Dual Processing Models in Politics


It goes without saying that political communication is about influence. Influencing a grassroots community to take action, a special interest group to donate money, or a legislator to vote a particular way, are all examples of the different kinds of goals a political communicator has to achieve. The ability to adapt your message to the audience is critical to success. The only way to do that is to understand how your audience thinks. Dual processing models help guide us through human thought processes especially during attempted persuasion; those models are elaboration likelihood model and heuristic-systematic model. 


Building upon decades of prior research on attitude, Richard Petty and John Cacioppo first developed ELM in the 1980s under the assumption that people have a desire to have accurate attitudes. However, not everyone is motivated enough or has the capacity to achieve that end. With these two assumptions, this model explains the pathways people use to process messages, why they choose those pathways, and predicts the end results of the audience’s attitude change. 

Petty and Cacioppo posit that there are two pathways one may take to persuasion: central and peripheral. When the audience takes the central route, they carefully consider and scrutinize the arguments presented. They fact check, look for incorrect assumptions, and ask questions — they elaborate on the message. This is the ideal pathway to build resistance to future attempts at persuasion. If the arguments are successful, the audience will adopt your position and change their attitude while increasing attitudinal resistance to other attempts at persuasion. However, if the argument is not successful, it will do the opposite and make an unwanted attitude stronger. 

The peripheral route, on the other hand, is a route that relies on additional cues, like the attractiveness of the speaker, to influence. This way is far less cognitively draining and, therefore, a more common pathway. Peripheral cues can be either subjective or objective. Things like environmental distractions, such as nearby construction noises or a broken thermostat can affect the way the audience will interpret the message. When the argument concludes, attitudes can still shift one way or the other. However, those attitudes will be weaker and vulnerable to future influence. 

So, what makes one person choose to go down the central route while another chooses the peripheral route? The two main factors are motivation and ability. While several factors can contribute to motivation, personal relevance is by far the strongest. If the topic being discussed is not personally relevant to the audience, then their involvement will be substantially lower. Another factor that contributes to motivation is the need for cognition. Some people are more naturally prone to think through arguments, scrutinize, and elaborate than others. This individual factor differs between audience members, and is, therefore, harder to control (Petty & Cacioppo 1986). 

Possibly the best way to make a topic personally relevant is to use terror management theory. Terror management theory posits that when one is made aware of his or her death (mortality salience), then they will be motivated to defend their worldview and work to reaffirm their self-esteem (Maheswaran & Agrawal 2004). When mortality salience is triggered, defense and impression motivations appear. Defense motivations make the person want to maintain an attitude compatible with their best interests and pre-conceived beliefs. Defense motivations triggered by mortality salience encourage people to flock towards their in-groups, such as religious affiliations (Greenberg et al. 1990). Additionally, as Ahluwalia (2000) found, defense motivations build resistance to persuasion. Impression motivations make the person want to hold socially acceptable beliefs; which is necessary for self-esteem. Mortality salience can open a person up to appeals that advocate physical attractiveness (Goldenberg et al. 2000). This works because perceived attractiveness is a result of societal pressure (Amdt et al., 2004). Thus, as Goldenberg proposes, mortality salience drives people to want to conform to the opinions of others. It is the influencer’s job to foster which motivation you want. If you are trying to re-enforce an ally’s belief, a defense motivation is the best bet. However, if you are persuading someone to join the other side, impression motivations are the way to go. 

Ability is just as crucial for the central route as motivation. If a member of the audience doesn't have the intelligence, experience, or focus required to comprehend, they will detour down the peripheral route. Ability is a critical factor in elaboration likelihood and is also the more difficult to control. As Petty and Cacioppo (1984) argue, distraction is an essential component to the audience’s ability to process. As they found, even when an audience member’s cognitive ability is high, distractions can still cause them to rely more on peripheral cues rather than central ones. 


Elaboration likelihood model is not without its criticisms, however. The most prominent critic was Jim Stiff (1986) where he argues that the model implies an audience member may only go down either central or peripheral and cannot journey down both simultaneously. He says this not the case, primarily because he believes people can both process message arguments while processing the peripheral cue of speaker credibility. Later, Monageau & Stiff (1993) argue that the theory is not falsifiable because of the vague relevant concepts and causal relationships.  


To better understand these routes, imagine you are trying to convince a junior-level congressional staffer that his member should be concerned about media consolidation. The staffer has a high need for cognition and is intelligent enough to follow along, however after a long day of meetings, his motivation is lackluster. If you were to begin attempting to influence him now, the complexities of media consolidation law would send him down the peripheral route. He will determine your attractiveness, and if it is a negative determination, he may be unmoved that this issue is worthy of the congressman. If he finds you attractive, his attitude may shift positively, increasing the likelihood he will bring it up the ladder. However, if before he can bring the issue of media consolidation to the boss, another lobbyist walks in, the staffer’s positive attitude toward you will be vulnerable, and he may no longer bring the issue up. 

To motivate this staffer to journey down the central route we want to make the abstract topic of media consolidation personal and tangible. So, we start talking about his favorite TV shows, how he likes to consume media, where he’s from, etc. and we take that information and say something along the lines of, “media consolidation will make it harder for you to watch the Washington Nationals on TV.” Now that the issue has been made personal he is more likely to process the information through the central route and, if your argument is sound, will result in a stronger positive outcome (Petty & Cacioppo 1986).  


Around the same time that Petty and Cacioppo were working on their elaboration likelihood model, Shelly Chaiken was developing the heuristic-systematic model. Similar to elaboration likelihood, the model proposes two similar pathways to persuasion: heuristic and systematic. In simple terms, heuristics are preconceived notions about the topic, whereas systematic processing requires detailed scrutinizing of the argument (Herman 1987). On the surface, the two models seem very similar. “Systematic” is analogous to “central” as “heuristic” is analogous to “peripheral.” Chaiken’s model, however, is not as concerned with the “likelihood” an audience member will “elaborate” on a message but assumes that people will take the most cognitively efficient path. Heuristics serve an essential function in this model because they are the most cognitively economical way to reach a conclusion. Just about anything can be a heuristic since they are formed based on an audience member’s past experiences. These heuristics can include expertise, attractiveness, number of arguments, or other audience members’ reactions (Herman 1987). 

While these heuristics by themselves can be very persuasive, systematic processing is still an important path. This path, by its definition, not only requires extensive cognitive resources, but also motivation and ability. Because of the intense cognitive load systematic processing places on the audience member, heuristic processing will often impact processing path. As Chaiken and Maheswaran discovered (1994), heuristics can and do bias the systematic processing of arguments. This impact is strongest when some arguments remain ambiguous, leaving the audience to, in essence, fill in the blanks. The gaps in these arguments force audiences to use their heuristics to draw conclusions that otherwise are not there. Source credibility is a common heuristic that often encroaches on systematic processing because it creates expectancy toward the validity of the argument. 


In much the same way elaboration likelihood model was applied to traditional lobbying, we can use heuristic-systematic processing model. For this example, we will focus on the issue of public financing of sports stadiums and a hypothetical argument also aimed at a junior-level congressional staffer. Similar tactics as used in the elaboration likelihood model can be employed to persuade him. To start, it is essential to identify what the possible heuristics may be. A great way to begin is to know the political party the staffer represents. Republicans and Democrats have different heuristics on almost every topic, the public financing of sports stadiums isn't any different. For Republicans, using sources from right-wing press outlets, like Fox News, may be more persuasive than a quote from Senator Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, “the 1%” rhetoric may prove to be a better heuristic for Democrats. Likewise, it's important to know the social network of the staffer. Who are his or her influencers? A personal relationship can be a very powerful heuristic. If your argument already swayed a personal friend from another Congressional office, that can be a helpful tool with which to persuade. 

Another way we see heuristics used is by candidates and their surrogates during large national speeches such as the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. The topic foremost at the Republican National Convention was national security and who better to exploit people’s credibility heuristics than General George Allen. He has an extensive history within the realm of national security. General Allen, a four-star general, took the stage after a thorough introduction by a colonel with several dozen veterans. This created a memorable scene that left a strong impression on General Allen’s credibility as a national security speaker. The politicians didn’t stop with just credibility; they also used issue, ideology, conformity, and affect heuristics to manipulate the audience. Democrats used issue heuristics during speeches on social issues like Fight for $15 or gun control. Both parties expressed their faith and used phrases like “God Bless America” to play to the ideology heuristic. The whole idea of political parties is one giant conformity heuristic, but the parties doubled down with speeches like Antonio Sobato Jr.’s where he created in-groups and out-groups by saying, “I know what socialism looks like…I don’t want that for my country.” Additionally, affect heuristics work alongside emotional appeals. Affect heuristics are heuristics based on feelings after experiencing a stimulus. The Democrats manipulated these heuristics with speeches like the “Mothers of the Movement” which spoke about the injustices in policing in America. Their speeches were emotional and relied heavily on pathos.

Heuristics are wildly popular in politics. Since the vast majority of Americans are too busy or unable to systematically process every aspect of policy, politicians have to rely on them to convey arguments and gain support. To call one party manipulative or exploitative when using these tools is unfair because every politician relies on them to craft cognitively economical arguments for the electorate (Hess 2016). 


There is no shortage of social influence theories available to help you with your advocacy goals. However, all of them will fall on deaf ears if you do not understand how your audience will process your arguments. Elaboration likelihood and heuristic systematic processing models are useful guides when crafting your argument. Remember to always begin by making the topic as personally relevant as possible. This will increase the audience’s motivation thus increasing the odds that they elaborate or systematically process your argument. Conclusions reached through these pathways are stronger and more resistant. Do not, however, be afraid to rely on peripheral cues or heuristics to support your case. They are valuable tools of persuasion. Human thought processes are complicated, however, these two models provide the best map to follow when presenting your argument. Using these models when tailoring an argument to your audience, will help ensure positive persuasion results.


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