This is the second post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour.
Another area in which psychology can be applied in policy making is influencing behaviour, which is the subject of persuasion research.
Who people follow
Psychologists specialising in persuasion research have explored, among other things, the impact of the personal characteristics of a message source on the credibility of the communicated message1 WILSON, E., SHERRELL, D. (1993). Source Effects in Communication and Persuasion Research: A Meta-Analysis of Effect Size. – Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101–112. DOI: 10.1007/BF02894421. . Research suggests that people are generally susceptible to persuasion by impartial experts, by people who are similar to themselves, by physically attractive people, and by those in some position of authority.
These well-established insights are still useful today. A troubling issue in Estonia and elsewhere is vaccine hesitancy on the part of parents, which is surprisingly resistant to the best efforts of doctors and other experts2 BREWER, N. T., CHAPMAN, G. B., ROTHMAN, A. J., LEASK, J., KEMPE, A. (2018). Increasing Vaccination: Putting Psychological Science into Action. – Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 18(3), 149–207. DOI: 10.1177/1529100618760521. . Part of this paradox can be explained by realizing that even though people opposed to vaccination find experts competent, they also find them to be partial advocates of conflicting interests. Persuasion research tells us that perceived partiality may undo the impact of perceived expertise. Winning back the trust of hesitant parents must therefore be considered when designing policies that aim to influence vaccination behaviour.
How and when do ad tricks influence people
One of the most prolific contributions of persuasion research is the elaboration likelihood model, which explains why logical arguments have a chance to convince only when the recipients are willing and able to scrutinise these arguments3 PETTY, R., CACIOPPO, J. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. – Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60214-2. .
In the absence of motivation or ability, people become open to influence by various tricks and gimmicks of the advertising and sales sphere (for an accessible overview, see Cialdini Influence: Psychology of Persuasion, 1984). Among such tricks, for example, is the projection of a good feeling derived from a funny commercial onto the product shown at the end of the commercial (even if the joke is completely unrelated to the brand).
Another example is the barely perceptible feeling of reciprocity when a salesperson gives someone candy or a pen, rendering the receiver slightly more susceptible to the proposition following the gift-giving, such as subscription to some service. These persuasion techniques are largely unnoticeable and unconscious, and take place on the level of automatic psychological processes.Continue reading