Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rhetorical questions: convincing loan companies to back your fathers business!

In this clip from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is suddenly motivated to convince the loan board (his audience) that his father’s business was of use, and was better than Mr. Potter’s exploitative company. He does this in many ways, one of the most salient being the use of rhetorical questions.

- “Doesn’t it make them better men?"
- "Doesn’t it make them better customers"
- "Wait? Wait for what?! Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down…"
- “Well is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway my father didn’t think so…” 

He is speaking to a previously inattentive audience, as they were invested in Mr. Potter’s business plans. It’s of low personal relevance to them, as it is simply a part of their jobs to decide who gets loans. Furthermore, George Bailey has strong arguments; his father’s company was better as it allowed people to live away from the slums created by Mr. Potter. These three aspects of the speech combine to make the use of rhetorical questions effective. This was investigated in a study by Petty, Cacioppo and Heesacker (1981), who looked into the effects of rhetorical questions on persuasion.

The study by Petty, Cacioppo and Heesacker (1981) used 160 undergraduate participants, in a 2x2x2 factorial design, which investigated high or low issue involvement, strong or weak argument quality, and regular or rhetorical form. Participants heard one of 4 communications, stating that seniors should have to pass an extra exam before graduation. Before this they read a passage about the background of the broadcaster. For subjects in the high involvement conditions, the paragraph explained the reasons for the test advocacy in their university, and how it personally affected each of the students. In the low involvement one, it stated that a president of a distant university had said the change would be good in his own university. They manipulated argument quality by either giving the students a high quality, well thought out argument, or one which was weak. The message either included rhetorical questions or not.

There were two measures of the participant’s responses, the first on attitude and the second cognitive response. They measured attitude on a rating scale, with participants indicating if they found the broadcast good-bad, beneficial-harmful, wise-foolish, and favorable- unfavorable. Next, they responded the extent to which they agreed with the extra exam proposal. To investigate cognitive responses, participants had 2 minutes to list some of their thoughts during the communication. Two blind judges scored the responses.

As the table above demonstrates, it was found that participants hearing the strong argument were more in agreement with the exam proposal than those in the weak condition. Students generated more counterarguments when the suggestion came from the president of their school, so it personally affected them. There was a three way interaction; when rhetorical questions were used, the argument was strong, and impersonal it increased persuasiveness.

Thus, George Bailey's speech can be seen as maximally effective in terms of its persuasive strength. He's using rhetorical questions, and a strong argument (because his fathers company kept people out of the slums), to an audience who have no personal ties, thus, low involvement. They have no personal ties to this because it is simply their job to give loans to businesses, it will not impact their personal lives whether it goes to one or another. George Bailey's speech should convince them to support his cause. 

Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Heesacker, M. (1981). Effects of rhetorical questions on persuasion: A cognitive response analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(3), 432-440

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