Cognitive Responses in Persuasion

By Richard E. Petty; Thomas M. Ostrom et al. | Go to book overview
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Foreword

Back in the mid- 1930s, just before I began to study psychology, Gordon Allport, one, of the great psychologists of his time, called attitudes the central topic of social psychology. Maybe it was, but there was then pitiably little by way of theory and method to back up the claim. Social psychology itself was still more a dream and a program than an accomplishment. During World War II, a good deal of serious practical social psychology got done, and in the immediate postwar years, social psychology like clinical psychology consolidated itself as a self-conscious subdiscipline. A major work of that period, Communication and Persuasion ( 1953) by Carl Hovland, Irving Janis , and Harold Kelley, all then at Yale, is the most direct ancestor of the present work. The strongest praise that I can give to the book before you is that it is a. worthy successor to Hovland-Janis-Kelley, almost 3 decades later. Were you to read both books (a good idea), you would find that the psychology of attitudes, attitude change, and persuasion has made real progress over the quarter century. This book, a collaborative product of leading contributors to attitude research and theory, should itself help to move things ahead.

At about the time that my friends at Yale were opening up the systematic experimental study of persuasive communication, my colleagues Jerome Bruner, Robert White, and I at Harvard were trying to counterbalance the schematic simplifications of pro-con attitude measurement and of single-factor theories of attitude change in a "naturalistic" approach to the embeddedness of people's opinions in their ongoing adaptive enterprises of living ( Opinions and Personality, 1956). In retrospect, the Zeitgeist gave much more support to Hovland

Janis-Kelley than to Smith-Bruner-White. In the years since, social psychologists have invested almost exclusively in the strategies of theory-testing in the laboratory in contrast with qualitative or "clinical" observation, and the present book both exemplifies and reaps the products of this mainstream tradition of experimental social psychology. It represents experimental social psychology at its best. It does not try to establish contact with the content-oriented strategies of survey research, which have developed in regrettable independence of the laboratory study of persuasion processes.

All the same, the distinctive focus that binds the book together, a stress on people's cognitive responses during exposure to persuasive communication as in some way mediating or qualifying the impact of the persuasive message, seems to me a welcome return to concerns that Bruner, White, and I had very much in mind but were in no position to deal with so systematically. Once more we are dealing with the idiosyncratic opinion processes of active persons, persons who do not merely "receive" messages but resist, select, and interpret them in their commerce with what we called their informational environment.

-xi-

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