This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 15 table of contents.

Hovland's Analysis of Persuasion

The first generation of research on persuasion and attitude change was led by Carl Hovland of Yale University from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Hovland and colleagues sought to discover which factors influenced the success or failure of persuasion. Hovland highlighted three variables.

What were the three factors in Hovland's classic analysis?

1. Characteristics of the communicator (the person conveying the message) such as whether the person is an expert

2. Characteristics of the communication (what information is conveyed) such as what arguments are employed

3. Characteristics of the situation (the circumstances in which the message is conveyed) such as whether the person receiving the message is in comfortable surroundings

Hovland's analysis stimulated a lot of research from the 1950s through the 1970s. Each of the three dimensions was explored systematically. One could (for example) present the same message to two groups, telling one group it came from a reputable source, while the other group was told it came from a disreputable source.

What did Lorge find out in 1936, about characteristics of the communicator?

The first of Hovland's three variables was characteristics of the communicator. Hovland was not the first to study this issue. In 1936, Lorge showed that the reputation of a source could affect people's response to a message. He presented American students with the statement, "A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing." If it was attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the students agreed. If the same statement was attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the students tended to disagree with it. Presumably the results would have been reversed in the Soviet Union of the 1930s, where Lenin was a hero.

What is "source degradation," and where is it often used?

Personal characteristics of a communicator can alter the credibility of a message. A person who is highly respected, or recognized as an authority on a subject, should be more persuasive than other people. This is generally found to be true. Conversely, a powerful way to undermine the persuasive power of an argument is to attack the credibility of the source. This is called source degradation. It is used in courtrooms when an attorney attacks the credibility of a witness by giving evidence of times when the witness lied.

A communicator who is good-looking, neat, and sincere is more likely to persuade the audience, other things being equal. However, when an attractive person conveys a message which is not very logical or compelling, and when the person receiving the message pays attention to it, the attractiveness of the communicator has less effect.

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