In persuasion research, the concept of resistance generally refers to audiences withstanding attempts to change their beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. Resistance, however, can actually be conceptualized in multiple ways. For example, it can be thought of as simply an outcome of a persuasive attempt (i.e., no change in attitude in the face of a persuasive message). It might also be considered a motivation, or goal of the audience (e.g., to maintain or protect their initial beliefs). Resistance might also reflect the process through which persuasive attempts are thwarted (e.g., disagreement with a message position or denigration of a message source). Finally, resistance might be reflected by the qualities of either attitudes (e.g., attitude strength) or people (e.g., dogmatic personalities) that limit persuasive effect (see Knowles & Linn 2004).
Regardless of how resistance itself is conceptualized, its role in persuasion is often considered from two different perspectives. First, resistance as the natural, and perhaps unintentional, result of exposure to a persuasive message is examined with the intent of determining how best to minimize this blockage to persuasive effect. Second, given there are persuasive situations in which the intended goal is to reinforce attitudes, or promote resistance to future persuasive attempts that the audiences might face (e.g., messages that might encourage teenagers to start smoking), much attention has focused on how to generate resistance to persuasion. Thus, to understand resistance, it is important to consider the factors that might generate resistance to persuasion, means of overcoming those sources of resistance, and the conditions under which resistance might be intentionally induced.
Sources of Resistance
Although resistance to persuasion has been a consistent theme in persuasion research for over 50 years, there does not exist, as yet, a clear typology of the sources of resistance or the means of overcoming them. Still, there are a number of sources that have been examined, some of which focus more on motivational or process orientations to resistance, like reactance, scrutiny, distrust, inertia, and invulnerability, whereas others relate more to the nature of individuals and attitudes themselves (Knowles & Linn 2004).
Sources Relating to Motivational or Process Orientations
One of the most commonly cited sources of resistance is a motivational force known as reactance (Brehm 1966). According to reactance theory, when people perceive a request as unjustly restricting their freedom to choose or act as they want, they experience a motivation state in which they attempt to reassert their freedom by rejecting the request. This rejection might appear as holding onto their initial attitudes more strongly or as a desire to engage in the very act they were cautioned against. The more direct and demanding the request, or the more important the threatened freedom, the greater the reactance is likely to be. Individual differences in the tendency to be reactant have been examined, and though teenagers – teenage males in particular – are viewed as prototypically reactant and thus challenging targets for persuasive attempts, any group predisposed to feeling restricted might be likely to evidence this form of resistance.
A second very common source of resistance to persuasion is scrutiny, which refers to the critical processing of persuasive messages. The more carefully people process a persuasive appeal, the more likely they are to come up with arguments that may counter or undermine the positions asserted in that message. To the extent that message scrutiny reveals weaknesses in a message’s arguments, the message is more likely to be resisted. Scrutiny is more likely to occur when people are both motivated and able to process information. Thus, messages that are seen as personally relevant are particularly likely to undergo careful examination.
Three other process-related sources of resistance have received less attention yet still put up significant barriers to persuasive impact. Distrust, or the general guardedness against proposals for change, suggests that audiences process persuasive messages with skepticism, which biases the outcomes against change. Inertia, which focuses on people’s tendency to stay just as they are to avoid the effort involved in enacting change in what they think or how they act, implies less active resistance in favor of the more benign motivation to maintain the status quo. Finally, invulnerability, which is perhaps most applicable in health-related contexts, suggests resistance is likely when audiences perceive whatever negative consequences might arise if the message is not accepted as not likely to happen to them. Particularly likely in adolescent audiences, perceptions of invulnerability suggest resistance stems from a lack of perceived need to change.
Sources Relating to The Nature of Individuals and Attitudes
In addition to the motivational and process variables, there are also a number of sources of resistance to persuasion that stem from the nature of attitudes as well as the people who hold them. Considering the nature of attitudes, several characteristics of attitudes are associated with resistance to persuasive influence. Perhaps the most notable is that of attitude strength, which is in part defined by the ability to withstand attacks and to persist over time. Factors that contribute to attitude strength include, among other things, attitude accessibility (i.e., attitudes that come to mind quickly), attitudes based on direct experience or attitude-relevant knowledge, and attitudes on issues that are personally relevant or in which a persona has some vested interest. Along related lines, attitude certainty, which refers to a person’s own perception of the validity of his or her own attitude, suggests that those certain of their own attitudes are likely to more readily resist persuasive attempts.
As to personality factors, the trait of dogmatism, or the tendency to have closed belief systems, is associated with greater resistance to persuasion. In contrast, research on authoritarian personalities indicated such traits associate with greater openness to fascist ideology. More recently, measures that tap into individual differences related to the motivational forces and process variables associated with resistance (e.g., reactance, preference for consistency, need for cognition) have received increasing attention, though these lines of research are still in their nascent stages.
Strategies to Overcome Resistance
Given the many and varied sources that pose resistance to persuasive attempts, it is not surprising that a number of strategies have been considered to try to overcome these barriers to persuasion. There are two basic categories of strategies to overcome resistance processes. The first set focuses on how to enhance the persuasiveness of the compliance attempt, or encourage message acceptance. These efforts include attempts to increase message vividness and emotional effect; the use of incentives; boosting argument strength; the use of positively framed arguments; and the inclusion of positive message acceptance cues, such as credible, attractive, or likeable sources, social consensus cues, boosts of self-affirmation, and others (Knowles & Linn 2004).
A second set of strategies focuses on minimizing the sources of resistance. For example, one could side-step resistance by redefining an interaction as not involving an influence attempt (e.g., as a conversation rather than a sales pitch). One could directly address the sources of resistance by offering counterarguments or other forms of assurance. Conversely, one could distract from resistance by disrupting message scrutiny. One might even reframe a situation so as to harness resistance processes to promote change (e.g., through reverse psychology).
Perhaps the most studied form of reducing resistance, and the currently most popular, focuses on the use of narratives, or stories, as persuasive vehicles (see Green et al. 2002). Narratives are believed to reduce resistance for two main reasons. First, given that audiences generally approach stories with the expectation of being entertained, not persuaded, any natural barrier posed by the perception of persuasive intent is avoided. Second, the dramatic and suspenseful nature of stories may capture viewers’ attention such that their focus is on following the plot of the story and the fate of the characters, which serves to distract them from scrutinizing the message content. Further, if audiences identify with story characters, it is likely that, given their resistance is down, they may be more likely to adopt the views and behaviors of the characters they admire. This approach has been the foundation of the entertainment-education movement, in which persuasive messages are intentionally embedded in entertainment programming with the expressed purpose of increasing audience knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding pro-social issues, like safer sex and family planning (see Singhal & Rogers 1999).
Strategies to Promote Resistance
To this point the focus has been on sources of resistance and how to overcome them. However, a significant amount of attention has been paid to how to promote resistance to persuasion; that is, to encourage audiences to continue to hold onto their current attitudes. Efforts to promote resistance to persuasion have focused on two strategies: forewarning and inoculation. Forewarning simply refers to alerting people that they are about to be exposed to a persuasive attempt. Under this circumstance, it appears that audiences generally perceive the impeding persuasive attempt as a threat to their current beliefs, thus motivating them to defend their original attitudes.
Inoculation theory offers more systematic and theoretically developed insight into how to promote resistance to persuasion. On the basis of a biological model of inoculating against disease, William McGuire suggested that giving small doses of the opposition’s viewpoint, followed by refutations of those arguments, would bolster resistance to future persuasive attempts. Currently, inoculation messages are designed to have three components: threat to belief, which appears not simply to forewarn audiences of a future persuasive attempt but also to motivate defense of the current attitude; counter attitudinal arguments, or opposing viewpoints that the audience might hear at some point in the future; and refutations of those counterarguments. Evidence consistently demonstrates that audiences exposed to inoculation messages are more resistant to future persuasive attacks, whether they contain the same counter attitudinal arguments as included in the inoculation message or different ones. Research over the last 50 years has consistently found support for the inoculation effect in such varied domains as political campaigns, social policy initiatives, and health behaviors (see Compton & Pfau 2005).
- Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
- Compton, J. A., & Pfau, M. (2005). Inoculation theory of resistance to influence at maturity: Recent progress in theory development and application and suggestions for future research. Communication Yearbook, 29, 97–145.
- Green, M. C., Strange, J. J., & Brock, T. C. (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Knowles, E. S., & Linn, J. A. (2004). Resistance and persuasion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Singhal, A., & Rogers, E. M. (1999). Entertainment-education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
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