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Emotion is a common component in persuasion, social influence, and attitude change. Much of attitude research emphasized the importance of affective or emotion components (Breckler & Wiggins, 1992). Emotion works hand-in-hand with the cognitive process, or the way we think, about an issue or situation. Emotional appeals are commonly found in advertising, health campaigns and political messages. Recent examples include no-smoking health campaigns and political campaign advertising emphasizing the fear of terrorism.
Taking into consideration current attitude research, Breckler and Wiggins (1992) define attitudes as “mental and neural representations, organized through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence on behavior” (p. 409). Attitudes and attitude objects are functions of cognitive, affective and conative components. Attitudes are part of the brain’s associative networks, the spider-like structures residing in long term memory (Higgins, 1986) that consist of affective and cognitive nodes linked through associative pathways (Anderson, 1983; Fazio, 1986). These nodes contain affective, cognitive, and behavioral components (Eagly & Chaiken, 1995).
Anderson (1983) suggests that the inter-structural composition of an associative network can be altered by the activation of a single node. Thus, by activating an affective or emotion node, attitude change may be possible, though affective and cognitive components tend to be intertwined. In primarily affective networks, it is more difficult to produce cognitive counterarguments in the resistance to persuasion and attitude change (Eagly & Chaiken, 1995).
Affective forecasting, otherwise known as intuition or the prediction of emotion, also impacts attitude change. Research suggests that predicting emotions is an important component of decision making, in addition to the cognitive processes (Loewenstein, 2007). How we feel about an outcome may override purely cognitive rationales.
In terms of research methodology, the challenge for researchers is measuring emotion and subsequent impacts on attitude. Since we cannot see into the brain, various models and measurement tools have been constructed to obtain emotion and attitude information. Measures may include the use of physiological cues like facial expressions, vocal changes, and other body rate measures (Breckler & Wiggins, 1992). For instance, fear is associated with raised eyebrows, increased heart rate and increase body tension (Dillard, 1994). Other methods include concept or network mapping, and using primes or word cues (Shavelson & Stanton, 1975).
Some research on emotion and attitude change focuses on the way people process messages. Many dual process models are used to explain the affective (emotion) and cognitive processing and interpretations of messages. These include the elaboration likelihood model, the heuristic-systematic model, and the extended parallel process model.
In the Elaboration Likelihood Model, or ELM, (Petty and Cacioppo, 1986), cognitive processing is the central route and affective/emotion processing is often associated with the peripheral route. The central route pertains to an elaborate cognitive processing of information while the peripheral route relies on cues or feelings. The ELM suggests that true attitude change only happens through the central processing route that incorporates both cognitive and affective components as opposed to the more heuristics-based peripheral route. This suggests that motivation through emotion alone will not result in an attitude change.
In the Heuristic-Systematic Model, or HSM, (Chaiken, Liberman, & Eagly, 1989) information is either processed in a high-involvement and high-effort systematic way, or information is processed through shortcuts known as heuristics. Emotions, feelings and gut-feeling reactions are often used as shortcuts.
The Extended Parallel Process Model, or EPPM, includes both thinking and feeling in conjunction with threat and fear appeals (Witte, 1992). EPPM suggests that persuasive fear appeals work best when people have high involvement and high efficacy. In other words, fear appeals are most effective when an individual cares about the issue or situation, and that individual possesses and perceives that they possess the agency to deal with that issue or situation.
Components of Emotion Appeals
Any discrete emotion can be used in a persuasive appeal; this may include jealously, disgust, indignation, fear, and anger. Fear is one of the most studied emotional appeals in communication and social influence research. Dillard (1994) suggests that “fear appeals have been thought of as messages that attempt to achieve opinion change by establishing the negative consequences of failing to agree with the advocated position” (p. 295). The EPPM (above) looks at the effectiveness of using fear and threat to change attitudes.
Important consequences of fear appeals and other emotion appeals include the possibility of reactance (Brehm & Brehm, 1981) which may lead to either message rejections or source rejection and the absence of attitude change. As the EPPM suggests, there is an optimal emotion level in motivating attitude change. If there is not enough motivation, an attitude will not change; if the emotional appeal is overdone, the motivation can be paralyzed thereby preventing attitude change.
Emotions perceived as negative or containing threat are often studied more than perceived positive emotions like humor. Though the inner-workings of humor are not agreed upon, humor appeals may work by creating incongruities in the mind (Maase, Fink & Kaplowitz, 1984). Recent research has looked at the impact of humor on the processing of political messages (Nabi, Moyer-Guse, & Byrne, 2007). While evidence is inconclusive, there appears to be potential for targeted attitude change is receivers with low political message involvement.
Important factors that influence the impact emotion appeals include self efficacy, attitude accessibility, issue involvement, and message/source features. Self efficacy is a perception of one’s own human agency; in other words, it is the perception of our own ability to deal with a situation (Bandura, 1992). It is an important variable in emotion appeal messages because it dictates a person’s ability to deal with both the emotion and the situation. For example, if a person is not self-efficacious about their ability to impact the global environment, they are not likely to change their attitude or behavior about global warming.
Dillard (1994) suggests that message features such as source non-verbal communication, message content, and receiver differences can impact the emotion impact of fear appeals. The characteristics of a message are important because one message can elicit different levels of emotion for different people. Thus, in terms of emotion appeals messages, one size does not fit all.
Attitude accessibility refers to the activation of an attitude from memory (Fazio, 1986); in other words, how readily available is an attitude about an object, issue, or situation. Issue involvement (Zaichkowsky, 1985) is the relevance and salience of an issue or situation to an individual. Issue involvement has been correlated with both attitude access and attitude strength. Past studies conclude accessible attitudes are more resistant to change (Fazio & Williams, 1986).
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