much of what is often called socialization, and such persuasive attempts need not be intentional. As an individual grows, s/he learns social norms, or in the context of this book, is persuaded to follow social norms. But such persuasion is not limited to children. When an adult is presented with a new object, situation, or context, others will often attempt to persuade this individual to act in a certain way. For instance, if John gets a new job, his co-workers will likely attempt to persuade John to act in accordance with the norms of the office.

response-reinforcing persuasive campaign is aimed at reinforcing an existing behavior or attitude. This is necessary because attitudes (and thus behaviors) are dynamic, even those to which we adhere most strongly. Indeed, attitudes are thought to be in constant oscillation, and thus persuasion should be thought of as a continuous process. So we are constantly being persuaded, even if the aim of the persuasion is the reinforcement of our current worldview. This is why people tend to prefer talking to people who agree with them, and reading and listening to news sources that reinforce their view of the world.

response-changing persuasive campaign is aimed at changing a behavior or attitude. This is the most difficult type of persuasion and success is highly dependent on the position and strength of the attitude or behavior to be changed. The position of an attitude refers to ones value judgment of it (is the attitude/behavior good, bad, really bad etc). The strength of an attitude refers to how strongly one feels about this value judgment. When an attitude/behavior is positioned at an extreme and the target feels strongly about this attitude, any change will be difficult. On the other hand, neutral attitudes/behaviors that an individual does not feel strongly about will be relatively easy to change. While position and strength are inter-related, they are different. Thus, one could feel that smoking is really bad, but not care about it that much.

Whether one is attempting to change, shape or reinforce an attitude or behavior, persuasion entails intentional attempts to manipulate the behavior of others without direct coercion. This makes persuasion an essential aspect of democracy, a necessary tool for marketers, and a useful mechanism for interpersonal relations. It can be used for either "good" or "bad" purposes, but either way, it is essential. Thus, a successful advocate will be well-versed in its nuances, and The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice is quite literally a handbook for just this purpose, examining the process of persuasion, message structure, message content and message resistance.


Often persuasion literature focuses on the message, the source, or the receiver. Rather than focusing on one of these components, there are at least two theoretical frameworks which deal exclusively with the process of persuasion. These are the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) , explained in Chapter 9 by Steve Gooth-Butterfield and Jennifer Welbourne, and the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM), described in Chapter 11, by Alexander Todorov, Shelly Chaiken, and Marlone Henderson. While these are separate models, their pragmatic applications are quite similar: both models seek to describe the process of persuasion and identify how to tailor persuasive techniques to these processes.

In both models, the persuasion process is divided into two possible paths. A high level of cognitive processing and careful evaluation of the message characterize one process, while the other is less thoughtful and relies on cues or heuristics. This first, thoughtful process is referred to as the "central route" by the ELM and as a "systematic mode" by the HSM. The second, less thoughtful process is referred to as the "peripheral route" by the ELM and as a "heuristic mode" by the HSM. It should be noted that while I will be using the central route as interchangeable with a systematic mode (and will be doing the same for peripheral route and the heuristic mode) this is not entirely accurate. There are distinct differences between these models, but for our purposes, their similarities are such that they can be thought of as essentially the same concept.

A central route/systematic mode of processing is generally considered the preferred route for important decisions. Thus, when presented with a persuasive message that one deems important, a central route/systematic mode is likely to be used. The ELM refers to this as "being sufficiently motivated". But, this motivation is dynamic and will change with context. For instance, while a career may be sufficiently motivating at one point, this may change if a loved one contracts a chronic disease. But even "sufficient motivation" alone is not adequate to engage in a central route/systematic mode. One must also be "sufficiently able" to process systematically. Being "sufficiently able" consists of both personal ability (mental capacity, literacy, attention span etc) and external constraints on ability (distracting noises, multiple tasks etc).

Thus, when an individual is presented with a persuasive message and is sufficiently motivated and able to process it, a central route/systematic mode is more likely to be used. While this entails careful scrutiny of the message, it is not necessarily an objective evaluation. In a central route/systematic mode, individuals draw on outside information beyond the message, and engage in internal cognitive processing. This information can be biased or inaccurate, and the evaluation may lack sound logic. Nonetheless, a decision made through the central route/systematic mode will likely be more resistant to counter-persuasion, persistent over time, and more predictive of behavior than a decision made by a peripheral route/heuristic mode.

Peripheral route/heuristic mode processing is generally the result of low motivation or a lack of ability. Again, motivation and ability are dynamic, relative and will vary with context. As a context changes so to might an individual's motivation or ability. But when motivation or ability is low, little evaluation will take place, and the individual will be more susceptible to the content of the message as well as her preconceived notions. Decisions made by such a process are less resistant to persuasion, less persistent over time, and less predictive of behavior.

By analyzing the potential motivation and ability of the target of persuasion, an advocate can determine whether the target will process the message systematically (central route) or heuristically (peripheral route). With this in mind, the advocate can tailor the message to the likely cognitive process. When a central route/systematic mode is likely, the message should use rational argument, outside sources, and established facts, as the veracity of the message is likely to be scrutinized. On the other hand, rational argument will be relatively ineffective when a peripheral route/heuristic mode is used. In this case, emotional appeals and associations with positive values are more likely to be effective.

If a message is rather inflexible or a specific type of processing is desired, the process may be tailored to the message. That is, an advocate can actively attempt to influence the process an individual engages in when processing their message. This can be done by either manipulating an individual's motivation or her ability. For instance if an advocate wanted a message to be pervasive over time (and thus wanted it to be processed systematically) she might increase the target's ability by eliminating distractions (like asking others to be quiet while she spoke) or motivation (by stressing the importance of the decision).

Another way to influence the process of persuasion is to influence attitude accessibility, a topic covered in Chapter 3 by David Roskos-Ewoldsen, Laura Arpan-Ralstin, and James St. Pierre. Attitude accessibility refers to how quickly and easily an attitude is retrieved from memory. This is important because attitude accessibility is thought to affect the influence of messages. As Roskos-Ewoldsen et al put it: "The basic idea is that an attitude can affect behavior only if the attitude has been activated from memory. Hence, attitudes that are more accessible from memory are more likely to be activated and influence the behavioral process."

Accessible attitudes are thought to affect persuasive message processing by influencing attention, cognitive processing, and bias. According to this book, attitudes can orient attention prior to cognition. This is often done through a sort of pre-cognitive categorization. That is, even before we are able to think about something, it is cognitively categorized based on our attitude toward it (or something similar to it). The likelihood of an attitude having such an influence depends on its accessibility, thus the more accessible an attitude is, the more likely it is to influence attention.

Accessible attitudes are also thought to affect how extensively we process information. People are thought to exert more effort at processing a concept attached to a highly accessible attitude. Thus concepts attached to an accessible attitude will be more scrutinized. Finally, highly accessible attitudes are more likely to bias cognition. This is especially true when objective measures are absent in a message.

Whether a particular attitude is accessible (and thus able to affect attention, cognition and bias) depends on four factors: expectations, cognitive elaboration, recency of activation and frequency of activation. Attitudes that have been recently activated and attitudes that are more frequently activated are more accessible. Cognitive elaboration refers to the extent to which an attitude is integrated with other attitudes and cognitions. The more extensively integrated, the more accessible the attitude. Finally, expectations refer to the expectations regarding the future value of the attitude. If an attitude is perceived to be necessary for ones future, it will be more accessible.

Manipulating attitude accessibility requires manipulating one of these four factors. For example, an advocate could repeatedly stimulate an attitude (frequency), associate a given attitude with new and different objects (cognitive elaboration), stress a need for an attitude (expectations), or simply stimulate an attitude directly before a desired response (recency). While such manipulation would be used to increase the influence of a given attitude, an advocate might also wish to manipulate attitude accessibility negatively in order to reduce the influence of an attitude.

A proper match between message and process is essential for successful persuasion. Such a match can be reached by either tailoring the message to the process, or the process to the message. Either way, a successful advocate should be aware of the ability, motivations and accessible attitudes of their target. With a proper analysis and subsequent message/process tailoring, successful persuasion is much more likely.

Message Structure

The importance of the structure of the message is discussed in Chapter 19 and "Language and Persuasion" by Lawrence Hosman. Persuasive messages are communicated using both verbal and non-verbal symbols. These symbols are put together in structured combinations, which make up the message. Regardless of the strength of the message content, the way its symbols are structured dramatically effects persuasion. According to the book, message structures should be used to appeal to attraction/similarity, display dominance/power or adhere to or violate expectations.

Attraction is "...a positive attitude or predisposition to respond to another in a positive way..." and is heavily influenced by similarity, which refers to "...sharing attitudes, background, values, knowledge, or communication styles in common." Persuasive messages are much more effective when a target of persuasion is attracted to, or feels similar to the source of the message. The structure of the message can aid in this attraction. For example, one could use body language to suggest an attraction.

Messages that demonstrate the power of the source are also more persuasive. This is true directly, as messages from legitimately powerful sources are given more weight, and indirectly because the content of messages from weak sources are often ignored and thus never received. Messages can be structured in ways that suggest or reinforce power relations. For example, one may speak only when spoken to in order to reinforce a submissive position.

The structure of a message can also affect persuasion by either meeting or falling short of the receivers' expectations. These expectations are "...cognitions about the anticipated behavior of others..." and are largely socially constructed. Generally, adherence to social norms is expected, but, at times, their violation is expected. For example, one may expect teenagers to violate middle-aged dress codes (a non-verbal message structure). In general, positively valued message sources (wealthy, well educated, smart etc) are expected to adhere to social norms of communication, while negatively valued message sources (poor, "stupid", lazy etc) are not. Thus, one's expectations vary depending on the source.

When negatively valued sources don't violate norms, and thus exceed the receivers' expectations, there is a positive effect on their persuasive message. However, when a positively valued source does violate a social norm, and thus fails to meet receivers' expectations, there is a negative effect on their persuasive message. Further, when a receiver's expectations are not met, the corresponding effect is usually over emphasized. Thus, a well-dressed banker (positively valued source) who has just presented a well argued persuasive message would likely lose her persuasive power when she burps loudly at the end of her speech (violating both norms and expectations).

Expectations can also be positively exceeded, since not all norm violations are negative. For example helping an elderly person cross the street may not be expected, but it would likely be considered a good thing. Such unexpected norm violations tend to have positive effects on the persuasive message of a positive source, but almost always have negative effects on a negative source. Thus, positive sources may strategically violate norms with positive results, while negatively valued sources are better advised to simply adhere to social norms. For example, while the elderly person described above is likely to accept a businessman's (positively valued source) attempts to help her across the street, she is much less likely to accept the help of a homeless person (negatively valued source).

Whether a message structure is appealing to attraction/ similarity, power displays, or expectation adherence/violation, symbols are used to convey the message. The primary symbol used in persuasion is language. Thus, language structure, independent of the message, is an important element of persuasion. At the most basic "phonological level," different sound combinations have been found to have differing effects on persuasion. Thus, independent of what the message says, the way it sounds can either aid or hinder persuasion (though research on the effects of sound combinations on persuasion is still in its infancy). On the "syntactic level" active structures are more persuasive than passive structures. Further, overly complex syntax tends to hinder comprehension and thus persuasive power.

On the "lexical level" a rich and varied vocabulary increases perception of source credibility and thus persuasive power. Further, language intensity has been found to be useful in inciting passion and thus persuasive power, but when indicating extreme positions, intense language has been seen to decrease source credibility (and thus decrease persuasive power). Finally the clarity of language used effects persuasion. In general, when an argument is strong, clear wording is most appropriate, but when an argument is weak or its implications are unfavorable to the target audience, a vague argument is more effective.

Additional concerns for language structure include "powerful speech" and "varieties" or dialects. Powerful speech is essentially the way powerful people speak. This tends to include fewer hesitations, hedges and intensifiers (extreme words) than the speech of "weaker" individuals, and is more persuasive. Similarly, "standard" dialect, or the dialect of the stereotypically powerful, is more persuasive than a "substandard" dialect. In general, a powerful style of speech and a standard dialect are more persuasive, but sometimes contexts require either a dialect or speech style similar to the target audience.

While language is the dominant symbol system used in persuasion, it is not the only one. There are various non-verbal symbol systems including: kinetics, proxemics, haptics, physical appearance/artifacts and chronemics. Kinetics refers to all aspects of body language, of which eye contact is by far the most influential. Eye contact can be used to demonstrate power (by staring) or can suggest intimacy (by gazing). Proxemics refers to communication through the use of space. Spatial distance between people is suggestive of their relationship, and powerful people tend to take up more space. Messages communicated in mutually desired close quarters tend to be the most persuasive. Haptics refers to touches. Touching can soften a relationship, or symbolize its power structure. In general, welcomed touching increases persuasiveness. Physical appearance and artifacts (clothing and "accessories") affect persuasion. Attractive and well-dressed sources tend to be more persuasive (though context may require specific appearance or accessories that are not attractive or expensive). Chronemics refers to time management. The more power a person has, the more others are willing to wait.

Such non-verbal symbols are used in conjunction with verbal symbols to communicate a message. Regardless of the content of the message, the structure of the symbols used to communicate it has an effect on persuasion. A successful advocate will be aware of the importance of message structure and will tailor it to their target. This may be done by structuring the message to appeal to attraction/ similarity, display power/status or adhere to/violate normative expectations.

Message Content

Persuasive messages are communicated through structured symbols (both verbal and non-verbal) and within a process (central route/systematic mode or peripheral route/heuristic mode process). The content of these messages contains rational appeals, emotional appeals or a mix of the two. Rational appeals use logic and evidence in an attempt to persuade.

To effectively use evidence, three conditions must be met. First the receiver must be aware of the evidence. Simply providing evidence does not mean the recipient recognizes it. The easiest way to ensure evidence is recognized is to explicitly state that you are providing it. Second, a receiver must cognitively process the evidence. This means the evidence must be in a form that the receiver can understand. For instance, discussing statistics is probably going to be ineffective when attempting to persuade a young child to do something. For adults, however, it has been found that a mix of narrative and statistical evidence is the most effective. Finally a receiver must deem the evidence to be legitimate. Biased sources and irrelevant information seem to be easy indicators of illegitimacy for most people. Interestingly though, it is difficult for many individuals to recognize evidence that is inconsistent with the argument.

Similarly, pragmatic implication has been shown to be difficult for many people to recognize. A pragmatic implication is one,which is neither explicitly stated nor logically implied. For example, the statement "The lion caught the gazelle." pragmatically implies the gazelle died, though it does not say so explicitly, nor does it imply this logically. Thus, rational appeals are not necessarily objective and logical. They may contain faulty logic (such as pragmatic implication), be based on faulty evidence, or simply be biased by emotions.

Emotions are "...generally viewed as internal mental states representing evaluative reactions to events, agents, or objects that vary in intensity." Emotions are thought to be generally short lived, intense and directed at some external stimuli. In addition to affecting the way a rational appeal is perceived, one's emotional state is incredibly powerful in aiding or hindering persuasion in its own right. Such emotional states can be either incidental to the persuasive message or can be invoked (intentionally or not) by the message.

Emotional message appeals aim to intentionally evoke an emotion in an attempt to aid persuasion, while limiting unintentional emotional states. It is thought there are five major components to emotions: cognitive appraisals of a situation, physiological arousal, motor expression, motivational components and a subjective feeling state. Identification of an emotion will depend on one's ability to recognize these components in an individual's behavior. Proper identification of emotion is essential to determining any necessary counter emotional messages, as well as the effectiveness of emotional message appeals.

To be effective, emotional message appeals must be crafted with knowledge of an emotion's "action tendency". Each discrete emotion is thought to affect action in a relatively predictable way. Thus a clever advocate can intentionally evoke emotions in others, which will likely affect their behavior in a "desirable" and predictable way. In general "negative" emotions increase cognition of a message, while "positive" emotions decrease cognition.

"Negative" emotions include fear, guilt, anger, sadness and disgust. The action tendencies of negative emotions are generally proactive. For example anger's action tendency is to "strike back" and fears is to escape or avoid threat. Thus negative emotions can provide powerful motivation toward action by attracting attention to a message. On the other hand, they also often incite impulsive reactions, and the attention they attract is not necessarily carefully thought out. Advocates must also beware of the potential for a backlash when inciting negative emotions. If the target of persuasion realizes she is intentionally be manipulated with negative emotional appeals, she is likely to be dissuaded rather than persuaded by a message.

"Positive" emotions include happiness, pride, relief, hope and compassion. The action tendencies of these emotions are generally passive. For example relief's action tendency is inaction and happiness's action tendency is to relax cognition. Thus positive emotions can render an individual "temporarily mindless." This is clearly a potentially potent tool for advocates, but a backlash is likely if targets of persuasion are aware of these attempts.

An effective advocate will be aware of the power of emotions and emotional appeals. As such, she will be able to identify the current emotional state of her target, as well as the desired emotional state (with its corresponding action tendency). She will use "positive" emotional appeals when she wants to lower the cognition of her target, and "negative" emotional appeals when she wants to increase cognition. In doing so, however, she must be careful to make such attempts overtly obvious. If she fails to do so, targets of persuasion are likely to react negatively to both the source and the message.

The content of an effective persuasive message will include both rational and emotional appeals. Rational appeals should use evidence to back up their assertions, and should take steps to ensure the targets of persuasion are aware of this evidence, think about it and deem it legitimate. Emotional appeals should be used to help shape the perception of the persuasive message. When an advocate desires to lower cognition, positive appeals should be used, while negative appeals should be used when higher cognition is desired. Successful advocates will strive for a proper mix of rational and emotional appeals, structured and tailored to the process of persuasion.

Message Resistance

Often persuasive campaigns produce behavioral patterns contradictory to their intention. Such a reaction may be based on a rational rejection of the advocate's argument, counter-persuasive campaigns, or a resentment of the persuasion attempt. A reaction based on resentment is called psychological reactance. Psychological reactance assumes human action includes "free behaviors", or "...realistic behaviors that may be enacted at any given or in the future..." These "free behaviors" are threatened (or perceived to be threatened) by persuasive attempts. People are thought to resent such attempts to curb their "freedom" and react to them by doing the opposite of what the persuasive message intended.

The magnitude of these reactions depends on perceived threats to "free behaviors," the proportion of "free behaviors" being violated and the magnitude of the threat (the level of coercion used). Reactance is thought to be high when threats are significant, deemed important, or numerous. Reactance is thought to be low when threats are insignificant, unimportant, exceedingly coercive, or few in number. Thus, advocates can reduce the likelihood of reaction three ways. First they can prevent perception of a threat to "free behaviors". This can be done by persuading in a way that is not perceived as persuasion. Or advocates can limit threats to "free behaviors" or their importance. This can be done by making it clear that the decision is ultimately the target's own to make. Finally, advocates can overcome message resistance through extreme coercion, which simply overrides the desire to react in opposition.

In addition to psychological reactance, a target of persuasion may reject a message due to intentional "inoculation." Inoculation refers to attempts to "inoculate" an attitude or belief from attempts to change it by subjecting it to weakened attitude-threatening messages. Doing so is thought to make an attitude resistant to persuasion. The inoculation process includes two components: threat and refutational pretreatments.

This process begins by introducing threats to an attitude. These threats provide a motivation to "pre-treat" the attitude because they demonstrate vulnerability in the attitude. Refuatational pretreatment is then applied which includes weakened attitude threatening messages and their refutational responses. This process aims at building "scripts" of responses to specific assaults on an attitude. Essentially, inoculation is an attempt to make a specific attitude or belief "immune" to persuasive messages. Though complete "immunity" is not possible, inoculation can make successful persuasion much more difficult.


Persuasion consists of a source (an advocate) presenting a set of symbols (a persuasive message) to a target, with the intention of altering the target's behavior. The first step in a successful persuasive campaign is to identify the behavioral outcome desired. A response shaping campaign will attempt to establish a behavior, a response reinforcing campaign will attempt to reinforce an existing behavior, and a response changing campaign will attempt to change an existing behavior. By identifying the type of desired behavioral outcome, an advocate will have an idea as to the difficulty of her task, as well as potential strategies of persuasion.

The second step in a successful persuasion campaign is to identify the likely process of persuasion. This can be done by analyzing the motivation and ability of a target to process the message. If the target is highly motivated and able, she will likely process the message through a central route/systematic mode. In this case, rational appeals with evidence to back them up will be necessary, as the message will be carefully scrutinized. On the other hand, if the target is not sufficiently motivated or able, s/he is likely to process the message through a peripheral route/heuristic mode. In these cases emotional appeals will be more effective, and evidence is much less important. Once the likely process is identified, the message should be tailored to the process, or the process should be manipulated to fit the message.

The persuasion process can also be influenced by manipulating attitude accessibility. Accessible attitudes affect persuasive message processing by influencing attention, cognitive processing and bias. An advocate can an make attitude more accessible by repeatedly stimulating it (frequency), associating it with new and different objects (cognitive elaboration), stressing the need for it (expectations) and stimulating it directly before a desired response (recency). By making an attitude more accessible, the attitude affects attention (even prior to cognition), cognitive processing and bias.

The third step in a successful persuasion campaign is to properly structure the message. A message will be structured using various verbal and non-verbal symbols. Verbal symbols are structured on the phonological, syntactical, and lexical levels. Non-verbal symbols will be structured through kinetics, proxemics, haptics, physical appearance/artifacts, and chronemics. The structures of these symbols should appeal to attraction/similarity, display dominance/power or adhere to/violate expectations. A successful advocate will structure her message to meet her persuasive needs.

The fourth step in a successful persuasive campaign is to construct a message consisting of rational appeals, emotional appeals or both. Rational appeals need not be logical or objective, but they must convince to the target that they are. This can be aided through the use of evidence, which the target is aware of, processes and deems legitimate. Emotional appeals should be used to change or reinforce the emotional state of the target. "Negative" emotional appeals should be used when the advocate wishes to increase cognition, while "positive" appeals should be used when the advocate wishes to decrease cognition.

Finally, a successful persuasive campaign will be aware of resistance to its message. Resistance may come in the form of a psychological reactance or an intentional inoculation. To reduce the likely hood of psychological reactance, advocates should persuade in a way not perceived as persuasion, make it clear the target has a "choice" or include significant threats of coercion. Overcoming inoculation is less strait forward, but will require well crafted rational arguments accentuated with tailored emotional appeals.

The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice is quite literally a handbook of scientific knowledge on persuasion. Armed with this knowledge an advocate is much more likely to produce successful persuasive messages.