Two Routes to Persuasion: The Elaboration Likelihood Model

27 February, 2020
The elaboration likelihood model determines if a message will be more or less persuasive through two different routes: the central route and the peripheral route.

Persuasion is any change that occurs in people’s attitudes as a consequence of their exposure to a message. We should also add that the speaker designs and delivers the message with the goal of persuading their audience. Thus, persuasion basically consists of changing someone’s attitude. The best model we have to understand persuasion is the elaboration likelihood model (ELM).

The act of persuasion involves the following elements: the speaker, the message, the receiver (or audience), the context in which the persuasion occurs, the channel by which the message is transmitted, and the likelihood that the receiver or audience will accept the message’s proposed ideas.

A cartoon of two men talking about the elaboration likelihood model.

Changing attitudes

Persuasion consists of changing attitudes. Attitudes are the general evaluations people make about objects, questions, and other people. The technical term for these objects, questions, and other people is objects of attitude. Likewise, attitudes have three components: the affective, the cognitive, and the behavioral.

The affective component is based on emotions. The cognitive component focuses on beliefs. Thirdly, the behavioral component focuses on behavior or past experiences. These three components make up the psychological structure of attitudes from which overall evaluation emerges and materializes in behavior. Thus, persuasion seeks to change what you feel, what you think, and what you do.

On the other hand, attitude changes can adopt two modalities: the polarization modality and the depolarization modality. Polarization refers to an attitude change in the direction that the attitude initially presented, while depolarization is an attitude change that opposes the initial tendency. In other words, polarization reaffirms your attitudes, while depolarization leads you to adopt an attitude that’s very different from the one you had before.

“The creation of the world is the victory of persuasion over force.”

-Plato-

The elaboration likelihood model

The elaboration likelihood model (ELM) interprets persuasion in a very good way. This model proposes that persuasion happens through two routes: the central route and the peripheral route. Thus, the motivation to process the message will determine the route that it takes. Low motivation leads to the peripheral route, while high motivation leads to the central route.

The central route implies a higher probability of elaboration. In other words, to pay a lot of attention to the message and contrast the information with prior knowledge. On the other hand, the peripheral route implies minimal effort and minimal elaboration.

Thus, the peripheral route depends on situational indicators. A speaker who seems believable is an example of a situational indicator. Therefore, the motivation that determines if the message will be elaborated on the central or peripheral route depends on different factors.

“The object of oratory alone isn’t truth, but persuasion.”

-Thomas Macaulay-

A woman bored by her partner's conversation.

Motivation and elaboration ability

First of all, the motivation to understand the message and make a mental effort to do so, and the ability that the receiver has to process the message, will determine the elaboration likelihood. In other words, the route.

On one hand, motivation is based on the receiver’s perceived importance of the message. Also, it’s related to the inconsistency between the message’s proposal and the receiver’s position, the ambivalence of the subject, the message’s number of sources, and the need for cognition on the part of the receiver. On the other hand, the ability will depend on the reception of the message, the elements of distraction, the available time, the complexity of the message, and the knowledge that the receiver has about the subject.

In summary, when you receive a persuasive argument and you have the motivation to process the information, it’ll take the central route. If the opposite is true, it’ll take the peripheral route.

Attitude change

Thus, the attitude change will happen or not depending on the attractiveness of the message and if it provides arguments or names sources the receiver trusts. However, if the receiver is truly motivated, their ability to process information will also play a role. If you don’t have the necessary abilities, you’re more likely to take the peripheral route. When you do have them, however, the information will take the central route.

If the message is elaborated on the central route, you could have favorable or unfavorable thoughts. When they’re favorable, polarization happens and the attitude will be more favorable to arguments that align with the message. If the opposite is true, depolarization happens and your attitude will be more negative towards those arguments. The third possibility is that your thoughts are neutral, in which case you’ll return to the peripheral route.

Briñol, P., de la Corte, L. y Becerra, A. (2001). Qué es persuasión. Madrid: Biblioteca Nueva.

Petty, R. A. y Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: central and peripheral routes to attitude change. Nueva York: Springer-Verlag.