Elaboration Likelihood Model Critique
The Elaboration Likelihood Model has been hailed by some as “unquestionably the most influential recent theoretical development in persuasion research” (O’Keefe, 2002). Even if this is the case, it is by no means a perfect theory. One of the most commonly cited criticisms of the elaboration likelihood model is the vacuous nature of the “argument strength” component. Although this criticism is useful for pointing out an area of the model that can be fine-tuned, any perceived shortcomings due to the argument strength concept can be mitigated through a creative application of other areas of the model.
One of the largest criticisms of the elaboration likelihood model (hereafter ELM) pertains to the nature of “argument strength”. According to O’Keefe, if the central route of persuasion is to be used, the receiver’s assessment of positive valence toward his or her thoughts is the most critical aspect controlling whether or not persuasion occurs. Valence is in turn controlled by two factors; proattitudinal or counterattitudinal tendency toward the persuasive message, and argument strength.
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Proattitudinal versus counterattitudinal tendency toward a position states that positive valence is more likely if the position being presented is already believed to some extent by the receiver. The argument strength component of valence states that strong arguments should be used in a persuasive interaction. A strong argument, according to Petty and Cacioppo, is defined as “one containing arguments such that when subjects are instructed to think about the message, the thoughts that they generate are predominantly favorable” (O’Keefe, 2002).
This advice gives the persuader no more to work with than the suggestion to use arguments that work. To complain about the nature of argument strength in the ELM is to fail to see the richness of this theory and to lack creativity on how to apply it. I believe that the ELM offers enough information that can be applied to argument strength to more fully answer the question of what qualifies as a strong argument. To fully utilize a strong argument in the central route to persuasion, one must first identify the main components that help define the persuaded as a high elaborator.
If the persuaded possesses high elaboration due to high topic relevance, a strong argument will manipulate that variable. If the persuaded has a high need for cognition, this can be exploited to form a strong argument, and so on. If it has been identified that the central route of persuasion on an audience is necessary due to high relevance to the persuasive message, this gives the persuader a framework to begin crafting a strong argument. Since relevance is what captures the audience’s attention, the persuader must exploit this.
For example, if the persuader is attempting to sell a car to an individual the the use of the central route, and the potential buyer has been categorized as one that clearly understands the relevance of the purchase, the persuader should do his or her best to make their product seem the most relevant to the customer. The seller may do this by asking the customer to visualize how happy they will be in their new car. This can also be done by highlighting the features of the car that are most applicable to the customer’s concerns (safety, high gas mileage, etc).
These methods will invite the receiver to become more involved with the target of persuasion. All of these ways utilize the customer’s judgment of high relevance to the situation to construct a strong argument. The need for cognition is another concept that brings a receiver of a message to be susceptible to the central route of persuasion. The need for cognition, according to Petty and Cacioppo, is “the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking” (O’Keefe, 2002).
A strong argument for the audience with a high need for cognition will invite them to engage in critical thinking about select positive qualities of the persuasive message. Returning to the car sale example, one might encourage a potential buyer with high need for cognition to conceive of ways in which the car in question would fit their needs. Alternatively, one may encourage the customer to conceptualize the abstract benefits of purchase, such as the advantage of less dependence on foreign oil due to high gas mileage, the need for safety features to protect family, and so on.
By constructing arguments that encourage the customer to engage in critical thinking, the arguments become strengthened due to their added bonus of satisfying the customer’s need for cognition. The mood of the receiver can also be taken into account when tailoring a strong argument. It has been shown that when elaboration is high, “the receiver’s mood may incline the receiver to have mood-congruent thoughts” (O’Keefe, 2002). In other words, if the receiver is in a positive mood, positive thoughts are likely, and if the receiver is in a negative mood, negative thoughts are likely.
Depending on the mood of the receiver, a persuader can decide to positively argue for their message, or negatively argue against competing messages. To explain this in terms of the car sale example, consider that the potential buyer is in a positive mood. According to ELM, the positive mood of the individual increases the chances of positive thoughts to arise. Knowledge of this can be used to form a strong argument. The positive outlook of the potential buyer should be used as an opportunity to focus on the positives of the product that is trying to be sold.
By focusing on the persuader’s positive arguments when the receiver is in a positive mood, the receiver is more likely to engage in mood-congruent thoughts. Conversely, if the potential buyer has a negative general disposition, the persuader should engage in criticism of competing persuasive stances. In this situation, the seller would want to make use of the receiver’s negative mood by leading them to think about other cars or dealerships with mood-congruent thoughts. In this way, a receiver’s mood may be used to construct a strong argument.
Some detractors of the ELM claim that the dual model of persuasion is in fact a unimodel (O’Keefe, 2002). Although I disagree with this claim, it does illuminate the fact that the ELM explains how dual persuasion techniques function in terms of a continuum. Central and peripheral routes of persuasion are not mutually exclusive. The level of elaboration determines not what route to use, but how to weigh the ratio between central and peripheral cues. Where the audience of a persuasive message lies on this continuum has consequences on how a persuader can craft a strong argument.
Chances are, if a persuader is considering how to craft a strong argument, the receiver of the persuasion lies more toward the central cue side of the continuum. But, if the receiver still falls near the middle of the continuum, peripheral cues are still valued by the persuader. In this case, an argument can be strengthened by it being packaged in effective heuristics. Although an argument that has been accented with heuristics may not be traditionally strong, it has been strengthened in terms of effectiveness (which is humorously how O’Keefe reduces ELM’s treatment of argument strength on page 147) (2002).
Simply put, the strongest argument can sometimes be the one that distracts the receiver from the argument itself. If every other attempt at persuading the potential buyer of a car has failed, perhaps it is due to their position on the central-peripheral continuum being closer to the peripheral side than originally thought. In this situation, the best thing the persuader can do is accentuate any argument with a peripheral cue. Depending on mood and pro/counterattitudinal stance, certain heuristics will be more effective.
If the receiver is in a positive mood, the seller may begin asking open-ended questions about his or her life. Talking about oneself has the effect of improving liking of the person being talked to. This encourages the receiver to fall back on a liking heuristic. If the receiver comes from a counterattitudinal stance toward the car, the seller can activate a consensus heuristic by pointing out how many units of the particular car in question have been sold, and the consumer awards it has won.
In the face of a receiver that seems inoculated against persuasive techniques, the use of the above heuristics can potentially supplement previous arguments sufficiently that they are strong enough to result in the goal behavior, purchasing the car. The elaboration likelihood model, although widely celebrated for its usefulness, has accumulated criticism due to its vague treatment of “argument strength”. These criticisms are not due. With enough creativity, the ELM can be seen as possessing useful advice on how to craft a strong argument built into the theory itself.