Dispelling the Illusion of Invulnerability: The Motivations and Mechanisms of Resistance to Persuasion

Authors: Brad J. Sagarin, Northern Illinois University; Robert B. Cialdini and William E. Rice, Arizona State University; Sherman B. Serna, Northern Illinois University

Publication: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Year: 2002

Focus Area: Prevention, Education, Profile

Relevance: Reducing the incidence of fraud depends in part upon reducing the public’s susceptibility to the tactics of fraudsters.  People are more vulnerable when they deny their own vulnerability.

Summary: This article describes three experiments that explore how to increase people’s resistance to illegitimate forms of persuasion.  The authors note that a great deal of attention has been spent understanding persuasion methods, but little on how to protect against persuasion that seeks to deceive.  Effective persuasion resistance training was found to consist of two parts:

  1. Demonstrating personal vulnerability to persuasion – not just the vulnerability of people in general (an outline of how to achieve this is provided as a three-step process)
  2. Educating individuals on how to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate forms of persuasion

The focus of the experiments was not to increase resistance to all forms of persuasion, only to reinforce resistance against those that use illegitimate methods to manipulate consumers.  By combining the two principles above, participants consistently demonstrated:

  • Increased preference for ads that used legitimate (or “fair”) persuasion methods
  • Increased resistance to ads that used illegitimate (or “unfair”) methods
  • Sustained improvement over time

The authors note that these results were obtained using brief, written formats, and that significantly greater results might be achieved through interactive and longer-lasting interventions.  Further work on this topic has been published by Professors Coutinho and Sagarin of Northern Illinois University (2007).

Author Abstract: Three studies examined the impact of a treatment designed to instill resistance to deceptive persuasive messages. Study 1 demonstrated that after the resistance treatment, ads using illegitimate authority-based appeals became less persuasive, and ads using legitimate appeals became more persuasive. In Study 2, this resistance generalized to novel exemplars, persevered over time, and appeared outside of the laboratory context. In Study 3, a procedure that dispelled participants’ illusions of invulnerability to deceptive persuasion maximized resistance to such persuasion. Overall, the present studies demonstrate that attempts to confer resistance to appeals will likely be successful to the extent that they install 2 conceptual features: perceived undue manipulative intent of the source of the appeal and perceived personal vulnerability to such manipulation.

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