Influencing Attitudes and Behaviors to Promote your Cause

The following general principles have been established for ways in which to influence attitudes and behavior. These guidelines emerged from research and experience in laboratory or real life settings involving diverse areas such as education, business, public health, and political change. Because individuals differ and situations vary, these techniques will not always work. However, if applied creatively, in combination, over time, and in ways applicable to the situation, these principles will help you to promote your cause. To best utilize these ideas, time will be needed in order to brainstorm, practice, set objectives, and regularly evaluate progress. At times, it may require doing research about the individuals or groups you want to reach and their particular circumstances. This can be done either informally or using a more structured approach, such as a poll. These principles are applicable whether your “audience” is approached in one-on-one or small group conversation, through speeches, by written materials, or via media. As you strategize, you will need to determine a) the causes of the situation you want to change, b) the proposed solution, and c) who has the power to make the change that is needed. Determine what advocates can apply pressure and what groups actually set the policy you want to change.

Consider which principles outlined here are most applicable to your work and how best to apply them. Such an effort may require that you eliminate certain tactics of yours and, perhaps, expand your efforts later. You will also need to judge whether any tactics are considered unethical. Finally, please note that most of the ideas below derive from work in psychology. There are other social change perspectives and principles that might also be helpful-- and sometimes necessary-- in order for you to reach certain goals, such as knowledge from political science, sociology, communications, marketing, religion, the arts, or from activists who have learned from practical experience.

I) Deep Listening

There are several reasons why it is important to listen to the views and understand the feelings of those you are hoping to influence. These reasons include:

  • Listening helps affirm the people you are speaking with. In doing so, you acknowledge that they have something legitimate to say, as do you.

  • Listening to their view on the topic and rationale gives them more of an opportunity to explore their stance.

  • By listening to them, there is a greater chance they will listen to you.

  • Listening to people allows you to understand what they feel and why. This information can be useful for framing your own message during the discussion or for a later interaction.


II) Influencing Attitudes (Although the below describes attempts to influence the attitudes of others, we also learn from honest dialogue in which both parties are open to change.)

A) Aspects of the message you present:

  • Besides any facts you present, provide vivid and dramatic examples and/or images that support your case (i.e. focus on more specific examples/images rather than statistics).

  • Link your cause with American values such as: freedom, equality, individuality, family, fairness, caring, privacy, opportunity, etc.

  • Contrast your position with less favorable alternatives.

  • Typically, what is viewed as scarce may also be more attractive, such as a commodity in short supply or a proposed policy that can only be adopted for a limited time.

  • Give examples of others who are credible and support your position (experts, trustworthy individuals, and those speaking against their own self-interest).

  • Create positive or negative moods by associating your cause with words, labels, or ideas that bring about particular emotions. For a political cause, you might do as President Reagan did when he said that his policies were “in the tradition of John Kennedy” or as Central American activists did when they said that we “didn't want to have another Vietnam in El Salvador”. Another example is to frame messages to an audience, such as “Do you support the constitutional right to”. Well-conceived usage of symbols and/or slogans can be powerful.

  • If you want to utilize fear in your message, the threat must seem real. People must feel that they are able to adopt the new behavior or attitude you propose, and in doing so, their fear will be alleviated.

  • Reiterate important messages over time and with a new twist.

B) Basing messages on the listener’s current opinion

  • Give incentives as to why it is personally beneficial for them to adopt your position and the topic should be relevant to their life. It can be useful to frame your language in terms of your audience.

  • An audience will be more inclined to listen closely to an argument when discussing concerning issues, in which case, the quality of your argument is most important. Those with only limited concern for an issue, which is likely the majorit