Peripheral Route Persuasion (Definition + Examples)

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Why might you listen to a sales pitch from a man in a three-piece suit over a man who is dressed sloppily? How come a recommendation from your favorite influencer seems more appealing than a recommendation coming from a stranger? Why do ads with beautiful music or crazy visuals persuade us more than just a robot reading off a teleprompter? The answer is that, according to the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion, there are two ways to persuade: central and peripheral route persuasion. 

To some, peripheral route persuasion is more interesting. Peripheral route persuasion takes into account the tricks and less obvious forms of persuasion. On this page, you will read about the peripheral route persuasion, how it fits into the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion, and how the central message of an argument may not be what actually persuades you to act!

What is Peripheral Route Persuasion? 

When someone is persuaded to act by the actual content of a message or argument, they use the central route to persuasion. The peripheral route takes in everything else outside the argument, from the attractiveness of the persuader to the amount of time the persuadee has to make a decision. 

Central and peripheral routes to persuasion are two parts of Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion.  

What Is the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion? 

Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion looks at the different ways that we process messaging and make decisions. In psychology, “elaboration” means “the process of interpreting or embellishing information to be remembered or of relating it to other material already known and in memory.”

If you think about a message and process its true meaning for a long period of time, you’re likely to come to a different conclusion about it than if you just think about it once and move on. For example, you might read “the elaborate likelihood model of persuasion is the best theory in all of psychology.” If you just take it at face value, you may believe it. If you take some time with that message, look into the theory and relate it to other psychology material you already know, you might come back with arguments against the statement or more confidence that the statement is true. Either way, whether you highly process the message or not, you are persuaded and come to a conclusion.

Petty and Cacioppo identified two “routes” to persuasion. If a lot of processing is involved, a person is using “central route processing” or a “central route to persuasion.” Essentially, this means they processed the message and the message alone. 

But something else happens if a low amount of processing takes place. The person is using “peripheral route processing” or a “peripheral route to persuasion.” Rather than being convinced by the strength of the message, the person may have been convinced by other factors. The ethos of the person sharing the message, for example, may be more convincing than the content of the message itself. 

How Does Peripheral Route Persuasion Work? 

You may already be thinking of instances when people follow the peripheral route to persuasion: flashy TV advertisements or people who “blindly” follow certain leaders or figures are often influenced by peripheral route persuasion. What do all of these things have in common? Petty and Cacioppo tried to identify different factors that influenced whether high or low processing took place. 

They came up with three: motivation, ability, and opportunity. The more these factors are present, the higher the level of processing.

Motivation

If a person is motivated to process the content of a message, the more likely they will take the central route to persuasion. If you’re watching sports, you’re not likely motivated to find out which brand of beer is the best tasting based on peer-reviewed studies or hundreds of reviews from customers. So you’re more likely to be persuaded by the cooler or funnier beer commercials that appear during the game. 

Ability 

Do you have the ability to process content at a high level? Then you are more likely to take the central route of persuasion. If you do not have the ability, be it education or resources or understanding of language, you are more likely to take in the surrounding factors of the message. 

Opportunity

Do you have the opportunity to process content at a high level, or does a decision need to be made immediately? Can you decide for yourself or give yourself the opportunity for a higher level of processing? If so, you are more likely to take the central route to persuasion. 

If there is a high presence of all three factors, a person is likely to use central route processing and evaluate her decision. 

Examples of Peripheral Route Persuasion

Experts say that a majority of communication is actually nonverbal. How we say things - whether it be through body language, tone, or the way that we dress - can be just as important as what we actually say. When it comes to peripheral route processing, how we say things are actually more important! 

The following examples show just how factors outside of a message can be when it comes to persuasion, selling, or influencing. 

Urgency 

Urgency plays a big role in persuasion, and the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion shows why. With low opportunity and ability available to a person being persuaded, they turn to everything but the message. The urgency of the salesperson telling them that they have to buy now, or the flashy messages that appear on screen telling them that time is running out to get a deal, becomes a worthy distraction away from the product that is actually on sale. 

Talking to An Attractive Canvasser 

A canvasser’s job is tough. They have to convince people to stop doing what they’re doing to listen to the canvasser’s sales pitch (and, hopefully, donate some money or sign a petition.) Not everyone wants to hear what a person has to say, unless…that canvasser is a very attractive person. 

If someone’s very attractive, you’re probably more likely to listen to what they have to say, right? You may even do a favor for an attractive person without batting an eye. That’s all peripheral route processing. The attractiveness of the person sharing the message has nothing to do with the message itself, yet you may be more willing to listen or act upon the message. 

Humor 

Likeability in general makes a huge difference in persuasion. On the HermanCainAward subreddit, a user posted about different theories regarding persuasion and offered their take on the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion: 

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) - This one is fair simple, and is compatible with the above theories. We process new information using two parallel systems, a fast, intuitive, less accurate one (called the peripheral route), and a slower, logical, more accurate one (central route). Certain kinds of messages and situations promote us to think with the faster system; threats, time-pressure, persuasive members of the in-group, simple messages. Facebook memes are a really efficient vehicle for peripheral route persuasion. You don’t even have to believe or agree with them for them to work! You just chuckle and move on with your day, all the while this tiny seed has been planted in your head. Because “it’s just a joke” you don’t deliberately think about it in a central route manner. But it has shifted the person’s belief and/or emotions ever so slightly. One of the function of the HCA sub itself is to change how us members perceive those memes when we see them in the wild: in the past you might have vehemently disagreed with them, but now you automatically connect them with HCA winners. That’s a protective heuristic for all of us.”

Social Proof 

Let’s say you are deciding between two places to eat. One restaurant has a lot of people outside, chatting enthusiastically and looking generally pleased. Another restaurant is empty, or maybe it has one person that doesn’t look so thrilled eating at it. Provided that you have the time to wait for a table at both places, you’re probably going to choose the place with a long line, right? 

While this concept is known as “social proof,” it’s also a form of peripheral route processing. You don’t take the time to look at the menus and see what both restaurants have to offer. Instead, you go off of the surrounding environment as “proof” that you should eat at the more popular restaurant.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, January). Peripheral Route Persuasion (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/peripheral-route-persuasion/.

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