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Elaboration Likelihood Model

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 24, 2022


Key Takeaways
  • The elaboration likelihood model, first devised by Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, is a general theory of persuasion that attempts to explain how people process stimuli differently — and how these processes change attitudes and consequently behavior.
  • According to the elaboration likelihood model, people can have either high or low levels of elaboration — the extent to which they are willing and able to scrutinize an argument.
  • Those with high levels of elaboration are more likely to process information via a central route, and those with low levels of elaboration are more apt to process information via a peripheral route, where they are more prone to distraction.
  • Elaboration can also be relatively objective or biased. Again, this depends on a number of factors, such as personal investment in an issue.

The elaboration likelihood model seeks to explore how humans process stimuli differently and how the outcomes of these processes result in changing attitudes and, consequently, behavior.

Persuasion happens internally, which means that no one can persuade anybody with certainty of success. Rather, people can only design for persuasion. Thus, the model is ultimately a way of guiding how people can design more persuasive systems.

The elaboration likelihood model was created by the psychologist Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo in the early 1980s. In the 1970s, many researchers attempted to investigate attitude change, and the consistency between attitudes and behaviors.

Ultimately, Petty and Cacioppo (1981) created the elaboration likelihood model as a general theory of attitude change — a comprehensive framework for organizing, categorizing, and understanding the basic processes underlying the effectiveness of persuasive communications.

How the elaboration likelihood model works 

According to the elaboration likelihood model, when a persuader presents information to an audience, some level of elaboration results.

This elaboration refers to the amount of effort that any audience member of a message has to use to process and evaluate a message, remember it, and subsequently accept or reject it. 

When someone faces a message, the elaboration likelihood model posits that people react using one of two channels: the high or the low elaboration channel. 

The level of someone's elaboration can predict the likelihood that that person will then use central or peripheral route processing to assess the contents of the message. 

elaboration likelihood model

Central Route Processing

The central route it is the message that is important. The central route is logic driven and uses data and facts to convince people of an argument’s worthiness.

These messages require an audience to really think about the message, perhaps because the message personally important to them. Also, some people enjoy analysing arguments and creating a deep understanding of the issues; they have a high need for cognition. The Central route creates a long-lasting attitude change.

Central route processing requires a high level of elaboration. This high elaboration can result from, say, someone knowing what is important to them and therefore investing a substantial amount of effort in examining an argument's message.

When people are persuaded via central route processing, they have focused on the message's strengths. On the virtue of the amount of effort that the person being persuaded has made on deciphering what the message is telling them, they will make a decision based on their thoughts.

Those using central route processing are also more likely to focus and ignore distractions in seeking out their goals (Geddes, 2016).

Peripheral Route Processing

Peripheral route processing is an indirect route, which involves a low level of elaboration, and uses peripheral cues to associate positivity with the message (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

On the other hand, some people do not want to spend time and effort to consider issues, or the message is not personally important / relevant to them, so they tend not to process the information in-depth – they are cognitive misers.

This means that the receiver of the message is not scrutinizing the message for its effectiveness, and other factors, such as distractions, can influence them. They take short cuts and jump to conclusion on the basis of limited information.

With the peripheral route the focus is more on the context than on the message itself. The audience is not required to think deeply about the meaning of the message. This creates a short-lived attitude change.

Peripheral route processing can often come from people who know what they want, but do not know much about the details of that item.

For example, someone who wants a career that involves travel but also pays well," is more likely to process via the peripheral route than someone who is knowledgeable about the specifics of careers (Geddes, 2016). 

Examples

Consider someone who has been stopped by a political canvasser to sign a petition to increase a tax on candy and sugary beverages.

The extent to which someone is likely to scrutinize the canvasser’s argument depends on a number of factors. One of these is time.

Someone who is hurriedly running to work is less likely to seriously scrutinize the argument than someone who is motivated and able to do thorough research and carry out discussions on the implications of a soda task.

Bias can also impact how someone processes an argument. Using the example from before, a soda-drinker (who would personally be affected by the tax) would likely scrutinize the argument in a negative way, while a health-obsessed fitness guru may process the canvasser’s argument in a way that is positively-biased.

Meanwhile, someone who has little to do with soda on a day-to-day basis may be more likely to evaluate the canvasser’s argument objectively given that they have few ties to the issue.

Assumptions of the model

The elaboration likelihood model has seven major postulates (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986):

1. People are motivated to hold correct attitudes.

In general, incorrect or improper attitudes can have negative behavioral, affective, and cognitive consequences. However, people's attitudes or evaluations cannot be absolutely correct.

Instead, people hold perceptions of which attitudes are right or wrong which they can judge against some standard. Generally, people think they are right when they hold opinions similar to others (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). 

The elaboration likelihood model does not exclusively link someone's subjective assessment of the correctness of an attitude toward how many other people seem to have the same opinion.

Rather, there are a number of standards that people could use to determine which attitudes are correct for them, and the standards that people use to judge what is written or wrong can even differ among people (Kohlberg, 1963).

Generally, nonetheless, psychologists have seen attitudes as correct or proper to the extent that they are seen as beneficial to someone's physical or psychological well-being. 

2. The amount and nature of issue-related elaboration in which they are willing or able to engage with to evaluate a message vary based on individual and situational factors.

Although people want to hold correct attitudes, the amount of effort they are willing or able to exert to hold a correct attitude varies widely. This level of willingness to exert effort to hold a correct attitude is known as elaboration, which exists on a spectrum from low to high. 

There are several major factors that affect elaboration. One of them is whether an issue is personally relevant. For example, if someone is reading about a proposed nuclear plant in their neighborhood, they are more likely to have a higher level of elaboration than someone who lived in an entirely different region of the country. Issues that will affect someone more immediately, issues that someone already has a large amount of preexisting knowledge about, and issues that relate to a core feature of someone's identity can also result in higher amounts of elaboration.

Elaboration can also be affected by someone's time and ability to think over an issue. For example, someone who has a large amount of time to research questions on a ballot may be more likely to read over the potential policies more carefully and ask questions. However, someone overwhelmed with other events in their life is far less likely to do so. 

3. Variables can affect the amount and direction of attitude change by either:
  • serving as persuasive arguments,
  • serving as peripheral cues,
  • affecting the extent or direction of the issue and argument elaboration that someone carries out on an issue.

The elaboration likelihood model views arguments as pieces of information contained in a communication that are relevant to a person's subjective determination of how much the position that is being advocated for is merited.  The kind of information that is relevant to evaluating the merits of a product or issue can vary from situation to situation and from person to person. Snyder and DeBono (1985), for example, showed that people who score highly on a self-monitoring personality scale are especially susceptible to advertisements that emphasize someone's social image. Meanwhile, people who were low self-monitors were less concerned with how a product would impact their image and more about the product's specific attributes. 

Another factor that can affect attitudes is peripheral cues. Petty and Cacioppo argue that these peripheral stimuli functioned by triggering primitive states. For example, food and potential punishments can both be peripheral cues that influence persuasion. 

The third way that a variable can affect persuasion is by influencing the extent or direction of the message. Some messages can trigger more mental processing than others. 

4. The variables that affect message processing in a biased way can produce either a positive (favorable) or negative (unfavorable) motivation or ability bias to the stream of thoughts that someone has around an issue.

There are two types of elaboration, according to Petty and Cacioppo (1986): relatively objective and relatively biased elaboration. 

When someone is motivated to process a message in a relatively objective manner, they are trying to seek the truth of the situation. Meanwhile, when someone has the ability to process a message in a relatively objective manner, they have the requisite knowledge and opportunity to consider the arguments impartially.

Essentially, the more someone scrutinizes the argument in a relatively objective way, the more apparent the strengths of cogent arguments become and the more obvious the flaws in specious ones (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). 

In contrast to relatively objective processing is processing in a relatively biased manner. This means that some factor either encourages or inhibits the generation of either favorable or unfavorable thoughts.

This makes it more likely that a person will side with one side over another. For example, someone may be more likely to side with a family member whom they feel affection toward than a stranger in an argument which that family member is involved in. 

The objectivity of elaboration depends on several factors. Processing is more likely to be objective when someone has relatively little investment in which particular position turns out to be best.

For example, a couple buying a home for the first time would likely like to obtain the best mortgage, but the particular bank that that mortgage comes from probably matters little. Meanwhile, elaboration is more likely to be biased when some threat is associated with adopting one position over another.

There are many competing motives that factor into how objectively people process situations, and people often have more information on one side of an issue than another (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). 

5. As someone's motivation or ability to process arguments decreases, external factors (including distraction) can become more important in determining persuasion.
Conversely, as someone undergoes more argument scrutiny, these external factors become less important.

Although the elaboration that someone carries out on a persuasive message can proceed in a relatively objective or biased manner, people can, in some contexts, be unmotivated or unable to engage in either kind of message elaboration. There is a trade off between message elaboration and the effectiveness of peripheral cues (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

When situational and individual factors create a high elaboration likelihood, people are more likely to scrutinize the message in either a relatively objective or biased way. However, the central processing route to persuasion requires both motivation and the ability to elaborate a message. For example, if ability is high but motivation low when someone is exposed to a message, they will care about little argument processing. This processing could jump to the central route if someone subsequently becomes motivated to process an issue. 

Meanwhile, if someone's motivation to process a message is high, but their ability is low, the person will want to process the message arguments, but will be unable to do so. As a result , the person will likely engage in whatever processing is possible, possibly relying on shortcuts to make inferences about the validity of a message (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). 

6. Attitude changes that result mostly from processing via the central route will be:
  • more resistant to change over time,
  • have a greater likelihood of predicting behavior,
  • have a greater resistance to counter persuasion

Finally, the last postulate specifies the different consequences of attitude changes induced via the central and peripheral routes.

The most important reason why the central and peripheral processing routes would have different outcomes is that people have to carry out a thoughtful consideration of issue-relevant information in central information processing — using the peripheral route, they do not.

Generally, the greater the accessibility of the information supporting an attitude, the greater the likelihood that the same attitude will be reported over time, given that people consider their prior knowledge before assessing a new message (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 26). Elaboration Likelihood Model. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/elaboration-likelihood-model.html

References

Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., Kao, C. F., & Rodriguez, R. (1986). Central and peripheral routes to persuasion: An individual difference perspective. Journal of personality and social psychology, 51(5), 1032.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer, New York, NY.

Petty, R. E., Kasmer, J. A., Haugtvedt, C. P., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1987). Source and message factors in persuasion: A reply to Stiff's critique of the elaboration likelihood model.

Petty, R. E., Barden, J., & Wheeler, S. C. (2009). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion: developing health promotions for sustained behavioral change.

Wagner, B. C., & Petty, R. E. (2011). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion: Thoughtful and non-thoughtful social influence.

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