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There is a lot of buzz around Persuasion, Emotion and Trust (PET design) going on now. Sure, human factors / usability is still important: if the user can't find it, the product / function still isn't there. Usability is not going away.

But the field IS becoming more interesting. Methods for deriving navigation architectures and best practices for designing effective layout are established. Now the leading edge is exploring evidence-driven methods to describe information exploration and decision patterns. The question is not "Can they buy the argyle socks?" but rather, "What experience will drive consumers toward buying OUR argyle socks?"

So attention has shifted from ensuring that sites allow people to take specific sub-actions (complete a purchase), to designing sites that encourage people to take larger, business-driven actions. Actions can be anything from buying... argyle socks (!), to joining a club, to signing-up for a specific 401K plan, to advocating for one's own healthcare. The key, though, is that the site content should influence action.

Motorcycles and attitudes. Are they connected?

Measuring persuasion is one of the field's current challenges. Marketing often uses attitude measures to evaluate how persuasive an ad or a website is. To do this, they measure how positively or negatively consumers feel about a product or toward a service. Then they expose consumers to ads or sites or even the actual product. And they measure again. The delta between the first and the second measure is used as an index of how persuasive (or not) the ad / site / product was.

This seems logical. But organizations aren't really interested in attitudes. They are interested in action. And there is often an uncomfortably loose link between the attitudes consumers report and whether they ultimately act on those attitudes. As an example: I have a strong positive attitude about Ducati motorcycles. Every ad I see, every (reasonably frequent) visit to the website, and every conversation with motorcycle enthusiasts increases that positive feeling. But I'm not likely to buy one. Not very soon, anyway.

If attitudes are not an effective measure for persuasion, what should we measure?

A recent series of studies by Rucker, Petty & Briñol (2008) suggest that "attitude certainty" predicts "behavioral intention" (or likelihood to act) better than direct attitude measures. As an added benefit, along the way their work also addresses the common marketing question – is it better to present only the benefits of the product, or to present both the benefits and potential drawbacks?

The research...

Rucker and team developed a series of experiments that manipulated / controlled the presentation of various elements of selling communications for products ranging from cell phones to bicycles to toothpaste to portable DVD players to medicine. Overall, the messages were positive. Critically, in half the tests consumers were presented with only positive information (one-sided frame). In the other half consumers were explicitly presented both pros and cons of the product (two-sided frame condition). Across their experiments they found:

  • One-sided and two-sided messages can both increase positive attitudes toward a product.
  • Two-sided messages are more effective at instilling consumers with confidence in that attitude.
  • Individuals who know a lot about something are less influenced by message framing (two- vs. one-sided) They are already confident about their attitude.
  • People remembered about the same number of positive and negative product details in both the one-sided and two-sided messaging – frame does not influence recall of product details.
  • People who were exposed to both pros and cons (two-sided) indicated a greater intention to buy than those exposed only to pros – even though both had developed positive attitudes toward the product.

Not sure? Make a list of Pros and Cons...

Yesterday, I looked at apartments with a friend in Los Gatos. Each place had selling points. Each also had drawbacks. To sort which apartment was most desirable, we made a list. Doing that made the decision process feel more solid. Ordered. Complete. Informed. Before the list, we were doing cost / benefit analysis in our respective heads. After the list, we felt more confident about a decision. All of the critical elements of the various places were surfaced and prioritized.

Rucker, Petty & Briñol (2008) suggests that presenting a two-sided frame instills the same sort of confidence. People who are exposed to a one-sided frame know consciously that they still need to think about the drawbacks of a given decision. And – worse for persuasion design – they are left to generate the negatives on their own. In contrast, people who are exposed to a two-sided frame are left with the impression that the communication is complete. At a meta-cognitive level, the reader seems to assume that the communicator has comprehensively considered and presented both positives and negatives. As a result, the consumer doesn't need to expend energy generating and considering the cons before they can make a good decision. Somebody has already done that for them.

The good, the bad... but maybe not the ugly?

In thinking about this study, it is critical to differentiate between content that creates a positive attitude and content that also leaves consumers confident that their conclusions are correct. The persuasion literature highlights why:

  • Confidently held attitudes influence behavior more than attitudes held with less certainty. Rucker & Petty (2004)
  • Confidently held attitudes are more likely to persist over time. (Petrocelli, Tormala & Rucker, 2007)
  • Strongly held attitudes are more resistant to change tactics than attitudes held with less certainty. Rucker & Petty (2004)

As Rucker and colleagues point out, politicians seeking to create loyalists or companies wanting to create advocates should create content that persuades. But critically, they also should strive to create content that instills confidence. Presenting both pros and cons seems to be one way to do that.


Petrocelli, J.V., Tormala, Z.L., and Rucker, D.D. (2007). Unpacking attitude certainty: Attitude clarity and attitude correctness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 30-41.

Rucker, D.D. and Petty, R.E. (2004), When resistance is futile: Consequences of failed counterarguing for attitude certainty, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 219–235.

Rucker, D.D., Petty, R.E., and Briñol, P. (2008). What's in a frame anyway?: A meta-cognitive analysis of the impact of one- versus two-sided message framing on attitude certainty. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 18(2)

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

Leave a comment here

Reader comments

Craig Tomlin

Thank you Kath and Eric for another interesting article! I have a few questions about the research that was conducted:

  1. Who were the consumers mentioned in the study? Were they actual users on web sites who were interested in the products, or were they recruited and asked to perform a scenario for purposes of testing?
  2. What were the negative attributes mentioned, were they truly negative (example; "this phone is very expensive"), or were they attributes that might be negative for some users, but positives for other users (example, complex camera with many controls might be a positive for photography enthusiasts, a negative for occasional users - alternatively a simple point-and-click camera a negative for photography enthusiasts, a positive for occasional users)?
  3. The control group was not mentioned, I'm assuming it was the same set of users and same number of users as for the one and two frame sets of users?

Thank you again and please keep these interesting articles coming!

Bryan Floyd
Synapse Wireless

Do you think you would have bought the motorcycle if Ducati had added a con-frame? Eric's point on depth is insightful for perspective.


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