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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.

No Effects?

Persuasion research is usually not in the spotlight. But it’s easy to see why this study made news. A “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies concluded that most messages in political campaigns have little or no impact on voters.  End of story. 

It’s my vocation to understand how and when people change their minds. This requires a sense of both the art and science of engineering consent: a tall order that is never easy.  Persuasion analysis is a business that needs humility. Even so, there is no shortage of serious and not so serious attempts to uncover pathways to attitude and behavior change.  Interest in this subject feeds off of the central roles that advertising, political campaigns, and social action campaigns play in our culture.

Any study of persuasion effects must yield to the general operating principle in communication that context matters; any conclusion about the effectiveness of persuasion must usually come with a lot of case-specific caveats.  Uniformity of effects across forms as different as political canvassing and advertising is not likely.  Given that basic assumption, it came as a complete surprise to see a spate of news reports about a recent study by two young political scientists claiming that a large number of field experiments found no or minimal effects for all kinds of campaign activities we take for granted.  The media at the center of the research included television advertising, person to person canvassing, phone calls and mail. The “meta analysis” summarizing 49 research studies found little or no impact on voters in any of these forms.

The uniformity of null effects was a shock. In the past, studies have suggested a range of different effects for different media: typically, with an edge going to one-on-one meetings with voters. Those of us studying these things have a general understanding of events like the 2008 Obama campaign, where the effects of internet-energized supporters and effective block-by-block canvassing produced a convincing win. Or so we think. Was that a different time?  What has changed? There is no equivocation in the final conclusion of authors Joshua Kalla and David Broockman:

The best estimate for the persuasive effects of campaign contact and advertising--such as mail, phone calls, and canvassing--on Americans' choices in general elections is zero.  Our best guess for online and television advertising is also zero. . ."1

To be sure, few persuasion researchers find evidence for widespread effects anywhere. The prevailing view is for only limited effects, typically “post message” percentages of attitude change in the low single digits. Even so, a study that argues against any significant effects seems too bold, too panoramic, and a bit disheartening. It’s somewhat like telling advertisers they are wasting their time and money.

The authors have added some exceptions. If we accept their work, messages do shape responses to ballot initiatives and some primary campaigns.  And in an earlier study they noted that activists for transgender and gay rights did reduce prejudice when they were able to  meet people at their doorstep. Personal stories of travail or unfairness struck home for undecided listeners.

 Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind among those who are still paying attention.

But the broad suggestion of a brick wall of “no effects” in campaigns is stark, and raises a number of questions. Are the studies’ measures of attitude and behavior change too crude to detect shifts? Did being a part of a study effect the results?  This problem–sometimes called the Hawthorne Effect–arises if subjects know they are subjects, and act accordingly.

Then, too, because all of the messages were focused on political campaigns, we may have reached a point where the persistence of attitudes now is much more common than even a decade ago. Our soap-opera politics has perhaps wrung out the possibility of an open mind within those who are paying attention.  In any case, the question of what works remains partly unanswered.


1“The Miminal Persuasive Effects of Campaign Contact in General Elections: Evidence from 49 Field Experiments,” September 25, 2017, American Political Science Review.

2 “Durably Reducing Transphobia: A field Experiment on Door-to-Door Canvassing,” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6282/220.