Persuasion rests at the heart of communication. Some scholars contend that to communicate is to persuade – that all communication is, in some form, persuasion. Indeed, persuasion is central to some of humankind’s most essential functions, comprising the core of politics, religion, and health; and is simultaneously omnipresent in everyday life, like in marketing, dating, and even parenting (Floyd, 2017). “Persuasion,” Richard Perloff (2016) wrote, “at once intrigues and repels us.”

Defining Persuasion

More than a millennium ago, Aristotle remarked that he saw rhetoric as a way to discover “the available means of persuasion.” However, Aristotle never exactly defined persuasion – which leaves us to ask, “What is persuasion?” In the broadest sense, persuasion is the communicative process through which a message prompts a change in an individual or group’s beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors.

Synthesizing the various definitions of persuasion offered by communication scholars, Perloff (2016) said that persuasion is a “symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their own attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice.”

From this definition, Perloff (2016) then highlighted five components of persuasion that Communication scholars ought to bear in mind when examining persuasion through a communicative lens. Accordingly, persuasion is a symbolic process: it involves both the transmission of a message and an attempt to influence, it helps people persuade themselves, and it requires free choice.

The History of Persuasion in Communication Studies

Many scholars of persuasion within Communication Studies trace the history of the discipline back to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, the heated debate between Plato and the Sophists regarding the virtue and place of persuasion in society is very much alive today. Plato abhorred what many consider to be the dark, unsavory part of persuasion – the grossly exaggerated statements that blur the ethical line and are often found in marketing and politics. The Sophists, on the other hand, embraced this side of persuasion, arguing its practical foundations and pervasive presence in everyday life.

Coming a generation after Plato and the Sophists, Aristotle argued for a “both/and” approach to persuasion – he saw merit in both schools of thought and, as mentioned above, envisioned rhetoric as a tool in understanding the power of persuasion. Indeed, Aristotle’s delineation of artistic proofs (ethos, logos, and pathos) governed much of the study of persuasion for a millennium after him and these proofs are still utilized today. Aristotle’s impact on persuasion, and really Communication Studies as a whole, is profound. Our section on Rhetorical Studies provides a more thorough elucidation of rhetoric’s rich history and its influence within persuasion and Communication studies.

A more contemporary tracing of persuasion’s history begins with the research on propaganda, behavior, and attitudes following the First World War, and the institutionalization of this research after the Second World War. When the world fully realized the horrors of the Holocaust in the waning days of World War II, the United States government began funding research aimed at examining how Hitler and the Nazis could steer a people to commit mass genocide. Somewhat simultaneously, the United States government sought to harness the power of propaganda more effectively at the start of the Second World War and funded research-backed projects like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight film.

According to Perloff (2016) many of the scholars that contributed research in developing Why We Fight helped usher in the modern study of Communication and Psychology. In particular, Carl Hovland is directly attributed to the modern application of social scientific techniques in an interdisciplinary setting. He and his colleague’s research and methodological procedures paved the way for the research that is considered today to be foundational.

Foundational Theories in Persuasion Studies

Indeed, with Hovland’s pioneering social scientific experimentation and, really, the replicability of his procedures and their ability to be critically peer-reviewed, several breakthroughs in the study of persuasion occurred. Several decades later, many of these breakthroughs remain foundational in the modern study of persuasion from a communicative perspective.

Like with many theories and concepts in Communication Studies, there is inter and intradisciplinary overlap with these foundational theories from persuasion studies. In other words, a theory or concept that may have been born from the study of persuasion is sometimes reapplied by several other disciplines within, and outside of, Communication Studies, due to the concept’s inherent or unique explanatory powers. For example, our discussion of Health Communication featured several theories borrowed from persuasion studies, like Inoculation Theory. The following are theories considered to be foundational and would certainly be featured in a graduate seminar on persuasion:

Cognitive Dissonance Theory: Generally speaking, human beings prefer to “maximize the internal psychological consistency of their cognitions” (O’Keefe, 2015). In other words, we like our thoughts and attitudes to make sense, and we actively try to avoid the discomfort associated with cognitive inconsistency. Cognitive Dissonance Theory, then, helps to explain this phenomenon.

Dissonance occurs when one thought contradicts, or challenges, the other. According to the theory’s originator, Leon Festinger (1957), one of the more salient examples of dissonance is of a smoker. Someone who smokes may acknowledge that smoking causes cancer but chooses to continue smoking anyway. The thought and acknowledgement that smoking causes cancer contradicts or challenges the thought and action of smoking, thus creating dissonance.

According to proponents of Cognitive Dissonance Theory, people “will want to avoid experiencing dissonance,” and when they do ultimately come across contradictory thoughts, “they will attempt to reduce it” (O’Keefe, 2015). Indeed, persuasive communication researchers continue to probe the role dissonance creates in the communication process, helping to understand its impact in areas such as conflict resolution, political communication, and decision making.

Theory of Reasoned Action: The Theory of Reasoned Action is primarily concerned with behavior and the intention to enact that behavior. Specifically, this theory suggests that someone is more likely to engage a behavior if they already of the intention to do so.

Indeed, research conducted by communication researchers help persuaders within realms as varied as politics, health, religion, and interpersonal communication hone messages that aim to influence someone’s intent. There is ample empirical evidence supporting the Theory of Reasoned Action and is considered by many to be “unquestionably the most influential general framework for understanding the determinants of voluntary action.” (O’Keefe, 2015).

Social Judgement Theory: Although Social Judgement Theory is something of a thing of the past (it is not as thoroughly utilized in research today as it was previously), it can certainly be viewed as a “framework that offers some concepts and principles of continuing utility” and instruction (O’Keefe, 2015). Indeed, while many consider the theory to be “incomplete,” Social Judgment Theory does highlight certain features of the persuasive process that are sometimes overlooked.

Social Judgement Theory suggests “messages produce attitude change through judgmental processes and effects,” or the “way in which the receiver (of a persuasive message) evaluates the position it advocates” (O’Keefe, 2015). More simply, this theory indicates that individuals judge a persuasive message based upon their current perspective – that several people could be given a message in the same exact way, but ultimately several different conclusions will be drawn as everyone’s experiences differ.

Elaboration Likelihood Model: This model is “based on the idea that under different conditions, receivers will vary in the degree to which they are likely to engage in elaboration of information relevant to the persuasive issue” (O’Keefe, 2015). Put differently, persuasion is dependent upon context and the willingness of the individual being persuaded.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model argues that there are two routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. The central route involves parties or individuals open to being persuaded “focus(ing) on the arguments” presented to them and ultimately “respond(ing) with favorable thoughts” (Floyd, 2017). On the other hand, the peripheral route to persuasion “occurs when people are influenced by incidental cues, such as a speaker’s attractiveness” or the music and images of a television commercial (Floyd, 2017).

Inoculation Theory: Like vaccines, Inoculation Theory suggests that those exposed to small attacks on something they believe will ultimately be able to “resist a more powerful attack later” (Floyd, 2017). By and large, research continues to support the underlying premise of Inoculation Theory and the implications of this theory are indeed profound. Persuasion communication researchers examined the use of attitude inoculation in marketing, political, religious, and even cult contexts, suggesting a wide a varied use of associated techniques.

On the one hand, Inoculation Theory helps in developing critical thinking skills in children, aiding them in seeing through deceptive commercials and resisting pressures to smoke. On the other hand, religious fundamentalists and cults utilize attitude inoculation in the indoctrination process by “forewarning members of how families and friends will attack the cult’s beliefs” and providing them counterarguments to employ (Floyd, 2017).

Narrative Paradigm: Walter Fisher (1984, 1987, 1989) proffered the narrative paradigm as a means of viewing human communication through a storytelling lens. Human beings across cultures, time, and space, Fisher argued, utilize the inherent power in narratives to communicate and to help understand the complexities of existence. Although the narrative paradigm is different from the other persuasive communication theories elucidated here, especially given its rhetorical, and not strictly social scientific, leanings, Fisher’s paradigm continues to be employed by persuasion scholars of all backgrounds.

For example, Michael Burns (2015) used the paradigm in his qualitative study analyzing the “use of narratives as persuasive recruitment tools for universities.” Burns (2015) found that for students in transition from high school to college and in the process of deciding on a university to attend, personal stories from current students “resonated and built a connection with (prospective) students.”

Burns’ (2015) study is noteworthy for several reasons. First, his mixed methods approach demonstrates the versatility of the narrative paradigm in persuasion communication research. Second, his findings display the paradigm’s applicability to more modern, real word situations, certainly familiar to students reading this website. And finally, Burns’ (2015) research extends the staying and explanatory power of the narrative paradigm, providing further validation to the concept.

Persuasion in Communication Studies Today

Without question, the study of persuasion is essential to understanding human communication and contemporary research continues to yield insights and concepts that further this understanding. Indeed, a student could turn to any issue in journals as varied as Communication Quarterly, Applied Communication Research, and the Southern Communication Journal and almost certainly find the latest in persuasive communication research.

Reflecting this, persuasive communication is the backbone to a majority of interest groups within the National Communication Association (NCA), as well as the regional associations, with divisions like the Applied Communication Division, the Health Communication Division, the Rhetorical and Communication Theory Division, the Mass Communication Division, and the Religious Communication Division typically sponsoring panels and roundtables at the annual NCA convention.

Since its ascendency within persuasive communication research some five decades ago, the empirical approach to persuasion has dominated the scholarly landscape. While this social scientific approach contributed to the proliferation, predictability, and general acceptance of persuasive communication theories and practices, there is growing evidence that we are currently in the midst of a rhetorical revival.

Recently, for example, communication scholars started utilizing a rhetorical lens in bringing to the fore the ways in which violent white supremacists and other American terrorist organizations operate, highlighting the persuasive appeals embedded in the communication practices found on internet forums, through some media personalities, and via political tweets and speeches given at political rallies.

As the aforementioned theories, paradigms, and models illustrate, students looking to study persuasive communication at the master’s level have a broad, deep, and diverse pool of knowledge from which to draw. In addition to being fascinating from a purely scholarly perspective, the study of persuasive communication has applications that touch almost every aspect of human life. In many ways, persuasion is synonymous with communication, and as such masters in communication specializations ranging from rhetorical theory and communication studies to interpersonal, political, health, and consumer-oriented communication all include persuasive communication as a foundational part of their curriculum.

Through advanced studies in persuasion, students can better understand how people interact with, support, and motivate one another within the complex and dynamic fabric of human society. They can then apply these insights to improving human communication and connectedness at the individual, community, national, and international levels.

Sources and Additional Resources

To learn more about the study of persuasion and research in Communication Studies, check out the following resources:

  • Burns, M. E. (2015). Recruiting Prospective Students With Stories: How Personal Stories Influence the Process of Choosing aUniversity. Communication Quarterly, 63(1), 99–118.
  • Floyd, K. (2017). Human Communication: A Critical Reader (Third Edition). McGraw Hill Education LLC.
  • O’Keefe, D. J. (2015). Persuasion: Theory and Research. SAGE Publications.
  • Perloff, R. M. (2016). The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the Twenty-First Century. Routledge.

About the Author: Christopher Wernecke is a Ph.D. candidate and Graduate Instructor at Georgia State University, where he is currently studying collective memory and American cancer rhetoric in the Department of Communication. He holds a bachelor's degree in political science from DePaul University, and a Master of Arts in Communication and Media Studies from Texas State University.