Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Mind Map

One of those successful persuader :)

The Presidents in democratic countries are among the most successful persuaders in the world history. On the way to election they go through the real works of persuasion to gain voters trust, then after they are elected they have to again, persuade the citizens, senate, congress, international community, in the name of policy introduction, peace talks, economical deals, and within many other frames.

Yet persuasion is not merely about politics. It is also a way that we went through since we were child, to make our parents buying us our favorite toys, or to make them letting us watching TV. :) It is all about making people doing what we intend them to do. For those, and for many more reasons that I cannot describe one by one here, I am so much into diving deeper to the art of persuasion. This gets me the joy in studying the message design and social influence.

This joy starts with the excitement to realize that we are all so much exposed by communication activities in daily basis, as information exchange is part of our life dynamics. We all serve as communicator and communicant, we convey as well as we receive messages, and through that process we can modify others’ behavior. Previously I was fascinated by the success of some ads, political campaigns or news in creating social influence, without overseeing the deeper surface of those messages. I just know that some of those were touching something in human mind that create a strong persuasion effect to the audience. It is only recently, through Message Design and Social Influence classes that I obtain the new point of view, knowledge and understanding on the underlying process, that in my own term, I like to call it as “mental map” – a direction that shows how the motivation, behavior, attitude and action derive and actualized.

After learning a little bit of the persuasion theories in the beginning of the semester I started to observe my own cognitive process in considering the pieces of the messages that I watch, read or hear. I tried to match the theories with the dynamics that I sense in my cognition. I realize that there is a certain wave of feeling within the cognitive process, where my mind receive then digest the information within the frame of my salient belief. Meanwhile my consciousness makes comparisons with my social values and norms, my head is filled with the pros and cons-telling me to do or not to do something, and I, end up with making, or not making a decision, or with doing or not doing a thing.

Here I'd like to share some facts about Persuasion that fascinate myself. In my understanding, the art of effective persuasion lies in the understanding of the psychological side within a persuadee as the target of persuasion activity. The persuader should understand the psychological background of their target prior to designing the message to formulate the most suitable strategy of communicating to the target audience, while the strategy should be actualized to bring the persuadee into the desired attitude, behavior, and action. My main textbook for Persuasion class is written by O’Keefe (2002), where he defines persuasion as “a successful intentional effort at influencing another’s mental state through communication in a circumstance in which the persuadee has the freedom.”

However, in my opinion O’Keefe set a very high ideal standard to persuasion – as he put the notion of “successful” toward "the effort" and the notion of “circumstance in which the persuade has the freedom.” I do prefer to regard persuasion as a process, regardless of its success in the outcome. I also see that it is not easy to ensure the state of freedom, as I believe that sometimes, a persuadee lives in a-not-many-option circumstances. When “freedom” is noted, I would imagine that term literally, is the absolute state of free-willing, yet in reality sometimes the “freedom” of the choices given to persuadee is the freedom within a frame of certain limiting conditions.

An instance to help revisiting this wishful thinking of the state of "freedom" is a situation the in medical setting. There in the practitioner's rooms, very often what it said to be the success of doctor’s persuasion to the patient is based on very limited alternatives of medical treatments, while at the same time the patients are trapped in the position of having to choose one between unpleasant options to survive. Thus I feel that it is a little odd when even in those fuzzy edges of the definition of persuasion, there is sharp lines drawn over the state of freedom. At the flipside, I may consider that the freedom O’Keefe refers to is the freedom that is identified as the existence of “more than one option” state, without any imposing power that insists someone to do something.

As persuasion is about “influencing mental state through communication”, psychological aspects become the highlight in further discussions on persuasion theory. When we discuss paradigm cases of persuasion, attitudes, behavior, belief-based models, cognitive dissonance theory, up to theories of behavioral intention, the influences toward mental state are the principal issues to consider.

The success of a persuasive effort is indicated by O’Keefe defined as “a person’s general evaluation of an object, where “object” is understood in a broad sense, as encompassing persons, events, products, policies, institutions and so on.” The general evaluation of an object is reflected through a certain attitude, where “attitude is an evaluative judgment of, or a reaction to an object.” (O’Keefe, 2002, p.6). Attitude can be positive or negative and both reactions can be driven by persuasion. As set in the common features of persuasion, we need an indicator of success. Some persuasion activities indicate their success to the change of behavior, where the change is bridged by the change of attitude at the first hand.

However some studies found that the degree of consistency between behavior and attitude varies depending on various factors and some critiques found that people actions are not always consistent with their attitudes. These inconsistency remind the message designer to consider the focus of the persuasive efforts, and try to relate them with corresponding measures, that can hold audience’s mental state.

There is a model that can help in understanding how persuasion works in the beginning. It is called "Believe-Based Models of Attitude. The main idea of it is that "one’s attitude toward an object is a function of belief strength and belief evaluation". Therefore it is very reasonable when the belief one has about an object influences one’s attitude toward an object. In this case then it is obvious that the efforts of changing the attitude MUST influence belief consideration.

This model is a function of one’s salient belief about the object, and indeed, it is so much related to the above-mentioned theory on perceived relevance of attitudes. The salient belief is claimed to determine the attitude, thus, in this theory, once persuaders grab the ideas of the salient belief and design their messages as close as possible to that, it should be much easier for them to persuade the respective audience. However, in designing the message, persuaders should carefully scrutinize the most salient factor of a case in persuadees’ mindset. This is the most challenging part, since relative salient belief of various groups is of course vary.

Thus, the road to becoming a leader of a nation is really an amazing path. How to bridge, how to bond, how to accommodate and how to serve those beliefs are incredible works. My country, Indonesia, is soon having a national election in 2009. I'm really excited to observe from far to see how the presidential candidates serve those beliefs - as my country is a diverse place in terms of religion, culture, languange and political syste. I will see, what will actually be the general tendency of my people's beliefs, then I would know, who will the candidates persuade the constituents... Exciting, isn't it?

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