Creating Critical Consumers: Motivating Receptivity by Teaching Resistance

Authors: Brad J. Sagarin (Norther Illinois University), Robert B. Cialdini (Arizona State University)

Publication: Resistance and Persuasion. Ed. Eric S. Knowles & Jay A. Linn. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers

Year: 2004

Focus Area: Prevention, Persuasion, Resistance, Consumer Behavior, Decision Making

Relevance: Effective fraud prevention depends in part upon reducing the public’s susceptibility to the tactics of fraudsters, while facilitating their preference for legitimate information sources.

Summary: This chapter outlines a series of experiments seeking to improve consumers’ decision making by teaching them to reject illegitimate and prefer legitimate persuasion methods.  In order to accomplish this, they discovered that individuals must:

  1. Appreciate their own vulnerability: Many people do not believe that they personally are vulnerable, and so do not internalize warnings or feel motivated to learn.  This awareness can be achieved by exposing them to controlled examples of their own susceptibility.
  2. Know how to identify legitimate vs. illegitimate messages: A basic distinction can be identified, such as the validity of an authority endorsing a product (e.g., the Surgeon General vs. an actor who plays a doctor on television when discussing a medical product).  This provides a substitute “rule-of-thumb” to use in decision making instead of simply “someone who looks like an authority.”

Not only are subjects exposed to this progression of training more likely to resist persuasive messages from illegitimate sources, but they show a clear preference for messages endorsed by legitimate authorities.

Teaching individuals to accept legitimate persuasion may in fact be easier than teaching them to resist illegitimate messages.  Given limited mental processing capacity, easy rules that guide acceptance are more likely to be used than the draining task of careful resistance.

Author Abstract: Consumers have a paradoxical relationship with advertising. To our great personal detriment, we routinely resist health-related warnings from legitimate authorities such as the Surgeon General. At the same time, we readily accept advice from illegitimate authorities, even those who begin their appeal by admitting that “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” This chapter describes three studies designed to tackle the latter problem—maladaptive gullibility. However, it turns out that that the former problem—misplaced skepticism— proved far easier to solve.

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