Theories of persuasion

When was the last time you were persuaded by someone? That is, made up your mind about something, changed your opinion on a matter or did one thing rather than another because of what was communicated to you? Our guess is that these questions turn out to be more difficult to answer than what might be expected. Although we are constantly influenced by the flows of communication in which we engage, the exact moment and cause of persuasion usually eludes us. Was it a forceful argument, the authority of the communicator, the emotions stirred in us? Classical rhetoric suggests that persuasion arises from a combination of all of the above. These three forms of appeal are termed logos (appeal by reason ethos (appeal by character) and pathos (appeal by emotion), respectively. Persuasion, the ancients tell us, arises if and when these three are combined in an appropriate manner, making a communicated utterance persuasive. This understanding of persuasion begins with the communicator and his or her intention to persuade; it sees persuasion as the planned effort on the part of the speaker to shape the message in such a way as to make it convincing. Having the intention to persuade someone and using all the means available, however, is not the same as succeeding in this endeavour. An utterance may be ever so beautifully crafted, its reasoning may be impeccable, the communicator may be just the right person to deliver the message – and yet the communication may fail utterly in having the desired effect on the audience. So, what is persuasion? Here are three possible answers.

First, we should not necessarily give up the classical mode of explanation just because actual efforts at persuading are not always effective. Aristotle, for instance, clearly saw that being able to ‘see the available means of persuasion’ is not the same as actually persuading; he was concerned with the crafting of the message, not with its actual effect. And in many ways this is still as good as it gets from the communicator’s point of view. We can try as best we may to analyse the situation, understand our audience, attune our reasoning and style of presentation to the situation at hand, but once the communication is out there, it is also out of our hands. This is the reasoning behind Lloyd F. Bitzer’s (1968) idea that rhetorical situations call for fitting responses. A rhetorical situation, as Bitzer defines it, consists of an exigence, an audience, and a number of constraints. The exigence is that which calls forth the intention to persuade, i.e. rhetorical discourse; it is an ‘imperfection marked by urgency’, something that ought to change and can be changed by means of communication. The audience is the group of people who are able to correct the imperfection; those who have the ability to make the necessary change and who are also open to be persuaded by the communicator to do so. The audience, then, is not anyone who might happen to stumble upon the communication, but only those individuals (or groups) who are or can become mobilized as mediators of change. Finally, constraints are all those elements of the situation that must be considered if the communication is to succeed; e.g. the audience’s prior knowledge about and attitude towards the topic at hand, the communicator’s personality and authority (in relation to the topic and the audience), other communicators who have similar or different opinions on the matter, the circumstances in which the communication is to take place (the medium and the genre). The constraints, then, are many and varied; they can generally be divided into those aspects of the situation, which the communicator has little or no chance at changing, but must take into account (e.g. the procedure for making a decision, the opponents’ arguments, the general norms and values of the audience), and those that can be shaped directly by the communicator (e.g. through the selection of a certain argumentative strategy or the adoption of a particular communicative style). Bitzer’s final argument is that if and when a communicator analyses these three elements correctly, he or she will deliver a fitting response – that is, an utterance that holds persuasive potential.

However, Bitzer’s position has been heavily criticized for being both deterministic and functionalistic. Richard E. Vatz (1973) offers one of the earliest and most influential articulations of this critique. Vatz basically turns Bitzer’s argument on its head, stating that situations do not determine persuasive efforts, nor do such efforts function by being fitted to situations. Instead, it is persuasive efforts that create situations, establish exigences, call forth audiences. This is the second answer to the question of persuasion: it is the creation of meaning by communicators. Here, a main issue becomes the identification between the communicator and the audience; persuasion can (only) happen when there is common ground, when the communicator and the audience create meaning in similar ways. We can return to the classics for an explanation of this process. In the words of Cicero:

quote-if-you-wish-to-persuade-me-you-must-think-my-thoughts-feel-my-feelings-and-speak-my-marcus-tullius-cicero-93-54-52

This may still sound somewhat like a fitting (or rather, fitted) response, but the fit is now with an audience rather than with a situation. And audiences, as e.g. Edwin Black (1970) has argued, can also be shaped; they may even be constituted in and through communication (Charland, 1987). This second answer, then, views persuasion more as a process of creating common meaning and less as an intentional effort on the part of the speaker.

This takes us to a third possible answer, namely that persuasion is inherent to the process of communication rather than a property of speaker and/or audience. Again, we can find traces of this answer in classical rhetoric. Most notably, Gorgias saw speech as all-powerful, using the story of Helen in the Iliad as an example of how human beings can be overcome by communication:

…if persuasive discourse deceived her soul, it is not on that account difficult to defend her and absolve her of responsibility, thus: discourse is a great potentate, which by the smallest and most secret body accomplishes the most divine works; for it can stop fear and assuage pain and produce joy and make mercy abound.

Whereas persuasion in the Aristotelean sense is a rational exercise in finding the best reasons that may or may not convince an audience, Gorgias sees it as a passionate process; one in which the persuaded part becomes fully and unwillingly immersed. However, Gorgias seems to assume that the communicator is not passionately involved, but rather to blame for the manipulation of the audience’s emotion. This is both the attitude that for centuries gave rhetoric a bad name and it is a position that does not stand to reason: if communication were this powerful, then how can communicators themselves avoid its force? Would not the manipulator be as open to manipulation as others? Or, conversely, if one were able to manipulate, would that not also mean being able to see through other people’s manipulation?

A more appropriate answer, and one that takes all three options into account, then, is that persuasion is the process of bringing speakers, audiences and situations into being in such ways that common meanings are formed. This means that persuasion is both within and beyond the reach of speakers and audiences; it is a force that cannot be controlled entirely by either. Communicators, on the one hand, are not free to persuade as they intent. Audiences, on the other hand, cannot choose freely to remain unaffected by communication. Persuasion is both a driver and an outcome of the communicative process.

Leave a Reply