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12.1: Elaboration Likelihood Model

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    Learning Objectives

    1. Explain the theory of persuasion discussed in the text: the elaboration likelihood model.

    Theories of Persuasion

    Understanding how people are persuaded is very important to the discussion of public speaking. Thankfully, a number of researchers have created theories that help explain why people are persuaded. While there are numerous theories that help to explain persuasion, we are only going to examine one here: the elaboration likelihood model.

    Elaboration Likelihood Model

    Chart outlining the Elaboration Likelihood Model. Central Route: Cost, Insurance Costs, Safety Rating, Reliability, Reviews, Fuel Efficiency. Peripheral Path: Color, Fluffy Dice, Speed, Sex Appeal, More Expensive than Neighbors, Big Wheels.

    Wikimedia Commons – Routes of ELM – CC BY-SA 2.0.

    The last of the three theories of persuasion discussed here is the elaboration likelihood model created by Petty and Cacioppo (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). The basic model has a continuum from high elaboration or thought or low elaboration or thought. For the purposes of Petty and Cacioppo’s model, the term elaboration refers to the amount of thought or cognitive energy someone uses for analyzing the content of a message. High elaboration uses the central route and is designed for analyzing the content of a message. As such, when people truly analyze a message, they use cognitive energy to examine the arguments set forth within the message. In an ideal world, everyone would process information through this central route and actually analyze arguments presented to them. Unfortunately, many people often use the peripheral route for attending to persuasive messages, which results in low elaboration or thought. Low elaboration occurs when people attend to messages but do not analyze the message or use cognitive energy to ascertain the arguments set forth in a message.

    For researchers of persuasion, the question then becomes: how do people select one route or the other when attending to persuasive messages? Petty and Cacioppo noted that there are two basic factors for determining whether someone centrally processes a persuasive message: ability and motivation. First, audience members must be able to process the persuasive message. If the language or message is too complicated, then people will not highly elaborate on it because they will not understand the persuasive message. Motivation, on the other hand, refers to whether the audience member chooses to elaborate on the message. Frymier and Nadler discussed five basic factors that can lead to high elaboration: personal relevance and personal involvement, accountability, personal responsibility, incongruent information, and need for cognition (Frymier & Nadler, 2007).

    Personal Relevance and Personal Involvement

    The first reason people are motivated to take the central route or use high elaboration when listening to a persuasive message involves personal relevance and involvement. Personal relevance refers to whether the audience member feels that he or she is actually directly affected by the speech topic. For example, if someone is listening to a speech on why cigarette smoking is harmful, and that listener has never smoked cigarettes, he or she may think the speech topic simply isn’t relevant. Obviously, as a speaker you should always think about how your topic is relevant to your listeners and make sure to drive this home throughout your speech. Personal involvement, on the other hand, asks whether the individual is actively engaged with the issue at hand: sends letters of support, gives speeches on the topic, has a bumper sticker, and so forth. If an audience member is an advocate who is constantly denouncing tobacco companies for the harm they do to society, then he or she would be highly involved (i.e., would engage in high elaboration) in a speech that attempts to persuade listeners that smoking is harmful.


    The second condition under which people are likely to process information using the central route is when they feel that they will be held accountable for the information after the fact. With accountability, there is the perception that someone, or a group of people, will be watching to see if the receiver remembers the information later on. We’ve all witnessed this phenomenon when one student asks the question “will this be on the test?” If the teacher says “no,” you can almost immediately see the glazed eyes in the classroom as students tune out the information. As a speaker, it’s often hard to hold your audience accountable for the information given within a speech.

    Personal Responsibility

    When people feel that they are going to be held responsible, without a clear external accounting, for the evaluation of a message or the outcome of a message, they are more likely to critically think through the message using the central route. For example, maybe you’re asked to evaluate fellow students in your public speaking class. Research has shown that if only one or two students are asked to evaluate any one speaker at a time, the quality of the evaluations for that speaker will be better than if everyone in the class is asked to evaluate every speaker. When people feel that their evaluation is important, they take more responsibility and therefore are more critical of the message delivered.

    Incongruent Information

    Some people are motivated to centrally process information when it does not adhere to their own ideas. Maybe you’re a highly progressive liberal, and one of your peers delivers a speech on the importance of the Tea Party movement in American politics. The information presented during the speech will most likely be in direct contrast to your personal ideology, which causes incongruence because the Tea Party ideology is opposed to a progressive liberal ideology. As such, you are more likely to pay attention to the speech, specifically looking for flaws in the speaker’s argument.

    Need for Cognition

    The final reason some people centrally process information is because they have a personality characteristic called need for cognition. Need for cognition refers to a personality trait characterized by an internal drive or need to engage in critical thinking and information processing. People who are high in need for cognition simply enjoy thinking about complex ideas and issues. Even if the idea or issue being presented has no personal relevance, high need for cognition people are more likely to process information using the central route.

    Key Takeaways

    • The elaboration likelihood model posits that persuaders should attempt to get receivers to think about the arguments being made (going through the central route) rather than having receivers pay attention to nonargument related aspects of the speech.


    1. Imagine you’re giving a speech to a group of college fraternity and sorority members about why hazing shouldn’t be tolerated. Explain the persuasive process using the theory of persuasion discussed in this chapter.
    2. Make a list of strategies that you could employ to ensure that your audience analyzes your message using the central route and not the peripheral route. According to Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) elaboration likelihood model, which of these strategies are most likely to be effective? Why?


    Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, & Company.

    Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203–210.

    Frankish, K. (1998). Virtual belief. In P. Carruthers & J. Boucher (Eds.), Language and thought (pp. 249–269). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

    Frymier, A. B., & Nadler, M. K. (2007). Persuasion: Integrating theory, research, and practice. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

    Perloff, R. M. (2003). The dynamics of persuasion: Communication and attitudes in the 21st Century (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 5–6.

    Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205.

    Sherif, M., & Hovland, C. I. (1961). Social judgment: Assimilation and contrast effects in communication and attitude change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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