‘I Must Have Missed It.’

When you find yourself reminding a friend of what you told them yesterday, you are in the familiar territory of recalling something that mattered more to you than them. 

Occasionally an idea in communication comes along that provokes the realization that it would not be possible to live without it. Good models can help us see what is right in front of us.  So it is with a set of observations that fall under the name of Elaboration-Likelihood Model.  The name might be a little off-putting.  But as a framework for insights about how messages are likely to be received by others, the model is golden.

The work of Richard E. Petty and John Cacioppo, the model proposes that we think about the reception of messages as coming via one of two general pathways.  Messages that are “centrally processed” are, by definition, the kinds that trigger a whole set of critical responses.  These are claims and ideas readers or listeners think about.  Their engagement means that they are more inclined to test these assertions against what they know.  Their beliefs or behaviors have been put in play and may change.

The model assumes that serious attempts at advocacy or involvement must gain a strong foothold in our consciousness. Those that don’t—those messages that get scant attention—are said to be “peripherally processed.”  A message like an advertisement or a casual request from another may wash over us quickly. We are not especially interested or motivated to hang on every word.  And, as you would guess, the message is not likely to produce significant or lasting change.  It has not created an impression that sticks.

                                        Elaboration Likelihood Theory

All of this may seem more or less obvious.  But considering how much a person or audience cares is a worthwhile question. It asks if you can trigger enough attention and interest to have a chance at getting change.  As labels, “Peripheral” and “Central Processing” are good ‘top-of-mind’ concepts.

The model’s relevance increases every year as Americans recede into ever-deeper waters of message overload. We simply weren’t made to attend to what is now a routine exposure to many hundreds of messages every day.  We may deceive ourselves into believing that we can multi-task and accurately consume all that it thrown at us.  We can’t.  Truth to be told, we’re not good multitaskers. Peripheral processing means that we will miss too much to feel bound by a specific request.

Watch a skilled grade school teacher handle a class and you will see a survivor who knows that active listening and central processing are essential and hard won.  It takes time, repeated attempts, a lot of eye contact and follow up. When we get older we are our own bad actors, staring at phones, drifting into other thoughts and ideas, and distracted by internal chatter that will not allow us to focus.

  Another person’s attention is essential.  But it can’t be easily given.

When you find yourself saying to a friend our spouse “I mentioned it yesterday; I’m sure I said it” we are likely recalling something that mattered much more to us than the person who was supposed to be listening.  And, while we can get frustrated at the other’s inattention, we also need to cut them the slack by recognizing that communicating with a peripheral processor is a bit like shouting in the forest.  The people close by may look like they have heard us.  The Elaboration Likelihood model reminds us to have some doubts.

Consider two recommendations.  Repeat what you deem important.  A tactful rewording of the message  that you want to stick may help get the reaction you want.  In addition, give the peripheral-processing “forgetter” some slack.  To attend to every message that comes to us is not possible.  If you tried to do it, you would need a mental health intervention. To be sure, another person’s attention may be expected.  But the the requirements for sanity in an over-communicated society mean that it can’t be easily given.

The Response of Compliance

            Renoir         The Conversation

At best, compliance is only a pale halfway step in the direction of where an advocate wants to take their audience.  

The effects that individual messages have on others are often characterized by descriptors on the far margins.  We say a person is “persuaded,” or they are not.  We note that someone has “understood” a message, or they did not.  We pay attention or we don’t. It’s a function of our language of binaries to characterize communication only at the ends of various continua. When we talk about ideas in the abstract we are a bit less likely to look at effects distributed in between pairs of opposites.  It’s one of the advantages of survey and experimental research that the middle ranges finally get their due. But without research results to report, we revert to simpler reference points.

In studying how people are persuaded, we are lucky to have at least one term that suggests a realistic middle ground between “convinced” and “not convinced.”  We may see them as “compliant.”  A person in compliance seems to be taking on the behavioral attributes of someone persuaded, but the fine-grained meaning of the term also includes  the possibility that they are not fully convinced. They are still acting to carry out expected roles, but are perhaps seeking a way to avoid a more volatile  ‘stand your ground’ disagreement.  If you have a teen, you know this state when he grudgingly takes out the garbage or mows the lawn.  The behavior is present, but the attitude is still a work in progress.  Ideas like “duty,” “obligation,” and “required” are likely descriptors of compliant behavior.

You know the same state from watching yourself.  Someone wants something from you, and the calculation is to at least outwardly give it, even though you remain mostly unconvinced.  A relative wants you to attend a party you would just as soon skip. A friend explains their theory of price-fixing among competitors in an industry, and you find it easier to nod in apparent understanding, even while you doubt that he or she is correct.

On one hand, compliance is a courtesy: a half-effort to oil the social machinery and not create a rift with another person.  One the other hand, it’s usually a false signal: a momentary suspension of deeper or truer feelings. And so it happens that we get a commitment from another in a passing conversation that later falls short when they must actually deliver on their seeming agreement. This is the downside of compliance. It’s a low bar. Instead of a desired level of conviction that comes with authentic persuasion, you frequently get action that is grudging or a one-time-only change.

Compliance or conviction?

Understanding compliance ultimately is helped by a firmer effect several steps higher we can call conviction. A person with conviction is usually seen as having a firm allegiance to particular view or type of behavior.  For them the issue is mostly settled.  Conviction functions as kind of a lock that makes us resist efforts to change our commitment. Deep conviction is a motivator, representing perhaps the ideal of what an advocate would like from another person.  We frequently “perform” or convictions to others, using language and an animated self to show how settled our views have become.  On the other hand, compliance may be revealed in some circumstantial cues like less eye contact, more distance between the communicators, a three-quarter stance that puts the receiver on a different sightline, and a flattening of the receiver’s affect.

Change is always is a lot to ask from someone who is undecided on a point, but its existence is a reminder that compliance is, at best, only a halfway step.  Think of conviction as Robin Williams.  He was all in when he did anything.  Compliance is more like a timid guy in the corner hoping not to be noticed.