Echoing credibility: source cues and repetition

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In 1981 findings were reported from a study conducted with undergraduate volunteers at the University of Missouri. The students had been informed that the university was seeking recommendations on possible policy changes. Each undergrad then listened to audio recordings from a speaker who advocated for a recommended course of action. Though all of the participants heard an identical audio message given by the same male spokesperson, half of the students were told that the policy report had been prepared by a source with low expertise, while the remaining undergraduates were informed that a professor from Princeton University had helped draft the proposal. The result was that among students expressing lower message elaboration, the source’s expertise was an important determinant of persuasion. Hence, when students sought to expend less mental effort and rely upon peripheral cues, the communicator’s perceived faculties helped shape opinions.1 Along with expertise, studies have further found that the physical attractiveness of a source, sometimes referred to as a type of soft credibility, can also impact persuasion in various elaboration contexts.2 These facets of source influence, which pertain specifically to characteristics of the individual or persons supplying a persuasive communication, can be described as Messenger Credibility and Source Attraction, which in this chapter are together incorporated under the single designation of Source Cues.

Source Cues

Messenger credibility

Researchers have identified that in situations of lower cognitive elaboration the alleged expertise of communicators can act as a credibility indicator, which serves as a noteworthy peripheral cue.3 As expert knowledge is often highly technical in nature, nonexperts are frequently unequipped with the requisite training and specialist skills needed to thoroughly assess an expert’s claims. For this reason, without the ability to elaborate on messages delivered by purported experts, audiences tend to assess the credibility of the communicator instead when formulating a response. At the same time, it is also the case that source credibility can bias argument processing in favor of a communicated claim when elaboration likelihood is high.4 Consequently, an expert source is often more persuasive than an inexpert source, even when message recipients apply greater cognitive energy to scrutinize a persuasive appeal. With regard to this, sources “who are credible are ones with superior knowledge (expertise),” and this apparent knowledge, displayed through credentials and prestigious affiliations, is often relied upon when individuals decide to accept or reject persuasive messages.5 On the whole, decades of analysis into these effects have found that, for the most part, increases in source credibility improve persuasion in terms of attitudes and behaviors across a spectrum of contexts.6

Sources interpreted as being trustworthy and sincere are also perceived to be credible, which is especially the case in situations featuring low elaboration.7 Source credibility can also be increased through certain attire, such as a police uniform or lab coat, and even the presence of specific symbols and objects, including a microscope, can generate impressions of scientific authority and credibility. Statements professing that scientific data or empirical evidence support a position can also similarly be used to cultivate this persuasive technique. Depending upon the intended audience, religious and cultural identifiers may further advance this cue, as in-group status amplifies perceptions of credibility.8 The influence of sociocultural fixtures on expertise, of course, leverage the cultural credibility heuristic (Chapter 2), through which experts are often only accepted as authorities by audiences if they are seen to be worldview allies. In the same vein, claiming that God and scripture support the messenger provides a form of sacred credibility that enhances religious authority to specific publics. Invoking the sacrosanct coincides with what has been characterized as sacred rhetoric, which includes appeals to “sacred values, or nonnegotiable convictions” that have transcendental worth and esteem for various audiences.9 These sacred values can serve as credibility heuristics, combining a message and messenger’s attributes with the inviolable weight and meaning of what is revered. Credibility is also a function of the messenger’s supposed objectivity and personal confidence, while societal status and prestige can further cultivate estimations of expertise.10

Within this book, cases of Messenger Credibility are recognized as the definite exhibition of academic qualifications and expertise in persuasion attempts, as well as claims that evidence and data support a specific cause. Furthermore, references to divine credibility are also documented, which can include statements that God or scripture truly champion a particular cause. Symbols and objects that represent authority and potential trustworthiness will also be considered.

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