This summary is presented by the IPR Behavioral Insights Research Center
- People experience less reactance, a negative feeling that someone is trying to impose a behaviour on them, when persuasive communications employ self-persuasion, instead of direct persuasion. Self-persuasion is a strategy that gets audiences to generate their own arguments for an intended behaviour change.
- Open-ended questions can trigger self-persuasion by prompting people to think about potential answers.
- Self-persuasion can be an effective strategy for encouraging behavioural change because it can bypass reactionary resistance that often arises in response to persuasive messaging, like counterarguing.
Implications for Public Relations
Public relations professionals can use open-ended questions to get people to come up with their own arguments in support of a particular attitude or behaviour.
Direct persuasion involves presenting audiences with information or arguments to influence them to change their attitude or behaviour. Self-persuasion on the other hand encourages audiences to generate their own arguments, which can be advantageous because it isn’t met with reactance, counter-arguing, or other forms of message resistance. Self-generated arguments are also often more persuasive because people think of the ones they would personally find most compelling. One strategy for eliciting self-persuasion is the use of open-ended questions.
The strategy of self-persuasion has audiences generate their own arguments for a particular attitude or behaviour, instead of having communicators directly present persuasive arguments. Self-persuasion can be an effective approach for overcoming reactance, the resistance to messages as a response to the perceived threat on autonomy. By having people come up with their own arguments, they don’t feel the pressure that is asserted on them from direct persuasion from others. Self-generated arguments also fit the mental framework and knowledge of an individual better than arguments from other might.
Loman and colleagues investigated the application of self-persuasion in health communication, particularly for reducing alcohol consumption among university students, using open-ended questions. They presented participants with anti-alcohol posters that either used self-persuasion by asking open-ended questions or direct persuasion by presenting statements. For both strategies, different levels of message forcefulness were tested. For example, an open-ended question would be “Why is it better to drink less alcohol?”, compared to its direct persuasion counterpart “It is better to drink less alcohol”.
Participants who saw the posters with open-end questions rated them more positively and experienced less negative emotional reactions like anger or annoyance than those that viewed posters with a direct statement. When asked to say all the thoughts that came to mind while viewing the poster, only participants who saw the poster with an open-ended question reported thinking about reasons to not drink alcohol. These findings suggest that open-ended questions lead to self-generation of arguments and less reactance than direct persuasion. The forcefulness of the wording did not appear to have an effect.
In a follow-up study, the authors presented the posters to participants in a simulated bar setting. Participants were told that the study was examining the effect of a bar environment on judgements of movies and that they were free to consume the available alcohol. Critically, anti-alcohol posters were posted behind the television. The results showed the posters did not influence whether or not people decided to drink or not. However, the self-persuasion poster reduced the amount of alcohol consumed among those who chose to drink, whereas the direct persuasion poster did not. The results demonstrate that the open-ended questions can trigger self-persuasion and lead to behaviour change.
Loman, J. G. B., Müller, B. C. N., Oude Groote Beverborg, A., van Baaren, R. B., & Buijzen, M. (2018). Self-persuasion in media messages: Reducing alcohol consumption among students with open-ended questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 24(1), 81-91. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000162