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4.2.1 Persuasion Theories and Research

Although many people in the USA report they hold pro-environmental values, many others do not. As a result, researchers have focused on identifying how to stimulate pro-environmental behaviors. Persuasion plays a role in creating, reinforcing, or modifying beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. It is the underlying motivation for much of our communication. We develop our identity and what we perceive to be important values through our communication with others whose views we respect. Also, communities develop shared values. In this section, I review several of the major persuasion and social influence theories used to explain a range of behaviors (e.g., purchasing decisions, pro-environmental behaviors). Later, models specific to influencing pro-environmental behaviors in the general public are provided.

Early persuasion research included a model called the message-learning

approach which investigated four sets of factors likely to influence persuasion: the source, the message content, the channel, and the receiver (Seiter 2009). A CEO's credibility influences how stakeholders perceive his or her company's sustainability efforts. Researchers have found speaker credibility, likeability, attractiveness, and similarity to the audience influence persuasion. In terms of the message content, more persuasive messages present all sides of the argument while refuting opposing sides, present stronger arguments either first or last, and use only moderate fear appeals. Inoculation theory identified how to use messages to block behavioral change and/or refute opposing arguments. The message-learning model proposed persuasion occurred in a series of steps, with each step being less likely to occur. First, messages must gain attention, be understood, be accepted, be retained, and then be acted on. Incentives at each stage enhance an appeal's persuasiveness. Soon after developing the message-learning model, Hovland worked with Sherif to develop social judgment theory. You read about social judgment theory in the earlier discussion of how sustainability is a contested term.

Another set of persuasion theories focused on consistency (e.g., cognitive dissonance theory, attribution theory, the self-perception theory of attitude change, balance theory, congruity theory) (Seiter 2009). People want to be consistent. When our attitudes and behaviors are not aligned, we experience psychological stress. We seek to reduce the stress using a variety of techniques including changing our attitude, changing our behavior, or engaging in rationalization. Cognitive dissonance theory, developed by Leon Festinger, predominated persuasion research through the 1970s. It was the theoretical base for research investigating water conservation (e.g., Dickerson et al. 2006) and environmentally responsible behavior (e.g., Thogersen 2004). Earlier you read about attribution theory in relationship to Parguel et al.'s (2011) study of the influence of independent sustainability ratings on French consumers' responses to companies' CSR communication. Like Festinger, Daryl Bem challenged the assumption that attitudes cause behavior in his self-perception theory of attitude change. He investigated how people attribute internal causes to their own behavior in the absence of external causes. This theory helps us understand the effectiveness of the foot-in-the-door tactic where a persuader makes a small request which, if agreed to, often leads to compliance with a larger request. Compliance with the small request allows people to see themselves as helpful, agreeable, or altruistic. Often in campaigns designed to influence pro-environmental behavior, someone will be asked to sign a pledge in hopes that small action will open the person up to making a larger behavioral change when asked. Research suggests that if a person engages in a new behavior, he or she will come to believe that the new behavior is consistent with his or her attitudes and values.

Dual-process theories of persuasion (e.g., the elaboration likelihood model, the heuristic-systematic model) were developed to better understand how people process persuasive messages. You read about the elaboration likelihood model in Peloza et al.'s (2012) investigation into how stakeholders decode and interpret sustainability messages. Chaiken's heuristic-systematic model is similar but talks about how we simultaneously process messages both systematically and using heuristics until we gather sufficient information on which to base our decision. Her heuristics involve communicator cues (e.g., trust in experts; listen to people I like), contextual cues (e.g., if other people think it's true, so do I), and message cues (e.g., more arguments are better arguments; arguments based on statistical support are better). Peloza et al. (2012) identified four heuristics they felt explained how stakeholders decode and interpret an organization's sustainability-related messages: sustainability initiative form, category biases, brand biases, and senior management image. These theories suggest we need to construct sustainabilityrelated messages that provide sufficient information for people with an existing knowledge base who are able and motivated to process more complex messages. However, for people who are just learning about sustainability or who are not motivated to learn more, message heuristics are important.

Compliance-gaining research investigates persuasion in interpersonal contexts which is important to anyone seeking to intentionally promote sustainability initiatives within or between organizations. The focus of the compliance-gaining research is on behavioral conformity vs. attitude change (Gass 2009). Early researchers generated a confusing list of the strategies people said they would use to ensure compliance rather than investigating actual behavioral change. Cialdini integrated various studies and identified six basic principles: reciprocity (i.e., we often comply with those who have done us a favor), commitment and consistency (i.e., we want our behaviors to be consistent with our beliefs, attitudes, and values), scarcity (i.e., we value things we perceive to be in short supply), social proof (i.e., we compare ourselves to others and model others' behaviors), authority (i.e., we rely on source characteristics such as credibility), and liking (i.e., we respond to warm, ingratiatory behaviors and attractiveness). Other researchers investigated the verbal and nonverbal strategies used to gain compliance. In addition to the foot-inthe-door strategy (i.e., small initial request followed by a larger request), there is the door-in-the-face technique where the communicator makes a large initial request knowing it will be rejected but follows up with a second, more reasonable approach. People are more likely to comply with the second request for a number of reasons including our social tendency to make reciprocal concessions, our feeling of social responsibility to our friends, our assessment that the second request is more reasonable, and/or our feelings of guilt if we must say no a second time. Another verbal strategy is the disrupt-then-reframe strategy. Nonverbal strategies including a light touch, eye contact, smiling, mirroring, and mimicry are immediacy behaviors used to evoke compliance.

Compliance Gaining and the City of Fayetteville Many of my interviewees mentioned using one or more of the compliance-gaining strategies. I discussed compliance gaining with Peter Nierengarten, Director of Sustainability and Resilience for Fayetteville, AR, who told me:

I am always a big fan of the carrot approach over the stick approach. It is usually better to try and work collaboratively, to find a benefit I can offer to whatever department head I am trying to convince. On occasion we can get the Mayor to say 'this is what we are going to do, this is how it is going to be' but we try not to regularly use that approach. In my experience with the city government, the triple-bottom-line approach tends to sell well. For example, when dealing with energy and retrofits on city buildings we show the improvement cost versus the total life cycle savings as a way of gaining buy-in for a project. We do not advocate for implementation of projects unless they meet a minimum return on investment.

Several of the compliance-gaining models focus on the face-related needs of the participants (e.g., politeness theory, goals-plan-action model). Face is the public performance of our identity; it is how we want others to see us. Important in our everyday life, it is especially important within an organizational context given individuals' goals for respect and/or power (Shimanoff 2009). Because sustainability-related initiatives may involve some conflicts depending on the worldview of the participants, awareness of Brown and Levinson's politeness theory is important. These two sociolinguists developed their theory after observing three different cultures. Positive face involves our desire to have others approve of and validate our identity, while negative face involves our wish not to be imposed on by others in ways that appear to disrespect our identity. We often engage in facethreatening acts (FTA) such as disagreeing with someone (threatens positive face) or enforcing obligations (threatens negative face). Other FTA involve contradicting, criticizing, interrupting, imposing, asking a favor, borrowing, giving advice, requesting information, and embarrassing someone. These are common behaviors. But depending on our relationship with the other person and the context, they can become problematic behaviors. Politeness theory focuses us on the communication strategies we can use to conduct our business in the least facethreatening way possible. We can use various politeness strategies with the most polite being not to do the FTA, followed by off-record strategies (e.g., hinting), negative redress strategies (e.g., apologizing, hedging, honorifics, use of past tense), and positive redress strategies (e.g., complements, slang, familiarity, giving reasons, reciprocal exchange, use of inclusion forms like the word we), with the least polite being bald-on-record strategies (e.g., making no effort to save face).

Face concerns also appear in the goals-plans-action model of interpersonal influence Dillard developed to explain how communicators develop and select their strategies (Gass 2009). People have primary goals (e.g., to increase pro-environmental behaviors within a work team) which are the catalysts for compliance-gaining efforts. But they also have secondary goals (e.g., saving face if their request is rejected). Dillard identified seven types of primary goals including to gain assistance, to give advice, to share an activity, to alter another's perspective, to change the relationship, to obtain permission, and to enforce rights and obligations. Our secondary goals include identity goals, conversation management goals, relational-resource goals, personal-resource goals, and affect management goals. Based on the primary and secondary goals important to the communicator, he or she will develop plans, strategies, and tactics for achieving the goals.

4.2.1.1 Best Practices Provided by the Persuasion Theories

The persuasion theories provide those interested in communicating about sustainability initiatives with a number of important insights. Because individuals want to appear consistent, it is important to frame messages so the requested behavior appears to match their values. The credibility and likeability of the speaker is important, as is the message content and sequencing. Be thoughtful about your message sequencing utilizing the goals-plans-action model. Think about your goals for the message sequence and whether or not a foot-in-the-door or similar technique might be useful. Messages should be crafted differently for those who are interested in learning more about sustainability and those who are unlikely to process complex messages. For the latter, attention to message heuristics is critical. In your interpersonal communication with others, recognize their face-related concerns and the utility of compliance-gaining strategies. Remember sometimes our behavior drives our attitude and value formation rather than the reverse, especially when we face novel situations.

 
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