Definition

Persuasion as a phenomenon, “the act of addressing arguments or appeals to a person in order to induce cooperation, submission, or agreement,” (Oxford English Dictionary Online) has a long history. Its early manifestations include the Biblical prophet Jeremiah’s efforts in the Old Testament to convince his people to repent and establish a connection with God, using a form of persuasive speech from which rhetoricians derive the “Jeremiad” genre. Predating today’s teaching assistants of public speaking classes and political spin doctors were ancient Greece’s Sophists and Italy’s Niccolo Machiavelli, who advised how best to capture attention and power through political eloquence (Perloff, 2008, p 5). In the early nineteenth century, persuasion was key in the United States’ first health campaigns led by reformers concerned about excessive alcoholism and poor diets (Engs, 2000).

Persuasion as an intellectual concept has a similarly lengthy record, reaching back to its roots in the study of rhetoric. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric saw persuasion as the ultimate purpose of rhetoric, defining rhetoric as “the faculty of discovering the possible means of persuasion in reference to any subject whatever” (Aristotle, bk I, sec.II.2) while Cicero defined an orator’s duty as being to “speak in a style fitted to convince” (Cicero, bk I, sec XXXI.138). Later scholars added to the link between persuasion and rhetoric, with Kenneth Burke’s discussion in A Rhetoric of Motives of “pure persuasion” and the need for speakers to persuade audiences by identifying their causes with those of the audience (Burke, 1969, p 55).

Like rhetoric, numerous definitions abound about persuasion, including the one provided in the opening sentence of this entry. The long history of this concept has given rise to debates attempting to delineate what precisely persuasion is and is not. Nevertheless, despite their variety and complexity, common themes emerge when discussing persuasion: that persuasion entails some form of appeal to an audience to alter their beliefs, and persuasion’s validity as an alternative to force.


Persuasion and Appeal

The word “persuade” comes from the Latin word suadere, meaning “to advise or make something pleasant to.” Suadere itself comes from the same Latin roots as suavis (“suavity”) and swadwis, meaning “sweet” (Oxford English Dictionary Online). Persuasion is thus the act of making an idea or action sweet or pleasurable in order to appeal to audiences and induce them to change their beliefs. Hesiod’s Theogony describes that to honor a king, Zeus’ daughters would “pour sweet dew upon his tongue, and from his mouth there flow[ed] gentle words” (Buxton, 1982, p 7). The sweet, even alluring roots of persuasive communication underline the seductive quality of persuasion, personified for Roman and Greek rhetoricians by Suadela or Peitho, respectively, the goddess of persuasion whose particular province was the alluring power of sexual love (Buxton, 1982, p 31). The relationship between persuasion and desire was strong in Greek culture. Peitho was often cast as a handmaiden of Aphrodite, or, as Rhetorica, adorning Pandora with garlands and flowers, a literal seduction akin to the adornment of speech with stylistic elements that made it more attractive (North, 1993, p 408).

Persuasion –like seduction– seeks to make another party yield, indicating that the act of persuasion implies the presence of some kind of “agonistic” or competitive stress (Burke, 1969, p 52) to be overcome. Kenneth Burke argued that “persuasion involves choice, will; it is directed to a man only insofar as he is free – only insofar as men are potentially free, must the spellbinder seek to persuade them (Burke, 1969, p 50).” Hence, the competition or adversary to be countered is the free will of the listener, who may choose to agree with a persuader, or not.


Persuasion as Alternative to Force

Given its root in sweetness and appeal, persuasion is often thought of as an alternative to more forceful means of getting one’s way – that persuasion seeks to win people over, where coercion would seek to defeat them. Persuasion was particularly important as a non-violent way of winning over senators and colleagues in the early days of the Roman senate, with rhetoric and persuasiveness playing a vital role in public debate and democratic rule.

However, the distinction between persuasion and its less alluring cousin, coercion, is not always clear. The Sophist, Gorgias, compared the effect of speech on the mind with the powerful domination exercised by drugs on the body, saying that “Speech is a powerful master and achieves the most divine feats with the smallest and least evident body (Gorgias, 2001, p 31).” In a similar blurring of the boundary between verbal coaxing and physical intimidation, Burke spoke of Cicero likening the rhetorical devices in De Oratore to weapons be used either for threat and attack or brandished for show (Burke, 1969, p 68).

The Greek word Peithananke referred to “compulsion made under the guise of persuasion,” (Burke, 1969, p 50) suggesting that persuasion and coercion exist on a spectrum. On one end is sweet alluring appeal, persuasion; on the other is forceful, threatening compulsion, or coercion. In between lie gradations such as coercive persuasion and persuasive coercion. The point is that persuasion and coercion are not separate concepts, because speech acts can be both appealing and threatening - they differ in degree rather than in purpose because they share a common purpose of seeking to change or sway attitudes. Persuasion seeks to sway attitudes by making audiences an offer while coercion makes them an offer that cannot be refused. In 1982, Mary J. Smith proposed a relativist perspective postulating that the difference between persuasion and coercion was a matter of individual perception, leaving it to an audience or to circumstances to decide whether to classify a speech as persuasive or coercive (Smith, 1982).


Persuasion in Disciplinary History

Although it had its academic roots in rhetoric, the study of persuasion took on a greater empirical focus in the interwar period. Carefully designed and honeyed words of sweet persuasion raised ethical questions such as whether persuasion distracted audiences from genuine substance and blinded them to the truth of a situation. As such, the study of persuasion has taken on increasing importance in communication sub-fields such as propaganda, marketing, subliminal messaging, and political campaigning, in which audiences are asked to sway their preferences towards a particular person or product.

Between the years 1918 to 2009, the word “persuasion” appeared in the titles of approximately 89 articles published by the Quarterly Journal of Speech (Table 1). Earlier articles featured persuasion as a tool of logic, reasoning, and speech education, articles after 1930 sought to theorize persuasive processes and quantify their social effects, and post World War 2 articles discussed persuasion alongside propaganda, political leadership and brainwashing. Scholarship since the 1980s has focused on persuasion’s role in advertising, cognition, propaganda, and identity.

Related words: Coercion, Authority, Propaganda, Sublime, Rhetoric, Attitude, Identity.


Table 1: “Persuasion” in Quarterly Journal of Speech article titles

[Quarterly Journal of Speech Education until 1927]

Year
Number of articles
Communication sub-field
1918
1
· Logic, reasoning
1919
3
· Methods and principles; verbal communication and effects
· Methods in public speaking
· Speech analysis
1920
0

1921
1
· Rhetoric; Oratory
1922
2
· 2 book reviews: Oratory/Logic; Eloquence and psychology
1923
0

1924
0

1925
1
· Logic; Public speaking.
1926
0

1927
0

1928
2
· Book review: Persuasion and debate
· Proof, Logic
1929
0

1930
1
· Ethics, right and wrong
1931
1
· Speech education
1932
0

1933
1
· Motivation and influence on human conduct
1934
1
· Rhetorical theory; Conviction-persuasion duality in Aristotle’s Rhetoric
1935
2
· Persuasion theories, processes, psychological research; rhetoric implications
· Speech education; rhetorical techniques in speaking
1936
0

1937
0

1938
1
· Book review: types of persuasion
1939
0

1940
1
· Social facilitation; effects, mechanism
1941
0

1942
0

1943
0

1944
0

1945
0

1946
0

1947
2
· Book review: Process of persuasion
· League of Nations, arguments, propaganda
1948
0

1949
1
· Book review: Female persuasion
1950
0

1951
1
· The art of persuasion
1952
1
· Book review: persuasion technique
1953
1
· Book review: social control and persuasion
1954
0

1955
0

1956
2
· Enthymeme, logic, responses
· Book review: Road to Persuasion
1957
5
· 3 Book reviews: Hostility, brainwashing, Communist propaganda.
· Book review: spiritual exercise; self-persuasion
· Review: Art of Persuasion
1958
3
· Theory and practice of persuasion; elements, definition, purpose.
· Review: Order of Presentation in Persuasion
· Public opinion, democratic principles, merchandising govt; influencing and shaping public opinion
1959
2
· 2 book reviews; Jacksonian persuasion, North Carolina.
1960
3
· Book review: Changing opinions and attitudes
· Rhetoric, persuasion, Burke, identification
· Book review: Communism, brainwashing.
1961
2
· Book review: Power and Persuasion
· Motivation, situational structure and schema
1962
0

1963
2
· Rhetoric; political effectiveness ; leadership
· Motivation, personality, theory, psychology
1964
3
· Cognition, Activation, logic, emotion, argumentation
· Review: Techniques, propaganda, brainwashing
· Ethics, rhetoric, social norms
1965
1
· Review: strategy
1966
1
· Review: Psychology
1967
1
· Review: Ethics
1968
2
· Persuasion research; social psychology
· Review: Experiments
1969
3
· Presidential campaigns; campaign comm. parallel advertising persuasion
· 2 reviews: Reason in Controversy & Art of Persuasion
1970
4
· Leadership; social movements; rhetorical requirements
· 2 reviews: Speech and Behavioural change & Motivation
· Rhetoric; parliamentary practice; legislative bills; coercive results & strategy
1971
2
· Psychological theories; social psych; cognition
· Experimentation; methodology; message; stimulus; attitude change; social influence
1972
3
· Review: persuasion theory and practice
· Verbal ability, Rhetoric, Public speaking
· Non-verbal persuasion, gesture, political handshake.
1973
1
· Book review: new techniques of persuasion
1974
2
· 2 book reviews: Interpersonal Relations; Reception and Responsibility
1975
5
· Book discussion: Teaching as a Subversive Activity,' 'Beliefs, Attitudes and Human Affairs,' ‘Reception and Responsibility,' 'Attitude Change: A Critical Analysis of Theoretical Approaches,'
· Scientific studies; faith; mysteries
· Rhetorical vision; Disciples of Christ; Religious movement
· Non-verbal persuasion; Gandhi; social movement
· Book review: Healing, Psychotherapy
1976
2
· 2 book reviews: Social Influence& Understanding, Practice and Analysis
1977
0

1978
0

1979
0

1980
1
· Book review: New Directions in Theory and Research
1981
1
· Book review: Political doctrine: Jefferson, ideology
1982
6
· Practical function of writing; logography; Plato
· Book review: Cognitive response in persuasion
· Book review: Rhetoric; Truman
· Book review: Theory and Context
· Book review: New Directions in Theory and Research
· Book review: Persuasion and Human Action, Social Influence Theories
1983
0

1984
0

1985
0

1986
0

1987
2
· Book review: Action and Persuasion
· Book review: Propaganda
1988
3
· Book review: 'Cognitive Foundations of Calculated Speech: Controlling Understandings in Conversation and Persuasion,'
· Book review: Politics; Presidential Campaigns
· Book review: Propaganda, Polemic
1989
0

1990
0

1991
0

1992
0

1993
0

1994
0

1995
0

1996
0

1997
1
· Metaphor, speeches, addresses, Churchill, persuasive failure
1998
2
· Review: ‘Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising’
· Review: ‘Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace: The Online Protests Over Lotus Market-Place and the Clipper Chip’
1999
0

2000
0

2001
0

2002
0

2003
0

2004
1
· Dialectology, Identity Creation, Kenneth Burke, China, Pure Persuasion
2005
0

2006
0

2007
0

2008
0

2009
0


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References

"persuasion.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 August 2010. http://dictionary.oed.com

Aristotle. (1926). The “Art” of Rhetoric (J.H. Freese, Trans.) London: Heinemann.

Burke, K. (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Buxton, R. G. A. (1982). Persuasion in Greek tragedy: A Study of Peitho. UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cicero. (1942). De Oratore (E.W. Sutton, Trans.) London: Heinemann.

Engs, R.C. (2000). Clean living movements: American cycles of health reform. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Gorgias. (2001). Encomium of Helen. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Vincent B. Leitch, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

North, H. F. (1993). Emblems of Eloquence. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 137 (3), 406–430.

Perloff, R.M (2008). The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Smith, M.J. (1982). Persuasion and human action: A review and critique of social influence theories. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.