Why People are Influenced:
A critical review of Social Judgement Theory and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model
Published: July 7, 2020
Author: Troy Dettwiler
This essay is composed for my Communications Theory and Analysis course at Athabasca University to critically review two communication theories that I found interesting during the first half of the course. Communications Theory often focuses on the individual perspective, through the eyes of psychologists oe behavioural scientists, or the functioning of society, through the eyes of communications scholars or sociologists. While Social Judgement Theory and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model come from different times and perspectives, the theories share common points.
Friends, Jack and Jill are discussing not getting enough sleep, and a few minutes later, an advertisement shows up on Instagram for a new Basper mattress that promises a deep and restful sleep. The two friends laugh at the blatant advertising, but then proceed to talk about mattresses. Jack mentions how he just got a great Endless mattress, which is much better than a Basper, and he wants Jill to consider buying it because he cares about Jill’s wellbeing. While this snippet of life sounds mundane, it is rich in ethical discussion surrounding people’s shifting attitudes, being influenced into new beliefs, and ultimately changed behaviours. A summary of Em Griffin’s analysis of Muzafer Sherif’s Social Judgement Theory follows a summary of Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s essay on differentiating propaganda from persuasion, referred to as the Jowett and O’Donnell Model, and then a critical review compares the two theories. Social Judgement Theory and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model show that people are influenced because of motivation, errors of judgement, and group identity.
Summary of the Jowett and O'Donnell Model
To summarize, Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s essay “What is propaganda and how does it differ from persuasion” defines the differences between propaganda and persuasion (1). A definition of propaganda is presented as a “deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior[sic] or achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” that is examined as being an intentional and planned use of symbols to change how people act (Jowett and O’Donnell, 4-5). Afterward, Jowett and O’Donnell emphasize that propaganda benefits the selfish propagandist because people’s actions and behaviours are changed through tightly controlled messages using technology (6-7). Next, Jowett and O’Donnell define the different types of propaganda as white, black, and grey that are used to inspire an audience to action or indifference (8). “White propaganda” uses accurate information from a legitimate source to build trust in an audience to manipulate audience behaviour later (8-9). “Black propaganda,” sometimes called “disinformation,” uses inaccurate information and illegitimate sources to immediately manipulate behaviour, with its success dependent on the audience’s willingness to accept the information (9-13). “Grey propaganda” may use accurate or inaccurate information from a source that is legitimate or illegitimate to manipulate behaviour, and the lack of clarity can make this type of propaganda hard to separate truth from lie (13).
Next, Jowett and O’Donnell present a model that clarifies the relationship among communication, information, persuasion, and propaganda (17-18). Communication is the basic framework that uses symbols to move information from a sender to a receiver due to an inherent need to understand the world (Jowett and O’Donnell, 18-19). Propaganda suggests a self-interested sender, but differentiating propaganda from education is difficult because self-interest must be considered within the context of societal structure (Jowett and O’Donnell, 19-20). Persuasion suggests a symbiotic relationship that results in the receiver changing a belief, attitude, or behaviour because the change is close enough to an existing belief (Jowett and O’Donnell, 21-22). Jowett and O’Donnell define “beliefs” as perceptions of the world, “values” as beliefs that are hard to change, “attitudes” as a feeling about the world, “behaviour” as automatic and predictable actions, and “group norms” as people that share commonalities and see themselves as part of a collected identity (23-25). To conclude, Jowett and O’Donnell discuss how propaganda often conceals intentions and identities to control information, manipulate the opinion of the public, and ultimately change the behaviour of the receivers (31-34).
Summary of Social Judgement Theory
To summarize, Em Griffin’s “Social Judgement Theory of Muzafer Sherif” discusses social psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s social judgement-involvement approach to how people’s beliefs can be changed because of perception and reflection of existing attitudes (172). Griffin uses interactive questions, along with a scenario of two people with opposing values on the topic of gun control, to demonstrate a range of beliefs (172). The questions that are agreeable to a person fall within the person’s “latitude of acceptance,” the question that is most agreeable is a person’s “anchor,” questions that are disagreeable to a person fall within the person’s “latitude of rejection,” and questions that inspire indifference to a person fall within the person’s “latitude of noncommitment” (Griffin, 172). Griffin defines “ego-involvement” as how important the topic is to the person, and how the topic’s importance affects the degree of possible belief changes (173). For example, Griffin suggests that a person who cares greatly about a topic has a large latitude of rejection, and therefore is harder to persuade (173). If new information falls within people’s latitude of rejection or acceptance, then people are at risk of thinking the information is farther from their anchor than it really is in the former case, which is called “contrast”, or closer to their anchor in the latter case, which is called “assimilation” (Griffin, 174). Griffin suggests that the receiver will have positive shifts toward their message if the persuader works within the person’s latitude of acceptance or noncommitment, but the persuader risks a shift away from their message if the message falls within the receiver’s latitude of rejection, which is called the “boomerang effect” (175). The degree that people can be persuaded is not only determined by their ego-involvement but also their shared identity with the persuader, which is called a “reference group” (Griffin, 177). Griffin also highlights that “pluralist ignorance” is when people make broad assumptions about the activities or thoughts of others that are false (178). Griffin considers the ethics of purposely using Social Judgement Theory to change others’ beliefs, and finally critiques the theory on its effectiveness within the Communications discipline (180).
Moving to the critical review of the two theories, the first reason people are influenced is the motivation differences between the receiver, who is best defined by Social Judgement Theory, and the sender, who is best defined by the Jowett and O’Donnell Model. Going back to the example from the introduction, if Jill is generally sleeping well, then any received messages about a new mattress would not likely result in her buying a new mattress. In this case, Jill’s ego-involvement on the topic of sleep is low, so messages about a new mattress will likely fall within her latitudes of acceptance or noncommitment (Griffin, 172). Even though Jill’s interest in sleep is low, subtle shifts in beliefs are more easily achieved in a person without a strong belief on a topic (Griffin, 174). On the other hand, if Jill is sleeping poorly, then she is particularly interested in messages about sleeping better. Now Jill’s ego-involvement is high, so according to Social Judgement Theory it is harder to change her existing beliefs and behaviour (Griffin, 173). Therefore, even though Jill cares more about sleep, she is harder to influence because she is more ego-involved in the topic. Regardless of the receiver’s motivation, influence is possible, but the sender’s approach would be different. In the aforementioned example, Jack and the Basper advertising team would be in the role of the sender and would have their own motivations that are best described by Jowett and O’Donnell’s distinction between propaganda and persuasion. Since Jack cares about Jill’s wellbeing, his attempt to change Jill’s beliefs are persuasive in nature. To support this claim, Jowett and O’Donnell describe persuasion as a change in beliefs made in a “voluntarily fashion” because of a mutual need being fulfilled between the sender and the receiver (Jowett and O’Donnell, 21). In contrast, the Basper marketing team has a self-interest in making a sale, so the motivation is likely propaganda in nature. Jowett and O’Donnell describe propaganda as prioritizing the interests of the sender, or the sender’s organization, sometimes at the expense of the receiver (32). Therefore, why the sender is creating a message may change the outcomes for the receiver because the receiver’s needs might not be fulfilled. If the receiver is not fulfilled, then she becomes more or less ego-involved in the topic and might be prone to misunderstanding new information.
Second, people make errors of judgement because of their ego-involvement. If Jill is not very interested in sleep, then new beliefs around sleep will be easier for her to accept because of the concept of assimilation. Social Judgement Theory describes assimilation like a rubber band that snaps new ideas closer to the receiver’s beliefs than they really are (Griffin, 175). If that new information comes from propaganda, then it can be particularly influential. For example, after Jill’s chat with Jack, she decides to do some research on Google about the best mattress, and she finds a great article referring to Jack’s suggested mattress, Endless, is poorly made. Unfortunately, the website was created by the marketing team at Basper to encourage sales, even though it appears independent. Basper’s marketing team conceals their identity to create black propaganda, which is information that is wrong and from a false source (9,31). Whereas, if Jill cared about sleep, then she is more likely to assume new information contrasts her beliefs more than it does (Griffin, 175). Jill is suspicions about the site, so she looks at a few more results on her Google search. Unfortunately, Basper’s marketing team uses a gatekeeper, Google, for good advertising placement. A gatekeeper of information is not often neutral when used by propaganda (Jowett and O’Donnell, 19). A person’s ego-involvement changes how the receiver of new information understands new information and how the sender can achieve a goal, whether is it a slight change in beliefs or an action. Jill, not sure why she is so worked up about sleep, decides to ask her other friends.
Unfortunately, Jill has stumbled into the third reason why people are influenced, which is her friends and the misjudgments caused by them. First, while Social Judgement Theory calls Jill’s friends the reference group, and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model calls them the group norm, the group identity terms are interchangeable between theories. In fact, the longest lasting and most impactful changes to a person’s behaviour comes from the “social process” of reference groups (Griffin, 177). To expand with Jowett and O’Donnell, these groups are formed because of shared values, something more entrenched in a person’s identity than a simple belief or an attitude. To reduce uncertainty, people “succumb to peer pressure” and “often adopt the attitudes and behaviours of their peers” (Jowett and O’Donnell, 25). Therefore, Jill is quick to align her values and behaviours with her friends. Second, people make misjudgments because of reference groups. Jill already knows that Jack likes the Endless mattress. Nevertheless, after talking to only one more friend, Susan, who shares similar values, Jill is convinced that the Endless mattress is the way to go. Social Judgement Theory refers to this misjudgment as pluralistic ignorance or when people think others are doing or thinking something that they are not doing or thinking (Griffin, 178). In comparison, the Jowett and O’Donnell Model describe resonance as a point of commonality between people within a reference group to change the beliefs of the individuals (25). As a result, Jill’s uncritical mind looks to the thoughts and actions of the herd. Group identity is likely the most important reason why an individual is influenced.
In conclusion, Social Judgement Theory and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model both describe how receivers are influenced by senders. Social Judgement Theory appears to be more concerned with the receiver’s motivation, while the Jowett and O’Donnell Model answers the question of why information is transmitted in the first place. That motivation changes the perceptions of new information and the intention of the information. Finally, both theories share some common language when describing how people accept new information and the groups that they identify with. However, the scope of Social Judgement Theory is mostly contained within individual relationships and the Jowett and O’Donnell Model expands into the influence within society. Understanding the theories together, despite the differences in context, shows why people are influenced by motivation, errors of judgment, and group identity.
Griffin, Em. “Social Judgement Theory of Muzafer Sherif.” A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US), 2019, pp. 171-181.
Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O’Donnell. “What Is Propaganda and How Does It Differ from Persuasion?” In Propaganda and Persuasion. 2nd ed. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1992, pp. 1-35.