People are faced with persuasion on a regular basis. Commercials on television, ads on the radio, political debates, telemarketing, requests for charitable donations, and requests for volunteers are all types of persuasion. So are less obvious things like installing speed bumps to reduce traffic speed, enacting stricter punishments for criminals and offering rewards to children for good behavior.
Persuasion is, in the opinion of the author, the art of inspiring thought, action or feeling about something in order to achieve a specific outcome. There are many types of persuasion, and many means of persuading others. Choosing the appropriate method of persuasion can have a large impact on the effectiveness of persuasion.
Types of Persuasion
For this paper, the author will focus on 3 specific types ofpersuasion, the Mere Exposure Theory of persuasion, the Cognitive Dissonance Theory, and the Social Judgment Theory. Each of these theories has its own system of persuasion and its own theory to explain why it works or does not work in a given situation. Depending on which theory a persuader uses, different tactics may be more or less effective.
The Mere Exposure Theory of persuasion states that people will be persuaded simply by repeated exposure to something. This is the theory that applies to most advertising. Advertising agencies place similar ads in various places and play commercials repeatedly, relying on the public’s repeated exposure to a product in the hopes that people will purchase the product or service being advertised.
The Cognitive Dissonance Theory states that persuasion occurs when cognitive dissonance is created or alleviated by the persuader. The target of the persuasion will continue to behave, think or feel a specific way if the persuader alleviates the cognitive dissonance. If the persuader creates dissonance, the target will be more likely to alter their ways of thinking, feeling or acting to lessen the dissonance.
The Social Judgment Theory explains that people can only be persuaded to change in small degrees. The likelihood of persuasion is directly affected by how closely the message of persuasion matches the target’s own thoughts or feelings. This theory addresses how to select an audience and how to expect an audience to resond.
Humor in Persuasion
Using humor in persuasion can be a double-edged sword. When used properly and effectively, humor can increase the positive effects of the persuasion and increase the ability of the persuader to gain the compliance of their audience. However, if humor is used inappropriately, it can cause the opposite effect and lessen the effectiveness of the persuasion’s message and results.
For this paper, the author will be using the results of 2 individual studies on the effectiveness of humor in persuasion. The First study, by Jim Lyttle, studied the effectiveness of humor in persuasion in a business setting . The second study analyzed the effectiveness of humor in print advertising.
There are many types of humor that can be used in persuasion. Irony, self-effaces, exaggeration, cartoons, and puns are a few forms of humor that can be found and put to use in persuasion. Used properly, these forms of humor can create a bond with an audience that will increase the efficacy of persuasion.
Benefits of Humor
Humor can have a profound impact of persuasion. It can increase an audience’s happiness, increase how likable a source is, distract an audience from creating counterarguments, and increase an audience’s trust in a source. Any of these effects can increase the likelihood for success in persuasion.
If an audience can relate to the humor being used, it is likely to increase their mood and increase their willingness to pay attention to the message. Likewise, if the humor is self-effacing, it will likely increase the audience’s trust in the source and increase the likability of the source. These effects can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Irony can actually pull double-duty if used properly. Irony is thought-provoking and, therefore, can disrupt an audience’s thoughts enough to stop them from producing counterarguments against the persuader’s message. This is most effective if the message strays a bit far from the audience’s comfort zone.
Risks of Humor
Using humor in persuasion is a bit of a gamble and, like all gambling, with the gamble comes an inherent amount of risk. Everyone, at one point or another, has seen the results of a joke that fell flat. Some jokes may be found offensive to some audiences, some forms of humor may go over the heads of some audience members and some subjects simply do not lend themselves to humor.
Humor is most effective when the message itself is a weak argument . While ads for candy bars and toys may work well with some added humor, most people would not find humor to be appropriate in an ad for a funeral home. Likewise, when the message must be understood, like an argument for a controversial topic like abortion or the death penalty, humor may be inappropriate.
By using humor inappropriately, a persuader may actually lose his/her audience. If the humor offends the target, the persuasion is likely to be ineffective and possibly harm any future attempts at persuasion with that target, and if the humor is not understood, it may introduce an awkwardness that may be difficult to recover from. These faux pas may not be recoverable, and if the message is important, it may not be worth the risk.
If one is using the Mere exposure Theory of persuasion, humor can help make the persuasion memorable and draw the audience in to learn more . Likewise, it can assist the persuader in creating a bond with an audience that they may never have the opportunity to meet and attempt to persuade in person. However, if used improperly, it could drive away an audience without giving the persuader a chance to recover.
If a persuader is relying on the Cognitive Dissonance Theory, humor can be an effective means of causing or alleviating cognitive dissonance without offending the target. Especially when attempting to create cognitive dissonance, a persuader may risk offending the target unintentionally. By using humor to create the dissonance, especially ironic humor, the persuader may be able to create the dissonance and increase the target’s trust without risking offense.
Humor can be highly effective when considering the Social Judgment Theory because humor can prevent the development of counterarguments. Irony is effective in this situation because it causes the target to think about the irony, as opposed the counter argument that they may create . Effective irony may be hard to accomplish in certain situations, but, when used properly, it could expand the efficacy of an argument to a broader audience or draw an audience farther away from their comfort zone.
Conclusion Humor can be effective in persuasion, but it is not without risk. When used effectively, humor can provide many positive benefits to persuasion. However, when used poorly, an attempt at humor can have the opposite effect and negate the message altogether.
Cline, T. W., & Kellaris, J. J. (1999). The Joint Impact of Humor and Argument Strength in a Print Advertising Context:A Case for Weaker Arguments. Psychology & Marketing , 69-86.
Lyttle, J. (2001). The Effectiveness of Humor in Persuasion: The Case of Business Ethics Training. The Journal of General Psychology , 206-216.
Seiter, R. H. (2004). Theorizing about Persuasion: Cornerstones of Persuasion Research. In R. H. Seiter, Perspectives on Persuasion, Social Influence, and Compliance Gaining (pp. 45-65). Boston: Pearson.