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Pass it on: the power of persuasion.

Pass it on: The power of persuasion

Last year, the federal government sent every household in the United States the pamphlet "Understanding AIDS." In five places the text encouraged readers to talk about AIDS with lovers, friends and family. Although no one knows how many people took that advice, the requests to pass on information about AIDS may nonetheless have helped to promote more positive attitudes toward the much-publicized disease, the authors of a new report suggest.

People who read a persuasive message and expect to discuss its contents with others feel substantially more receptive to the message up to five months later, maintain psychologist David S. Boninger of Ohio State University in Columbus and his colleagues. This effect apparently holds even for some messages with which people do not initially agree, they say.

Two of the studies in Boninger's report focused on 81 university students who read an essay that advocated educating people to use their leisure time more purposefully. Some received booklets explaining that readers would transmit information in the essay to another person, while others were informed they would receive more information on leisure-time planning. After reading the essay, volunteers were told there was no time for transmitting or receiving information. Another 35 students received no instructions and read an essay advocating repeal of "right turn on red" traffic laws.

Ten weeks later, all 116 participants were contacted by phone and asked to respond to a survey on current interests that included four questions on the leisure-time issue. After completing the survey, students learned it was part of the previous study.

On a 1-to-10 scale, "transmitters" and "receivers" of the initial leisure-time essay reported similarly positive assessments of its message immediately after reading it. Only the transmitters, however, maintained their positive opinions when contacted later by phone. Transmitters initially rated the leisure-time argument higher than did students who read the traffic essay, and remained more positive at 10 weeks.

Transmitters said they had expected to pass on information to a person who had read a similar message. This expectation appears to boost positive attitudes toward persuasive messages, according to a third study.

In that experiment, 92 students were primed to transmit information about the "right turn on red" essay to someone else exposed to the same message. They expressed a positive attitude toward the proposal five months later, although most had initially disagreed with it, Boninger's team reports in the July PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE. Students told to describe the essay to someone who had read a different message were much less receptive to the argument after five months.

A fourth study of 300 adults in the Columbus area produced similar results with advertisements promoting either the health benefits of a brand of butter or the increased use of nuclear energy. Some participants read the ads as transmitters; some read the ads with no further instructions; others did not see the ads. Two months later, transmitters reported the most positive attitudes toward both messages. However, the attitude difference proved statistically significant only for the butter ad.

Other factors undoubtedly influence a person's disposition toward messages with a persuasive angle, the psychologists acknowledge. But the experimental situations mimic many mass media campaigns -- from television commercial blitzes to distribution of the AIDS pamphlet -- in which the same message reaches most of the general public, they assert.

Future research should examine transmitters' attitudes toward topics evoking strong personal and emotional reactions, the researchers add. Possibilities include messages discussing AIDS or ways to deal with drug abuse.
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Title Annotation:effect of a persuasive message on behavior
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 4, 1990
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