by Lee McGaan, Monmouth College
1994, 2009

Persuasion is a process by which people use messages to influence others. While persuasion typically uses information, the emphasis in a persuasive message is on influencing the receiver (rather than merely providing information and letting the receiver make up his/her own mind). Persuasion attempts to change minds or get people to act.  Persuaders seek change!

In the formal study of persuasion several common terms take on special, technical meanings different from their everyday uses. These terms can help persuaders analyze the rhetorical situation and become more effective in designing their messages.

  • The first term you should know is "BELIEF." In persuasion theory "belief" refers to what people think is true or false, that is, the facts. When people say, "I believe in God." they are indicating that they think it is a fact that God exists.
  • The second term is "VALUE." "Value" refers to what we think is good or bad, right or wrong. When someone says, "I value education." that person means education is good, that it is right to pursue learning.
  • The third term is "Motive."  "Motive refers to the audience member's self-interest.  Motives are those desires we all have for positive outcomes for ourselves and our friends and families.  When someone says, "I want to make more money." or "I want my family to be safe." they are describing motives.
  • The fourth important persuasion term is "ATTITUDE." "Attitude" refers to what people like or dislike, favor or oppose. If someone asks, "What is your attitude toward President Bush?" they want to know if you like or dislike, favor or oppose him (and his policies).
  • The last persuasive term we need to define is "BEHAVIOR." "Behavior" means intentional action. The action can be either verbal (e.g. signing a petition, saying "I do.") or physical (e.g. wearing a seat belt) but it involves doing something. Frequently the ultimate goal of persuasion is to gain behavior from the receiver, although many persuasive messages represent only a small step toward that goal.

The Rational Model of Persuasion

The Rational Model of Persuasion is a theory which suggests that people think and behave in ways based on reasons and are relatively predictable. While it is true that some of the time people are not entirely logical or consistent; nevertheless, the rational model is useful in persuasion more often than not. In your persuasive efforts for this class we will expect you to make use of the rational model.

The elements of the rational model can be represented by the following formula:

B + V/M = A --> behavior

That is, Beliefs plus Values (and/or Motives) combine to produce Attitudes and attitudes influence our behavior. For example, if a person BELIEVES (that it is a fact) that the death penalty will deter serious crime and if this person VALUES (thinks it is good to have) a crime free community, then it is likely this person will have a favorable attitude toward the death penalty. If such a person is sufficiently motivated s/he may take action (BEHAVIOR) to encourage passage of the death penalty by the state legislature.

People who hold different beliefs or values on the death penalty will typically have different attitudes. A person who does not believe that the death penalty deters crime will not favor capital punishment as a way to make the neighborhood safer. For individuals who value the preservation of life in all circumstances, a belief that capital punishment deters crime is not likely to produce a favorable attitude toward the death penalty.

The rational model can be used to help design persuasive messages. The first step requires the speaker to analyze the audience in order to determine their beliefs, values, motives and attitudes on the chosen topic. Using the case above let's imagine that the persuader knows his audience favors capital punishment because of their belief that it deters crime, their motive of wanting to be safe and their value that a crime-free community is a good thing. If the speaker's purpose is to get this audience to change attitude and oppose the death penalty, s/he has two ways to proceed: 1) attempt to change belief by showing that the death penalty does not deter crime, or 2) alter the value or motive that audience members attach to their belief. Since values and motives tend to be an important part of a person's identity, normally it is not as easy to change them as it is to change beliefs. However, sometimes a persuader can convince the audience to substitute a new value or motive. In this case, for instance, in addition to presenting evidence that capital punishment is an ineffective deterrent the speaker might attempt to introduce a new value, protection of innocent life, by showing that false convictions do occur (belief) and it is wrong to allow irreversible harm to come to an innocent person (value).

In virtually any circumstance a persuader will be more effective if s/he determines the beliefs and values which form audience attitudes toward the persuader's topic. This can be done through surveys (such as political polls), interviews, or personal knowledge of the audience. Then the persuader selects support material which can lead the audience to new beliefs that, when combined with audience values (old or new), will produce an attitude favorable to the persuader's cause.

Determining Your Persuasive Purpose

In addition to analyzing the audience and using the rational model to guide the choice of content in a persuasive message, the speaker must also select an appropriate purpose. The purpose selected will depend on how strongly the audience holds an attitude. In relation to the persuader's opinion, audience members may have attitudes that fall anywhere on a continuum as below.

-2  ---------   -1  ---------  ---------  +1  ----------  +2 

-2 = strongly opposed,  -1 =  moderately opposed

0 = neutral or undecided

+1 = moderately in favor,  +2 = strongly in favor

If audience members are already moderately favorable to the persuader's position it would be silly for him/her to give a speech designed to change attitudes. Similarly, if the audience is strongly opposed to the speaker's position, it is unrealistic to expect the audience to completely reverse their views and become favorable to the speaker's opinion as the result of one speech. The persuader needs to select a purpose that is realistic for his/her audience. Five general purposes of persuasion are listed below.

  • Create uncertainty. When an audience is strongly opposed to the persuader's view, the best that may be possible for the speaker is to make the audience a little less certain they are right, a little less comfortable with their current attitude.
  • Reduce resistance. If the audience is moderately opposed to the speaker's position but not closed-minded, the persuader may be able to reduce opposition to his/her view and move the audience toward neutrality. While not expecting a reversal of views this goal asks the audience to recognize the validity of opinions different from their own.
  • Change attitude. If the audience is not committed especially strongly to any attitude on the topic this goal is appropriate.
  • Amplify attitude. If the audience is already moderately favorable to the persuader's view, the speaker can design a message which will reinforce current attitudes in the audience, help the audience resist appeals from opponents, and (perhaps) motivate the members of the audience to become strongly committed to the speaker's position.
  • Gain behavior. When an audience strongly favors the persuader's position, the logical goal is to get them to ACT on their convictions.



Becker, M.H. & Maiman, L.A. (1975) Socio-behavioral determinants of compliance with health and medical care recommendations, HEALTH CARE, 13, 10-24




last modified on 2/11/2010