Persuasion as a social phenomenon - Diplo Resource (2023)

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Author:Aldo Matteucci


Aldo Matteucci explores the relevance of social context for persuasion. Since persuasion leads to change, we should look into the mechanisms of change in society. Change is a social phenomenon. Change occurs when the intentionalities of individuals transmute into ‘collective intentionalities’. In this process, enablers play a key role.

Enablers emerge in a wide variety of forms from invention (the wheel, horse-riding) to social processes (educating women leads towards a drop in fertility). Persuasion is an important enabler of social change. Social media is an example where persuasion evolves from the individual to the collective. Through social media and crowd sourcing, collective intentionality can emerge. New forms of social, instead of individual,persuasionwill emerge. The key criterion for their success is whether they facilitate adaptation to the fast pace of change in modern society.

Where war is the continuation of politics, we often see the diplomat as the avatar of the great general – or his precursor. Uplifting narratives tell us of heroic people who, through skill of arms or persuasion, shape extraordinary events and ‘get their way’. Persuasion is the individual’s triumph over persons and groups. Argument and convictions defeat ignorance. The individual is at the centre of the process: it is personal agency at its best.

I have a different view. I’d rather look at persuasion as a social phenomenon.

Let’s make one thing clear at the outset. In life, there are no dichotomies. It is never either/or. We have a river with many channels, spreading apart somehow at random, and converging lazily downstream.

Which is the river? Which is the arm? This does not matter. Pragmatically, the one best taking us to the goal is the ‘main’ channel. This may have gone on for thousands of years. Then a new technology emerges, and what we judged to be a shallow, treacherous, and impassable channel may become a new way down the river.

Persuasion may well be the work of personal agency, under certain circumstances. I’d argue that we’d better look at persuasion again. We need to take off the present eyeglasses named ‘personal agency’ and try on ‘social phenomenon’ for effectiveness.

Developments in life and human sciences justify this suggestion. These developments allow us to imagine living phenomena in novel ways.

Biological evolution and sociology

Biological evolution explains how change takes place in nature. It is both an individual and a collective phenomenon. What matters for the evolution of the population is not what change obtains in the individual, but how the change spreads through the population. If change ‘takes hold’ in the population, over generations the species will evolve. For all we know, the process is endogenous, and the outcome is undirected and unpredictable. The result is adaptation.

Sociology looks at change in society. Change occurs. Change reflects adjustment to the material context, but also the social reality we have construed. Looking at change from a distance, and using the language of agency improperly, we can speak of ‘macro-persuasion’.

The process of change is akin to a phase-transition we observe in physical sciences. Change occurs when intentionalities of individuals transmute into ‘collective intentionalities’. No longer does one individual change a few. Many change many. The many make change their own and act on it – the process of change has become endogenous. Their experience transforms the group and the process may grow exponentially. People dimly perceive this phase transition and have given it a name: social empowerment. As in biological evolution, whatever the original impulse, the outcome is undirected and unpredictable – it is adaptive.

Enablers as a source of social change

Enablers – ways of doing things and organising ourselves – are among the major causes of change. Someone learned to ride the horse, and as many imitated him, nomadism, but also long-distance raiding, emerged (I have shortened the process – in fact, innumerable small steps were involved). Democracy as a set of rules for a society emerged, and we had civilization of sorts.

Enablers are a product of the human mind. They are akin to genetic change as the source of phenotype variability. Users, not the inventor, decide on the purpose of the enabler. As a result, enablers are open-ended. Enablers empower, and are inherently unpredictable – just think of black powder.

Enablers are exquisite persuaders. Their strength is transformative experience, the pleasure of doing more with less, or doing something new. This is far more powerful as an agent of change than argument or conviction. Experience spreads enablers fast: we hardly notice this process. Just think of how children learn to speak.

Enablers are the most powerful sources of social change. They often act in indirect ways. Just a few examples: educate women and fertility drops precipitously. If human population is expanding, it is no longer from fertility, but from the fact that we live longer. The pill made recreational sex safe – and collaterally we have inched forward in solving the population problem – this in two generations. Better cooking stoves may help mitigate anthropogenic carbon: billions of women will be thankful for taking suffocating smoke from their lungs. No one invented markets as an institution. They emerged slowly from the mists of time. Markets are among the great enablers – that is why it is difficult to fight them, even when they do not suit participants’ intentions.

Cognitive science and social psychology

Cognitive science resolutely casts doubt on the received model of personal agency in achieving macro-change (and even micro-change). Human brains are complex but seriously prone to illusion. Fallacies and biases infect reflexive and reflective thinking. A need for individual self-affirmation leads humans to see themselves as unchanging and coherent, when we are far from it. If need be, we will fabulate to sustain the self. What is described as ‘will’ turns out to be more akin to conscious commentary forever running slightly behind unconscious action. Rather than a well-designed structure, the conscious and unconscious mind is a rickety, jury-rigged contraption. From the population point of view, the system works: in 100 000 years we have made long strides. It was a story of successful adaption, rather than directed change.

At the micro-persuasion level, social psychology explains the behavior of the person in the social situation. It explores our nature as social beings. Far from being autonomous individuals bumping into each other in some form of Brownian motion, we continuously and subtly persuade each other and adapt in the process – mostly unconsciously. Change is a social phenomenon. Change has no recognizable individual origin, and the outcome is undirected and unpredictable. It is adaptive.
We seem to have made a discovery – we may have found a different river channel, and one which, unbeknown to ourselves, carries much water of social change. Change is also a social phenomenon and not only or primarily the result of individual agency. Change in society does not come from without – change emerges from within.

The process of empowerment

Is this a discovery? Possibly it is just that a narrative has been found for something humanity has known and used all along, but never narrated. In particular, we have a name for the process of social change: empowerment. It describes the transition from individual to collective intentionality and the moment when society starts to change itself. It is the moment when the social group adopts change – the newly created enabler – as its own and runs with it.
Let me revert to the analogy of the river: we have discovered a new channel. Admittedly, the realisation that the old channel had treacherous shoals and rapids, which made navigation adventurous, may have spurred on the search. We did not perceive the dangers: we only saw the saved and ignored the drowned.

Technological and culture create enablers all the time. While waiting for enablers to do their work: can we facilitate empowerment? We are learning how to speed up the process of empowerment. Economic and community development practices are in the forefront. When empowerment succeeds, the impact is stupendous. Positive deviance for instance builds on the basic idea that we can cleverly facilitate empowerment.

Information technology both facilitates and documents social interaction within a group. It explodes the physical limitations of the group. Information technology facilitates the emergence of new social groups – think of the common purpose that unites the editors of Wikipedia entries.

Information technology is the greatest enabler since the horse (my prejudice). Nothing is empowering people like their ability to record, process, and transmit information to others, hereby bypassing some obvious failures of the brain. No replacement, so far, but far more reliable than memory, and able to act at a distance.

Information technologies facilitate and document social interaction. We can use information technologies to track change. Information technologies may assist us in documenting empowerment as it takes place. Information technologies may even facilitate empowerment.

Social networks have become the rage. At the moment, they tend to be mostly gossip – a necessary aspect of sociality. Clever use of social networks may create what I’d call social – as opposed to individual – persuaders. They may become a new way of obtaining collective intentionality.

This is not going to be easy.

Crowd-sourcing or industry-wide sourcing has become a significant way of getting pointers towards the improvement of products (materials and processes are a different matter). The supply side of change is becoming public. It is bottom-up – and hugely successful. Whittling down the abundance of ideas is the challenge. So far selection has remained a top-down process – and internal to the firm (before confronting the public process of market selection, that is). Transformation of the idea into a product requires industrial organisation yielding the uniformity needed to allow for industrial mass production.

Social empowerment transforms individual intentionalities into a collective one. So far society has tended to use the top-down, directive approach in order to speed up the process. Dreading loss of control that goes with empowerment, the elite has used fear or incentives to turn individuals into agents. This process works against empowerment. Ideology mitigated the process. Inevitably over time, top-down choices and ideology created rigidities. Disconnect and social unrest ensued as the social and material context changed.

Collective intentionality

How do we achieve collective intentionality without resorting to top-down selection and direction? Village meetings work well if the village is a single social group. As soon as the size of the group becomes too large or we have nestled groups, creating collective intentionality becomes difficult.
My practical conjecture is that information technology may be of assistance here. We are just at the beginning. Think of the spontaneous way of Wikipedia. Simple operational rules allow the aggregation of rules. Respect is the currency within the group. Peer review within the group reduces the abundance of opportunities. Crowd-reviewing has now been added. Other options and features may be added.
On the political scene, the instrument of petition is on the rise. Citizens can formulate relatively well-articulated propositions. Online voting rapidly whittles down the options. This is a rough-and-ready way. Quantity replaces quality.

Until 1250, humans paid little deliberate or deliberative attention to the concept of material reality as quantifiable. We changed the way of doing things. We measured everything, from time to space, to colours, and look where this way of doing things has taken us.

Quantifying social reality

The time may have come to make a further leap and quantify social reality. The democratic vote – one person, one vote – is a slightly distasteful and controversial precursor. The elites never took kindly to it. Information technologies may allow us to move towards the quantification of social reality on a broad scale, just as we have successfully quantified material reality.
When group behaviour is the objective, individual diversity no longer becomes an issue. We no longer need Gleichschaltung –in many instances nudging, rather than coercion and control suffices. In fact, we need to encourage it as the pool from which change emerges. This is an immense relief to me, and necessary for the system to function. Darwin said: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.’ Paying attention to change is the precondition for surviving and flourishing.
In this paradigm, we accept each other because, and not despite, human diversity. What a change in attitude! Information reality may facilitate this leap of attitude by making empowerment easier. Empowerment is what changes us, and makes us feel human.

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What is the phenomenon of persuasion? ›

persuasion, the process by which a person's attitudes or behaviour are, without duress, influenced by communications from other people. One's attitudes and behaviour are also affected by other factors (for example, verbal threats, physical coercion, one's physiological states).

What is the social influence of persuasion? ›

Persuasion is a form of social influence in which an audience is intentionally encouraged to adopt an idea, attitude, or course of action by symbolic means.

What is an example of persuasion in social psychology? ›

If someone does a small favor for another, they're more likely to do a bigger favor in the future. In action, this might look like asking shoppers to do something small, like sharing a blog or referring a friend in the hopes that they might do something bigger (buy from you) in the future.

Why is persuasion important in social psychology? ›

Persuasion serves an important function in a social society. If you are not successful in persuading others, you could miss out on job opportunities or have poor relationships or no relationships. If you are unaware of persuasion attempts, then you could be taken advantage of.

What are the 3 types of persuasion? ›

You will often hear ethos, pathos, and logos referred to as the three modes of persuasion.

What are the 4 factors of persuasion? ›

The ingredients of persuasion: 1) the communicator 2) the message 3) how the message is communicated 4) the audience.

What are the three elements of persuasion social psychology? ›

Three Elements of Persuasion - Ethos, Pathos, logos

The secret lies in following the advice of Aristotle, breaking down the essential elements of persuasion into three parts: (1) logos or logic, (2) ethos or ethic, and (3) pathos or emotion.

How does persuasion affect human behavior? ›

The affective feelings of the recipients of a persuasive message influence attitudes directly, but can ultimately change beliefs as well. The psychology of persuasion has often been concerned with the impact of feelings such as a happy or sad mood.

What is an example of persuasion in people? ›

Teaching another person or raising a child to adulthood, for example, are acts of persuasion. Alerting someone of dangers or helping others resolve emergencies are acts that require persuasion. Indeed, even informing someone of your undying love is an act of persuasion.

What are the five basic elements of persuasion? ›

Persuasion is part of the communications process. The five basic elements of persuasion--source, message, medium, public and effect.

What are the 6 principles of persuasion? ›

Let me start by listing all 6 principles of Persuasion:
  • Reciprocity.
  • Commitment and Consistency.
  • Social Proof.
  • Authority.
  • Liking.
  • Scarcity.
Oct 10, 2013

What are the social psychology routes to persuasion? ›

There are two primary routes to persuasion. The central route to persuasion uses facts and information to persuade potential consumers. The peripheral route uses positive association with cues such as beauty, fame, and positive emotions.

Is persuasion a social psychology? ›

The topic of persuasion has been one of the most extensively researched areas in social psychology (Fiske et al., 2010). During the Second World War, Carl Hovland extensively researched persuasion for the U.S. Army.

What is persuasive communication in social psychology? ›

Persuasive communication attempts to convince a person to change their behavior, beliefs, or values. It is used by people from all walks of life for many different reasons.

What are the theories of persuasion in psychology? ›

Theories of Persuasion

While there are numerous theories that help to explain persuasion, we are only going to examine three here: social judgment theory, cognitive dissonance theory, and the elaboration likelihood model.

What is the most effective form of persuasion? ›

Which persuasion technique is the most effective? Some psychology studies suggest that the most effective persuasion technique is “reciprocity,” which involves giving something to the person you want to persuade in order to create a feeling of obligation.

What is the strongest method of persuasion? ›

Rank 1: Appeal to Fears

Fears trigger stronger reactions than positive emotions like hope, and is the strongest persuasion method of all.

What is the most effective tool of persuasion? ›

Both of these exercises—using emotional coloration and emphasizing words within a sentence—demonstrate a critically important point in public speaking: Your voice is your most powerful tool for persuading and influencing listeners. No other presentation tool is capable of such infinite variety, for instance.

What are the 4 persuasive techniques? ›

4 modes of persuasion
  • Ethos. Ethos relies on credibility as the method for convincing others. ...
  • Pathos. Pathos is a mode of persuasion that appeals to the human emotions. ...
  • Logos. Logos appeals to the logical side of the audience members, and using logos can help establish the ethos in writing. ...
  • Kairos.
Jun 24, 2022

What are the seven persuasion tactics? ›

The 7 basic principles of persuasion were devised by Dr. Robert Cialdini and include: scarcity, authority, social proof, sympathy, reciprocity, consistency and later unity was added.

What are the five dimensions of persuasion? ›

Through the analysis, they found five key dimensions of persuasive writing: rhetoric, craftsmanship, authenticity, reflexivity, and imagination.

What is the rule of three in persuasion? ›

Simply put, the Rule of Three is a very general principle that states that ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable for your audience. Information presented in a group of three sticks in our head better than other groups.

What are the 3 factors that affect persuasiveness? ›

The success of persuasion depends on three factors: source, message and target.

What are the three the foundation of persuasion? ›

The Greek philosopher Aristotle laid down the three basic methods of persuasion more than 2,000 years ago: reasoning (what Aristotle called logos), emotional appeals (pathos), and gaining people's trust (ethos).

How does persuasion becomes manipulation? ›

Conversely, any persuasion effort will be perceived as manipulation if your intention merely is to maximize your own benefit, even at the expense of your prospect's if need be.

Are persuasive people manipulative? ›

In summary, there is a vast difference between persuasion and manipulation. Persuasion advances the position of all involved. It is a prosocial endeavor that guides the receiver of a message in accepting truth. In contrast, a manipulative appeal is one that if adopted will negatively impact another.

What happens when people resist persuasion? ›

Persuasion Resistance is a natural defense against pressure. Reactance occurs when a prospect senses that someone is trying to compel them to do something; they automatically resist and attempt to move away from the conversation. Desperation is a negative trust signal.

How can persuasion act as a tool for social change? ›

Moral conditioning: Persuasion can bring change in the social attitude of people. For example, regular announcements to keep the station clean persuade people to change their behaviour. The Selfie campaign was a major success in promoting the Beti Padhao Beti Bachao scheme.

Why is persuasion important in everyday life? ›

Strong persuasion skills can help you better perform your job. If you work in a sales role, you may be called upon to persuade clients to purchase a certain product or service. Additionally, persuasion can be used to encourage and motivate your team members, supporting the overall success of the company.

What are the characteristics of persuasion? ›

The 6 Principles of Persuasive Communication
  • Liking. Consumers and businesses alike wish to engage with organizations that they admire. ...
  • Reciprocity. ...
  • Consensus. ...
  • Scarcity. ...
  • Consistency. ...
  • Authority.
Feb 28, 2020

What are Aristotle's three main means of persuasion? ›

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, suggested that any spoken or written communication intended to persuade contains three key rhetorical elements: logos, the logic and reasoning in the message; ethos, the character, credibility and trustworthiness of the communicator; and pathos, the emotional dimension.

What are the tools of persuasion? ›

Aristotle coined the terms ethos, logos, and pathos as the three main tools of persuasion. These are used in theatre, in literature, and beyond. As actors are learning various acting styles, techniques, and methods, they are introduced to these three modes of persuasion.

What is the first rule of persuasion? ›

1. Reciprocity: Give a little something to get a little something in return. Cialdini's first principle of persuasion states that human beings are wired to return favors and pay back debts—to treat others as they've treated us.

What are three methods of preventing persuasion social psychology? ›

Skepticism, reactance, and inertia are three kinds of resistance that work in different way to limit persuasion. People can do many things to increase or to decrease their own or other people's resistance to persuasion.

What is social learning theory of persuasion? ›

Social learning theory is a psychological concept that explains how people learn from observing and imitating others. It can be a powerful tool for external communications campaigns, as it can influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of your target audience.

What is the art of persuasion in psychology? ›

The art of persuasion is based on the principles of psychology. In particular, it is based on the concept of social influence, which refers to the ways in which people are influenced by the opinions and actions of others.

What is an example of persuasion? ›

Another meaning for persuasion is the act of influencing someone to do something or to change their mind. For example, good salespeople use persuasion to get people to buy things, just as children use persuasion to get permission to do certain things.

What is an example of persuasion theory? ›

For example, if you are giving your speech on majoring in a foreign language, people who are in favor of majoring in a foreign language are more likely to positively evaluate your message, assimilate your advice into their own ideas, and engage in desired behavior.

What is a real life example of persuasion? ›

Persuasion is a powerful force in daily life and has a major influence on society and a whole. Negative examples of persuasion often come to mind—as in an ad trying to get you to buy something you don't need, peer pressure that causes you to make a poor decision, or even deliberate misinformation.

What is persuasion in rhetorical situation? ›

Persuasion is the use of appeals to reasons, values, beliefs, and emotions to convince a listener or reader to think or act in a particular way.

What is the purpose of persuasion? ›

The purpose of persuasion in writing is to convince, motivate, or move readers toward a certain point of view, or opinion. The act of trying to persuade automatically implies more than one opinion on the subject can be argued.

What are the five points of persuasion? ›

Persuasion is part of the communications process. The five basic elements of persuasion--source, message, medium, public and effect.

What is persuasion in simple words? ›

Persuasion is the act of persuading someone to do something or to believe that something is true. Only after much persuasion from Ellis had she agreed to hold a show at all. Synonyms: urging, influencing, conversion, inducement More Synonyms of persuasion. countable noun.

What is a situational example of persuasion? ›

One of the basic persuasive situations is where you want the other person to do something, acting in a certain way. This may be for your benefit or for theirs (although they may not realize it). For example you may want them to buy something from you our just help you out in some way.

How is persuasion used in an argument? ›

What is a persuasive/argument essay? Persuasive writing, also known as the argument essay, uses logic and reason to show that one idea is more legitimate than another. It attempts to persuade a reader to adopt a certain point of view or to take a particular action.

How is persuasion in an argument? ›

Traditionally, people have called argument any attempt that uses logic to incite a person to take action or to change an opinion or belief. Persuasion is considered to be the same call to action or to change an opinion or belief; but persuasion is a call to action that is based on appealing to emotion and feeling.


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