Distraction and Dissonance: A model of the persuasive process

Chapter IV - A Model of the Persuasive Process

Path analysis models can provide a convenient way to summarize a complex set of hypotheses into a more easily visualized picture that can then be formally tested using regression-based statistical analysis. This chapter will create such a model using the hypotheses generated in Chapters 2 and 3. The resulting model of the persuasive process should be considered both tentative, in that a number of the relationships it hypothesizes need further testing, and incomplete insofar as it is restricted to the persuasion related variables discussed here.

At the basis of any such persuasive model is the fundamental process of persuasion; the changing balance of message consonant and message counter-arguments (see Fishbein and Ajzen, 1975, for a detailed analysis of this process) that results in a change in attitudes. This rebalancing of consonant and counter-arguments has been invoked repeatedly in in Chapters 2 and 3. In this most basic model of the persuasive process, persuasion is caused by maximizing an audiences message consonant argument while minimizing their message counter-argument. Thus in the basic model, depicted in Figure 2, the connections from message counter and consonant argument to persuasion indicate that argument influences persuasion, that persuasion can be predicted from changes in the balance of arguments.

Figure 2: A basic model of persuasion in which persuasion occurs as a function of increased message consonant argument and decreased message counter-argument.

This basic model can reasonably be regarded as a representation of balance models of the persuasive process like those presented by Fishbein and Ajzen (1975). Certainly, however, many of the hypotheses presented thusfar are consistent with this model. Irrelevant distraction, according to Hypothesis 1, (Chapter 2), enhances persuasion by reducing message counter-argument. The effects of relevant distraction, by contrast (see Hypothesis 2) can either decrease persuasion by enhancing message counter-argument (with negative relevant distractions) or enhance persuasion by enhancing message consonant argument (with positive relevant distractions). Cognitive Dissonance, according to the traditional interpretation, induces persuasion by forcing the subject to justify his actions, if by no other means, than by finding good reasons, such as message consonant arguments, for the action. The Chapter 3 view of Cognitive Dissonance (see Hypothesis 9) states that this act of finding good reasons drains energy that might otherwise be used for counter-argument, allowing cognitive distraction to occur. In this sense, dissonance may be an optimal instrument of persuasion insofar as it both maximizes consonant argument by forcing the persuadee to look for good reasons for his actions and minimizes counter-argument by distracting the subject from counter-argument. This basic model provides a reasonable statement of the processes through which distraction and dissonance can operate in enhancing the persuasive process.

The basic model also works in explaining other aspects of the persuasive process. Inoculation theory, for example, predicts that giving a persuadee material and motivation will bolster his ability to counter-argue with a message. This concept of counter-argument bolstering is extremely consistent with the model. So to is McGuire's (1964) finding that supplying a persuadee with the material and motivation necessary to counter-argue is effective in reducing persuasion. The model is also effective in explaining findings showing that one sided persuasive messages can be more effective than two sided persuasive messages. One sided messages present only message consonant arguments while two sided messages also provide, even when presented in refutational context, message counter-arguments. The superiority of emotional persuasive messages over logical ones is also implicit in this model. The possibility of another viewpoint is implicit to logical argument, but is rarely admitted in the emotional appeal.

Finally, the model explains persuasion decay over time. If, indeed, persuasion is the result of increased message consonant and/or decreased message counter-argument, then persuasion can be said to result from an imbalance between counter and consonant argument. It should be expected that, while an imbalance of this sort should be easy to maintain for short periods, the subjects cognitive balance should be restored over a longer period of time. This may evidence itself in two ways. First, consonant arguments may be rejected or forgotten, resulting in a reduction in persuasion. Persuasion should also be reduced when counter-argument increases. This should make persuasion due to distraction particularly vulnerable to reduction over time.

It would appear that this basic model is reasonably parsimonious with a variety of approaches to the persuasive process. In communication research, however, persuasion is rarely treated directly as a dependent measure. It is instead implied through the differences in the final attitudes of experimental groups. This implies a second segment in our basic persuasive model. This segment, depicted in Figure 3, represents the most basic prediction of the persuasive process, that final attitude is the sum of initial attitude and persuasion. This prediction is rather obvious and stands, in this study as an operational definition. Its purpose in the model is not, as will be the case in the rest of the model, that of showing how persuasion can be influenced, but rather to act as a reminder that persuasion represents a change in attitude. Implicit to this reminder is an implied feedback loop between initial and final attitude. In fact, the only aspect of the two that allows separation is the fact that attitudes can change over a period of time.

Figure 3: A time based model of the effect over persuasion over time which acknowledges the reality that attitudes often move gack towards initial attitudes over time.


Given this basic model, it becomes possible to depict the ways in which attitude can be affected through persuasion. The first major area of influence comes from what might be called standard persuasion variables. These variables are standard, first, because they have an effect in almost every persuasive situation and, second, because they belong to no specific theory of persuasion. These variables, as depicted in Figure 4, affect persuasion through their effect on message counter and con sonant argument.

First among these variables is source credibility. Source credibility, as hypothesized in chapter 3, acts as a distraction, affecting either counter or consonant argument. Generally speaking, increased credibility should increase message consonant argument while de creased credibility should increase message counter-argument.

Figure 4: Standard persuasion variables that directly affect the production of message consonant and message counter-argument

A second important variable is learning. Learning involves the process of obtaining message counter and consonant arguments. As, however, the principal component of a persuasive message is consonant argument, learning, during a persuasive message, usually involves only consonant argument. Learning is, in turn, affected by a variety of variables, only one of which, message complexity, is distinct enough from the variables yet to be presented to allow inclusion as a standard variable. Generally, increasing message complexity should reduce learning and consonant argument.

Message complexity leads naturally into the distraction variables, especially since stronger distractions can have a profound effect, as noted in chapter 2, on learning. Distraction strength is, in fact, the most important of the distraction variables. The stronger the distraction the more acute its effect in attenuating first counter-argument and then learning. In Figure 5 this effect is shown by the connections between these variables. It should be noted, however, as was pointed out in chapter 2 that the effect on learning is not major except for the strongest class of distractions.

Figure 5: Distraction variables and their relationship to persuasion variables.


Evaluative focus can be an effective weapon in reducing the effect stronger distractions can have on learning. As such, its effect is not on counter-argument, but rather on learning. For this reason, evaluative focus is shown influencing learning in the model. Focus may influence counter-argument also, in weaker distractions, but there is, at present, no evidence to support that content ion.

The third variable in the distraction group, relevance (see Hypotheses 1 and 2 in Chapter 2), notes that distractions which are related to the message have different characteristics than those which are not. Relevant distractions can bolster either message counter or consonant argument. This is shown in the model, but it should be remembered that relevant distractions can generally only bolster one or the other, not both, at any given time.

Although only three variables have been directly attributed to distraction in the model, it should be remembered that two of the standard variables, source (sponsor) credibility and message complexity, have an impact on the process of distraction. Another factor that affects distraction, cognitive dissonance, involves a set of variables in and of itself. Figure 6 depicts the central variables in the cognitive dissonance process. As a group these variables affect dissonance by varying personal commitment.

The first of these variables, personality, cannot be said to be entirely unique to the dissonance process. The effect it does have is, however, important, especially where Machiavellianism is concerned. As was noted in chapter 3, people who score high in Machiavellian ism often fail to evidence dissonance in the counter- attitudinal framework. Thus, personality plays a critical role in the dissonance process.

Figure 6: Variables that affect the extent to which dissonance is felt.


Less ambiguous in their relationship to dissonance are the variables choice and reward. Of the two choice may be the more important, for low levels of choice provide an easy and immediate avenue for non-attitudinal dissonance reduction. High choice levels, on the other hand, force responsibility on the subject, allowing him no one to blame for his actions but himself. Reward affects dissonance, in a sense, by manipulating choice. A high reward should prove more lucrative to a subject, harder to refuse, than a low reward. High reward also provides its own outlet for dissonance reduction, for counter-attitudinal behavior can be justified in terms of the high reward.

Although less important than the preceding variables, anonymity can also affect dissonance. A person faced with encoding a message that will never be heard by anyone else, or with which he will never be associated, should be expected to careless about what is said than would a person who can be identified as the speaker and who knows his message will be used to influence others. Thus anonymity can be expected to affect dissonance. Indeed, several of the experiments described in Chapter 3 have shown just such an effect.

It is important to note that each of the dissonance variables affects dissonance, either increasing it or decreasing it. Dissonance in turn affects message con sonant and counter-argument. The effect of dissonance in increasing message consonant argument is related to the original theory of cognitive dissonance. It is, in fact, the attempt to justify the dissonant behavior. The effect of dissonance in decreasing message counter-arguments, on the other hand, is related to distraction. In a very real sense, the effect, although expected to prove important, is secondary to the other dissonance variables, for cognitive distractions are caused by the rechanneling of energy into the act of justifying behavior. The rechanneling is caused by the dissonance which, in the end, is the product of the dissonance variables.

Other variables also play a role in the dissonance process. Of particular importance is attitude. A message must be at least somewhat counter-attitudinal in order to arouse dissonance. Moreover, as the process of dissonance begins to affect attitude, the attitude change also affects dissonance. This feedback process, although an important dissonance prediction, cannot be depicted in the model and is, from a practical standpoint, a difficult prediction to measure.

Figure 7: An integrated model of the persuasive process that accounts for both distraction and dissonance..


Together, the several models presented in this chapter form a larger model of the persuasive process. This larger model, shown in Figure 7, is really nothing more than an ordered combination of the several small models. The explanation offered for each of these models should, therefore, hold true. The purpose of the model is to show clearly how the depicted persuasion variables affect each other. An important product of this under standing is the causal flow of variables which is implicit to the model. Varying reward affects first dissonance, then message consonant and counter-argument, and finally persuasion and attitude. Increasing distraction strength affects counter-argument, then learning and consonant argument, and ultimately persuasion and attitude. This causal flow allows us a format in which we can systematically vary aspects of the model experimentally. It is to the details of one such manipulation that we now turn.

Previous Chapter

Foulger, Davis A. (2005). A Model of the Persuasive Process. From the Hypermedia Edition of Foulger, Davis A. (1977). Distraction and Dissonance: A model of the persuasive process. Master's Thesis. University of Central Florida. Retrieved from http://foulger.info/davis/mastersThesis/chapter4.htm.