Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Language Symmetry: A Force Behind Persuasion

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Language Symmetry: A Force Behind Persuasion

Article excerpt

Persuasion implies the simple presumption that someone wants to change the mind of someone else. Persuasion in this sense applies to individuals, groups, organizations and national populations (Yeager & Sommer, 2005). To change minds, the researcher and persuader employs mechanisms that are largely language phenomena (e.g., words, symbols, imagery, and emotion). Pursuing the goal of persuasion applies communications techniques that belong to the larger topic of linguistic decision making structures. To change a mind, for example, from Brand X to Brand Y routinely involves the use of symmetry in message structure, such as the use of isomorphic analogs (Yeager, 2003).

Multilayered Language

The larger framework of persuasion, used routinely in the pragmatic circles of marketing, medicine and law enforcement, is the tri-partite model of motive, opportunity and means. This model is also known as the "M.O.M. Model" (Yeager, 2003, p. 132; Sills, 2007). No behavior can occur without engaging all three components of this long-established behavioral model. To understand how symmetry in persuasive communication fits into this larger framework, we will first observe that language is multilayered, as shown by Hayakawa (1990). Inherent motivation and decision grammar are dynamic features of language and serve as a technology to predict and change behavior (Yeager, 2003). Hayakawa's hierarchy, his famous "Ladder of Abstraction" is one example of this (Hayakawa, 1990, p. 85).

To illustrate Hayakawa (1990), take a simple sentence, such as: "Liam wants a chocolate ice cream cone." A thought is a linguistic machine, in that a simple sentence implies a system, i.e., a hierarchy of language features in descending order. In this example we have a situation, a person named Liam as a component in that situation, and recognition that Liam has a role in the situation. There are also a motive and a criterion defining his goal. Liam's state of mind, as expressed in language, represents a linguistic system expressing a complete thought. These are examples of clear, discernable components and nested layers inherent in conversational language that can be parsed for their meaning similar to the techniques grade-school children learn in grammar class (Yeager & Sommer, 2005).

For such components to matter, for there to be meaning, communicating requires reciprocity of symbols, shared ideas. My drawing of a cat must look enough like your conception of a cat for mutual understanding. In short, we can reasonably assume that for persuasive communication to be effective, we must reciprocate or "echo" one another's common words and phrases. In verbal terms, the reciprocals can manifest in the form of antonyms (Dilts & Yeager, 1990). Otherwise, communication doesn't occur, and attitudes are not impacted for effective, persuasive change. Like two sides of a coin or the ancient yang-yin symbol, one idea contains its reciprocal, i.e., its symmetrical opposite.

Symmetry in language plays a significant role in any effort to change the choices made by people. When people look in a mirror, they expect to see their own image, not something alien that resembles a distorted, fun-house mirror. Looking in a mirror elicits recognition if the image symmetrically reflects a person's expectations. Similarly, persuasive messages must also elicit a sense of recognition.

When people cope with reality to solve everyday problems, they expect their perceptions of reality to match their presumptions (i.e., predictions) of what they will encounter (Yeager & Sommer, 2005). By analogy, people are motivated and make decisions in a manner similar to a submarine commander who uses sonar to find his way underwater. By sending out "pings" of sound, the returning echo of what is really "out there" guides the commander's decisions. Language organizes our "pings" and expectations of the returning echo in terms of success or failure at finding our way through the many decisions of any given day. …

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