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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
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
through political eloquence (Perloff, 2008, p 5). In the early nineteenth century, persuasion was key in the United States’ first
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
. Aristotle’s Art of
saw persuasion as the ultimate purpose of
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
, 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
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
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,
, is not always clear. The Sophist, Gorgias, compared the
on the mind with the powerful domination exercised by drugs on the body, saying that “
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
exist on a spectrum. On one end is sweet alluring appeal, persuasion; on the other is forceful, threatening compulsion, or
. In between lie gradations such as
persuasion and persuasive
. The point is that persuasion and
are not separate concepts, because
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
by making audiences an offer while
makes them an offer that cannot be refused. In 1982, Mary J. Smith proposed a relativist perspective postulating that the difference between persuasion and
was a matter of individual perception, leaving it to an audience or to circumstances to decide whether to classify a
as persuasive or
Persuasion in Disciplinary History
Although it had its academic roots in
, the study of persuasion took on a greater empirical focus in the interwar period. Carefully designed and honeyed words of sweet persuasion raised
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
sub-fields such as
, 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
, articles after 1930 sought to theorize persuasive processes and quantify their social
, and post World War 2 articles discussed persuasion alongside
and brainwashing. Scholarship since the 1980s has focused on persuasion’s role in
, and identity.
Table 1: “Persuasion” in Quarterly Journal of Speech article titles
[Quarterly Journal of Speech Education until 1927]
Number of articles
· Logic, reasoning
· Methods and principles; verbal communication and effects
· Methods in public speaking
· Speech analysis
· Rhetoric; Oratory
· 2 book reviews: Oratory/Logic; Eloquence and psychology
· Logic; Public speaking.
· Book review: Persuasion and debate
· Proof, Logic
· Ethics, right and wrong
· Speech education
· Motivation and influence on human conduct
· Rhetorical theory; Conviction-persuasion duality in Aristotle’s Rhetoric
· Persuasion theories, processes, psychological research; rhetoric implications
· Speech education; rhetorical techniques in speaking
· Book review: types of persuasion
· Social facilitation; effects, mechanism
· Book review: Process of persuasion
· League of Nations, arguments, propaganda
· Book review: Female persuasion
· The art of persuasion
· Book review: persuasion technique
· Book review: social control and persuasion
· Enthymeme, logic, responses
· Book review: Road to Persuasion
· 3 Book reviews: Hostility, brainwashing, Communist propaganda.
· Book review: spiritual exercise; self-persuasion
· Review: Art of Persuasion
· 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
· 2 book reviews; Jacksonian persuasion, North Carolina.
· Book review: Changing opinions and attitudes
· Rhetoric, persuasion, Burke, identification
· Book review: Communism, brainwashing.
· Book review: Power and Persuasion
· Motivation, situational structure and schema
· Rhetoric; political effectiveness ; leadership
· Motivation, personality, theory, psychology
· Cognition, Activation, logic, emotion, argumentation
· Review: Techniques, propaganda, brainwashing
· Ethics, rhetoric, social norms
· Review: strategy
· Review: Psychology
· Review: Ethics
· Persuasion research; social psychology
· Review: Experiments
· Presidential campaigns; campaign comm. parallel advertising persuasion
· 2 reviews: Reason in Controversy & Art of Persuasion
· Leadership; social movements; rhetorical requirements
· 2 reviews: Speech and Behavioural change & Motivation
· Rhetoric; parliamentary practice; legislative bills; coercive results & strategy
· Psychological theories; social psych; cognition
· Experimentation; methodology; message; stimulus; attitude change; social influence
· Review: persuasion theory and practice
· Verbal ability, Rhetoric, Public speaking
· Non-verbal persuasion, gesture, political handshake.
· Book review: new techniques of persuasion
· 2 book reviews: Interpersonal Relations; Reception and Responsibility
· 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
· 2 book reviews: Social Influence& Understanding, Practice and Analysis
· Book review: New Directions in Theory and Research
· Book review: Political doctrine: Jefferson, ideology
· 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
· Book review: Action and Persuasion
· Book review: Propaganda
· Book review: 'Cognitive Foundations of Calculated Speech: Controlling Understandings in Conversation and Persuasion,'
· Book review: Politics; Presidential Campaigns
· Book review: Propaganda, Polemic
· Metaphor, speeches, addresses, Churchill, persuasive failure
· 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’
· Dialectology, Identity Creation, Kenneth Burke, China, Pure Persuasion
"persuasion.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 1 August 2010.
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.
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