In March 2016, IPR launched its Behavioral Insights Research Center (BIRC) to conduct research on the factors that influence attitude and behavioral change to enable effective communication. The BIRC helps professionals understand how and why people think and behave the way they do in this ever-changing business environment. Research has focused on key factors of message influence—understanding key factors that may cause messages to fail is critical as well. Message resistance challenges the ability to change attitudes and perceptions.
Public relations would be easy without resistance. Unfortunately for communicators, most messages fail to produce the desired change in attitude and behavior when they encounter resistance from the intended audience. Resistance emerges as a response to threats to the consistency of one’s mental framework, such as when a message’s intended change in attitude is inconsistent with receiver’s present mindset. Messages that struggle to persuade receivers are often those that are subject to resistance. When new information is incompatible with current cognitions, it becomes difficult to integrate and causes anxiety known as cognitive dissonance – a cognitive imbalance. To resolve the dissonance, individuals must address the inconsistency, either by adopting the communicator’s intended attitude or resisting it. Resistance can take various forms, each having their own effect on the receiver’s perception of the message, but they all contribute to reducing the message’s threat of cognitive consistency. Not only does resistance prevent the intended effects of communication, they can easily produce unintended effects that make future attempts at persuasion more difficult. One emergent communication method to overcome resistance is narrative persuasion. By presenting a message as a story, cognitive resources that may fuel resistance can be used up in the processing of the narrative elements. Different forms of resistance can interact and lead to another, making it possible for receivers to simultaneously experience multiple forms of resistance. Major resistances include counterarguing, message minimization, perceived invulnerability, negative outcome expectancies, opposing perceived norms, lack of self-efficacy, reactance, and selective avoidance. Below I have briefly described just a few of these resistance factors.
Counterarguing is the rejection of a message through the production of inconsistent and opposing thoughts towards a message’s content. By generating counterarguments, the receiver reinforces their own attitudes, making them more difficult to change with subsequent attempts at persuasion. Counterarguing often drives polarization of attitudes towards various issues like public policy, healthcare, and the environment. This polarization manifests in the observed backfire effect in response to ineffective communication. Narrative persuasion, through transportation, reduces counterarguing by diverting cognitive resources towards processing narrative elements instead of producing counterarguments. By identifying with the narrative and its characters, receivers are more likely to accept their values, also reducing counterarguing.
Message minimization is perception that the message is exaggerated or out of proportions. Unlike counterarguing, it speaks to the gravity of the message, rather than the quality. Message minimization serves to discount a message, while counterarguing serves to dispute it. By minimizing the significance of the message, it no longer threatens the receiver’s cognitive consistency. Plausability can reduce minimization by presenting the message in a realistic and believable way. Emphasizing the likelihood the message reflects the real world accurately conveys the importance of not discounting a message and processing it further.
Negative outcome expectancies
How the receiver perceives the intended behavior change determines whether or not they will engage in it in the future. Negative outcome expectancies can discourage individuals from acting on them; therefore resistant individuals may generate inaccurate negative expectancies towards the behavior. By reducing the obtrusiveness of the persuasive intent, receivers are less likely to critically evaluate them and focus cognitive resources on processing narrative elements through transportation and identification instead. Identification with characters that receive positive outcomes to the message’s behaviour can also encourage receivers to act similarly through behavioural modelling.
When encountering persuasive message, reactance is a common response. Individuals perceive persuasive messages as threatening to one’s control over their own thoughts. Reactance occurs as an attempt to affirm one’s sense of freedom and can encourage more opposing beliefs or behaviors through counterarguing. In this case, the intended attitude change of the message may not be threatening, but rather the notion of persuasion. In narrative persuasion, the formation of parasocial relationships with narrative characters can reduce reactance because the relationship incorporates the message, making it less obtrusive. By developing strong transportation and identification, narratives can reduce reactance by masking the persuasive intent and limiting the cognitive resources that evaluate the underlying message.
In some cases, the receiver may purposefully ignore all or some of the message. Selective avoidance can result from the desire to maintain the mental status quo or out of fear of cognitive dissonance. Narrative engagement through enjoyment and identifying with characters can motivate processing of the message. By having the receiver engage and interact with the narrative components, they have to process the message on a level peripheral to the processing of the narrative, without critically evaluating it.
Terry Flynn, Ph.D., is the Director of the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center and an IPR Trustee. Follow him on Twitter @TerryFlynn.