In the last blog post, I outlined two popular theories of how people are convinced or persuaded by messages. One of them, the Elaboration Likelihood model, proposes that there are two routes a message might take on it’s way to convince us of a fact, a position, or to take some action (like voting). One of these routes is the route we like to think we use all the time, the one where we act like rational, logical beings who investigate and weigh evidence and try to come to a considered, nuanced conclusion. Sadly, we simply don’t have the time, energy, or metal capacity to carefully pick apart each and every issue in our lives to this level. Those issues most important to us generally receive this thought-out treatment, but we are the targets of far too much persuasion from multiple sources everyday to treat each one like a serious research project.
So what do we do when we don’t have the time or capacity to gather lots of facts, analyze them, and form our own conclusions? Well, it turns out we still form conclusions, but we do it using a secondary route that relies on appearance, perceived expertise or strength, and how the message was delivered. Many issues in the world are simply too complex to put fully through the first route of persuasion. For almost every choice we make, we have to accept a “good enough” tipping point where we feel we have enough facts or enough of a “gut” feeling to move ahead with a choice.
Politics is an excellent example of an area of human interest that’s just so complex, layered, and opaque that even those right in the heart of political matters rarely have time to fully explore each issue that comes across their desk. Those in powerful positions get the benefit of endless reports, summaries, and memos that attempt to corral persuasive facts and relevant concerns into short, readable forms, but what about the rest of us? Are we basically doomed to making the some biggest choices of our lives on the basis of little more than how and by whom that choice is presented to us?
Well, look at how political choices are made and we can find some answers. Politics is the example par excellence of a persuasion situation where the real variables are so complex and shifting that virtually no regular citizen can hope to understand a choice presented to them deeply enough to put it through the primary (thinking/logical) path of the elaboration likelihood model. Politics is seen, for most people most of the time, through the lens of the secondary path in this model, which is more feeling- or situation-based. We have almost no idea who will actually perform better in a given political job, so the discussion is given over to who exudes more “leadership” “confidence,” “dependability,” or any other immeasurable quality we care to name. These are secondary qualities, impossible to objectively judge and just as impossible to fairly compare across two or more people.
There is no test that can predict how a campaigning candidate will operate when in office. On the day of the election, we really have no choice but to just take a best guess, probably hold our nose, and head into the voting booth.