The Role of Persuasion in Interpersonal Relationships
Some people are born with natural talent to influence and persuade others. For many people, this skill is helpful and may play a key role in their lifestyle but is likely to remain merely helpful for the individual who will use it in largely rational and ethical ways. Unfortunately, some people with whom we interact, especially the ones with natural persuasive skill, may misuse their skill to exact undue levels of influence and achieve goals that may be harmful to you or others.
This same woman would normally never allow a man she barely knew to come into her apartment alone but because this man already set a precedent of pressuring her into making decisions she did not want to make, he is able to continue doing so, increasing the importance or severity of each decision until he is able to achieve his goal. Moreover, the same woman is much less likely to report her assault, as she now feels responsible for the attack because she made inauthentic decisions leading up to it. Her attacker, the only person truly responsible for her assault, has manipulated her into being in a situation where the assault takes place and she does not feel confident enough to report it.
While many of us want to believe that the people we know (at least the people we like) are inherently good, awareness of common persuasive and manipulative behaviors can help each of us prevent dangerous scenarios. One in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, someone they know will assault most, and most will not report the assault. Unfortunately, misuse of persuasive skill is pervasive and dangerous.
Alternatively, persuading someone can serve important functions with adults just as it does with children. In fact, the kinds of things that we must often persuade children to do, such as eating healthy food, getting plenty of sleep, and so on, we also must sometimes persuade adults to do as well. Moreover, the basic nature of all humans is to be social; therefore, in addition to persuading others to sell or purchase items, believe or share certain values or religious beliefs, and more, we also try to persuade others to better our own mental and emotional situations. We may want our spouse to compliment us more or give us a certain gift. We may want our boss to recommend us for a higher position. We may want our teenager to stop telling us they hate us. As adults, we find emotional and mental gratification to be sufficient reason for the use of persuasion in many circumstances.
Persuasion relies heavily on the knowledge and practical use of psychology, sociology, neurobiology, and social psychology. However, knowing this will not help you be persuasive or withstand persuasion if you do not know what these terms actually mean.
Psychology is the study of mental functions and behaviors on an individual level. Within this individual context, psychologists consider a person's mental functions, including social and personal behavior as well as neurobiological and physiological processes that are underlying certain functions of the brain. Psychologists explore notions such as motivation (key in persuasion tactics), perception, emotion, personality, attention, and interpersonal relationships. As a social science, the study of psychology is scientific but not as concrete as the so called "hard sciences" such as chemical engineering or biology. Because of this, there is a lot more nuance and guesswork involved. The most well educated and trained psychologists can still be fooled or baffled by some patients. It is very difficult to always know how to motivate and persuade others for an experienced psychologist, much less an untrained individual. While many people will be persuaded by the same measures, there will always be people who make different or less predictable decisions.
Sociology, alternatively, is the study of how people function in groups (as opposed to on an individual level such as in psychology). Although many people prefer to believe that certain things occur because of an individual's psychological challenges, sociology has found that this is not always the case. The most concrete example is how sociology (as a field of study) came into being, in the 19th century, there was a rash of suicides occurring. A man by the name Emile Durkheim began to notice that the individuals involved tended to fit a certain description, white, male, in their twenties, and living alone in a city or metropolitan area. Obviously, because psychology is so highly individualistic, there had to be some other reason for this phenomena.
After tremendous research, Durkheim was able to demonstrate that the role these men were fulfilling within their social circles was playing a key role in their likelihood to commit suicide. While their psychological troubles were obviously at play, their role in society had just as much (if not more) to do with their decision to commit suicide than their individual psychological makeup. Another key aspect to understand regarding sociology is that people in large groups also behave very differently than they would on an individual basis. Thus, subsets of sociology may include the sociology of religion, the sociology of work, the sociology of academia, and so forth. Psychology plays a very clear role in how an individual may be persuaded; sociology, likewise, plays an important role in predicting how groups of people may be persuaded.
Social psychology could be considered a subset of psychology or sociology as it integrates aspects of the two. At its core, social psychology explores the decisions people make and the feelings that they have as influenced by others. The interpersonal nature of persuasion, therefore, gains much from understanding this social science. Consider the following example, a boy is attempting to persuade his girlfriend to believe that she is, in fact, pretty. She struggles with this because she is carrying around psychological scars from past boyfriends who have said otherwise.
Now imagine the urban legend of the girl attacked and sexually assaulted in an alley at night in New York City. Legend holds that dozens of people heard her screams and may have even watched as she was raped but no one interceded or called the police. While people often question how an incident like that could theoretically occur, it is because people in large groups tend to conform to the consensus of the group; if no one was going to intercede, each of the observers felt that they were absolved of not responding simply because no one else was responding either. This scenario falls into the category of sociology as it was a group decision (even though it did not even need to be verbally discussed).
Because humans tend to care so much about the opinions of others, social psychology plays an unbelievably major role in persuasion. Obviously, psychology and sociology themselves are also important, but a good understanding of social psychology can go a very long way towards ensuring successful persuasion.
Another key factor in persuasion is neurobiology. In persuasion, a key piece of information to have is to be able to predict what an individual's attitude regarding something will be. Activation of the lobe in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain may increase the likelihood of finding an attitude that would predict relevant behavior (such as purchasing a specific item or choosing a place to go). Some research has shown that some people respond more strongly to statements that they agree with while others respond more strongly to the statements they do not agree with; this has been shown to be the case in research demonstrating which side of the frontal cortex is more active when statements are being made. Other evidence has also demonstrated that by stimulating both sides of the brain in particular ways, a person may become more or less open to influence.
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