The Attempt to Influence Others

The primary interest in social influence, as studied within social psychology, has been upon the impact of social influence attempts: What kind of message is most effective, upon whom does it work best, and in which contexts can one expect the strongest persuasion effects? The psychology of the target of the communication, particularly with respect to the impact of the communication, has been regarded as the most interesting and important focal point for study. The process of being influenced has been analyzed in terms of such concepts as selective attention, selective forgetting, distraction, leveling, sharpening, assimilation, level of fear, physiological arousal, inoculation, reactance, and numerous others. These are variables that have been brought to the influence setting to characterize the state of the person who is influenced.

How has psychology viewed the agent of influence in all of this research? In some of the studies of influence, in which mutual influence among group members has been the focus, the paradigm has not been appropriate for an analysis of the influence agent. For instance, in the risky shift paradigm the process of mutual influence is analyzed in terms that require no special attention toward qualities or style of a single influence agent. Similarly, in certain paradigms involving comparison of emotion a mutual influence process is assumed to occur among group members without the investigator's specifying a particular influence agent with definite qualities.

But there also exists a substantial body of literature on the communicator. The question is characteristically not "How is the communicator selected?" or "How does the communicator rise to a position of influence agent?", but rather, "What is it about the communicator's qualities and features of the communication that promote influence?" Much of this research originated in the Yale program of attitude change, and the central variables investigated within that school of thought have surfaced frequently in research findings. For instance, the impact of communicator credibility has received considerable attention, both in the form of expertise and in the form of trustworthiness. Other communicator characteristics that are often of interest in social psychology are the similarity of communicator to the audience, the communicator's power, and whether the communicator is likable.

Not just communicator characteristics, but also the style of the communication has received seemingly thorough treatment. Whether the conclusion should be drawn explicitly and whether the communication should be one- or two-sided were variables in the early work of Hovland and his colleagues. The variable of whether the communication is face-to-face the monumental issue of primacy or recency, and the question of the ideal discrepancy between oneself and the audience have all been subjected to study.

It becomes apparent in looking through the classic literature on attitude change that psychology's interest in the communicator has been largely from the perspective of "What facets of the communicator, and of the communicator's message and context, will maximize influence?" A quite different question has seldom been asked, this one dealing with the communicator's motivations to persuade. That is, how does psychology explain why a person would want to undertake a persuasion attempt, or to move into a position of potential influence? This is not to suggest that the literature is totally devoid of research efforts related to this question, but only that they are rare.

While there are several diverse sources of conceptualization that would deal with the topic of trying to influence, the issue has never received a thorough treatment in terms of any one psychological concept. As a prelude to thinking about the issue in terms of the present conceptualization, it will be useful to consider some general psychological bases for why one person would want to influence another.

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