Persuasion strategies and environmental advocacy
As the state of the global environment continues to deteriorate, it is growing increasingly important for public information sources to adjust the persuasion strategies they employ to promote environmental concern, especially because inaction continues to be common among all demographics. Though some believe that mass communication via the media does not have the potential to change individual mindsets, in the past, diverse efforts to spark widespread social change (for example, the campaign against smoking) have been successful; when it comes to the environmental crisis, the media might be able to drive that kind of change again if effective persuasion strategies are used (Eagly).
Statistical evidence, which relies chiefly on quantitative information, is often used to convey the scale of environmental disasters (Han). Narrative evidence, which typically involves anecdotes, testimonials, personal experiences, opinions, etc., is also frequently employed – but, perhaps, not enough (Han). Most studies comparing the two modes of persuasion have found narrative evidence to be more powerful (Han).
When it comes to environmental advocacy, narrative persuasion may hold a particular advantage over statistical persuasion: Both due to a lack of emotion regarding the consequences of environmental destruction and intense emotion connecting people to their current lifestyles, the conflict over environmental action is largely an emotional one (Appel). And while studies focusing on quantitative results are not designed to target people’s beliefs or emotions, narratives can provide feelings of meaningfulness and connectedness – and even activate self-transcendent values (McCormack).
Self-transcendence can be defined as “a shift in mindset from focusing on self-interests to the well-being of others” (Kang). A self-transcendent experience can be regarded as a kind of advanced eudaimonic experience – in other words, it is very pleasing, and most will wish to repeat the experience (McCormack). Research has also shown that self-transcendent values are conducive to environmental behavior; when these values are engaged, environmentally friendly behavior may increase (Knowles).
There are several commonly used persuasive strategies that tend to deactivate self-transcendence values, and thus should be avoided in environmental advocacy (Knowles). If a message highlights the financial benefits of environmental action, it will likely activate achievement or wealth values, both of which conflict with pro-environmental mindsets (Knowles). Also, using social pressure to encourage people to act may activate social recognition and public image values, which are also not conducive to environmental concern (Knowles).
A message attempting to motivate an audience to take environmental action must also target either the central route or the peripheral route of persuasion, or both (Petty). Central route persuasion refers to any persuasion technique that targets the audience’s reasoning or logic, and primarily employs factual evidence; attitude shifts resulting from central route persuasion tend to be both resistant to change and predictive of behavior (Petty, Algarni).
Peripheral route persuasion refers to any persuasion technique that employs cues unrelated to the central message to draw a positive reaction from the audience (for instance, hiring a well-respected public figure to advertise a product or using pleasing designs on a billboard) (Petty). Those reactions tend to be emotional rather than cognitive (Petty). Attitude shifts resulting from peripheral route persuasion tend to be temporary, and do not strongly influence behavior, contrasting those produced by central route persuasion techniques (Petty).
Whether central route persuasion techniques or peripheral route persuasion techniques should be emphasized depends on the context in which they are used, and they are most effective when employed together (Petty, Algarni).
If a message is urging its audience to take environmental action, it will most likely be successful only if it involves some level of central route persuasion; if not, the audience’s motivation might not endure (Petty, Algarni). However, to encourage the audience to consider the message in the first place, peripheral route persuasion – the “grabber” – may be necessary (Petty, Algarni).
Eagly, A. H., & Kulesa, P. (1997). Attitudes, attitude structure, and resistance to change. Environmental ethics and behavior, 415, 122-153.
Han, B., & Fink, E. L. (2012). How do statistical and narrative evidence affect persuasion?: The role of evidentiary features. Argumentation and Advocacy, 49(1), 39-58.
Kang, Y., Cooper, N., Pandey, P., Scholz, C., O’Donnell, M. B., Lieberman, M. D., … & Falk, E. B. (2018). Effects of self-transcendence on neural responses to persuasive messages and health behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(40), 9974-9979.
Knowles, B. (2013). Re-imagining persuasion: designing for self-transcendence. In CHI’13 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2713-2718).
McCormack, C. M., K Martin, J., & Williams, K. J. (2021). The full story: Understanding how films affect environmental change through the lens of narrative persuasion. People and Nature, 3(6), 1193-1204.
Appel, M., Schreiner, C., Haffmans, M. B., & Richter, T. (2019). The mediating role of event-congruent emotions in narrative persuasion. Poetics, 77, 101385.
Petty, R. E. (2013). Two routes to persuasion: State of the art. International perspectives on psychological science, 2(1), 229-247.
Algarni, A. (2019). What Message Characteristics Make Social Engineering Successful on Facebook: The Role of Central Route, Peripheral Route, and Perceived Risk. Information, 10(6), 211. https://doi.org/10.3390/info10060211.