Skip to content
The OCR Glossary

Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion

Karen Freberg

The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion provides an important framework used frequently and effectively by reputation managers to predict and explain the impact of persuasive messages on audiences. The model was developed to account for troubling discrepancies in the psychological literature on persuasion. In some cases, factors such as spokesperson credibility and physical attractiveness produced powerful effects on persuasion, while in others, they had little, if any, effect. The model suggests that people faced with a persuasive message respond using one of two possible patterns, called the central and peripheral routes to persuasion. This entry describes these two routes to persuasion and how organizations can utilize both routes to persuade their audience to adopt a desired behavior or belief.

Central Route to Persuasion

Individuals using the central route to persuasion show evidence of high elaboration. In other words, they are involved and knowledgeable about a subject. They focus on the quality and logic of the arguments presented in a persuasive message. These individuals will be highly critical, analyzing the message that is being communicated very carefully and in detail. They will be relatively resistant to persuasive messages that depend on factors unrelated to the quality of the actual message (e.g., using an attractive celebrity to advocate for a position). In other words, they represent a very “tough audience” to persuade. Because of their expertise regarding an issue or brand, their opinions will carry weight with others, making them a likely source of social influence.

Using the central route requires significant background knowledge along with considerable cognitive resources. People simply do not have the time and resources to process every persuasive message they encounter using the central route. For example, it would be nearly impossible and undesirable to use the central route to process messages on billboards while speeding down the highway.

Peripheral Route to Persuasion

When people are poorly informed or uninvolved in an issue, the elaboration likelihood model suggests that they use the peripheral route to persuasion. This approach to processing persuasive input focuses more on the external cues of the message, operating somewhat like a heuristic or shortcut. Individuals with low elaboration—who are not invested or engaged with the message—are more open to persuasion by factors other than the quality of the argument, such as the source of the information (e.g., credible, attractive), the emotional quality of the message (e.g., fear inducing, arousing), and the medium by which the message is being presented (e.g., in person, through traditional media, or via social media). Because they do not scrutinize arguments carefully, in many cases they are more easily persuaded than people using the central route to persuasion. However, they are just as likely to swing back to their original opinion or move to yet another position after viewing a competing message that catches their attention.

Applying the Elaboration Likelihood Model to Organizational Settings

To help professionals navigate the persuasion landscape, the elaboration likelihood model forms a bridge between foundational theory and applied practice in corporate reputation management. Organizations applying the elaboration likelihood model to their messages should begin with a thorough understanding of their audience and its possible segmentation. It is very likely that a single message will be insufficient in most cases to reach all members of an audience above the threshold required for attitude formation or change. One clue to an audience member’s likelihood of using the central or peripheral route to persuasion is an individual quality described as need for cognition. Individuals high in need for cognition seek out situations requiring effort, are curious, and enjoy debate and problem solving. They have also been shown to have a higher likelihood of using the central route to persuasion.

If an audience contains individuals likely to use the central route to persuasion, the reputation management professional should ensure that the main website of his or her organization or client has detailed, well-organized information with links to academic research reports, news feeds, and authoritative statements featuring logical and thorough persuasive arguments.

Individuals who are low in need for cognition in general or who are simply not engaged with an organization or issue may still form an important segment of an organization’s audience. Consider the dilemma faced by safety experts regarding the need to persuade the public to avoid distracted driving. Research suggests that most people are at least peripherally aware of the issue, but their concurrent belief in their own driving skills or in the irrelevance of the issue to their personal lives pushes the issue onto the back burner.

Although a quality message is an important starting point for audience members using both routes to persuasion, a logical message alone is likely to be unsuccessful in catching the necessary amount of attention to encourage change in a person using the peripheral route to persuasion. These individuals either have other priorities for their cognitive resources or their low need for cognition interferes with their willingness to read through a complex statement.

Instead, the professional might find greater success with this segment of the audience by keeping the message short and simple while manipulating other nonmessage factors that influence persuasion. For example, instead of asking audience members to read through statistical reports on distracted driving, a short YouTube video featuring an attractive or credible spokesperson and an emotional appeal (e.g., a teen’s last text message sent just before dying in a traffic accident) might be a much more effective way to reach this part of the audience.

The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion provides considerable guidance to professionals constructing persuasive messages. If a professional understands where an audience stands in relation to its use of central or peripheral routes, many mistakes and wrong turns can be avoided.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116–131.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Petty, R. E. (1984). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Consumer Research, 11, 673–675.

Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Morris, K. J. (1983). Effects of need for cognition on message evaluation, recall, and persuasion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(4), 805–818.

Cohen, A. R., Stotland, E., & Wolfe, D. M. (1955). An experimental investigation of need for cognition. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 291–294.

Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st century. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

See Also

Media Effects Theory; Message Design; Rhetorical Theory

See Also

Please select listing to show.