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Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
The Nature of Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
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The Nature of Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
Here I will discuss the audienceís own attitudes and the three latitudes: acceptance, non-commitment, and rejection. Then I will describe two processes of perceptual errors, assimilation and contrast. Finally, I will explain what Social Judgment/Involvement says about involvement.

First we have to understand the audienceís attitudes. Then we can see how this relates to the listenersí perceptions (judgments) of persuasive messages. As indicated above, each audience membersí current attitude on the message topic is his or her anchor point. However, most people are reasonable and flexible, willing to easily tolerate a little disagreement. There are a range of positions that are not objectionable. The center of a range of acceptable or plausible attitudes is called the latitude of acceptance, and the anchor point is in the center of this latitude.
Sherif and Sherif (1967) explain that ďThe latitude of acceptance is simply [the] most acceptable position plus other positions the individual also finds acceptable.Ē  On both sides of the latitude of acceptance are two latitudes of non-commitment. These are positions that disagree moderately with the personís own attitude (anchor), but arenít so discrepant that he or she actually rejects them. Sherif and Sherif define these as ďthe positions that [the individual] does not evaluate as either acceptable or objectionable.Ē  On the outside are two latitudes of rejection, including message positions that the person actively rejects as wrong: ďthe position most objectionable to the individual . . . plus the other positions also objectionableĒ (Sherif & Sherif, 1967, p. 115).

If we map out potential message positions on a topic, like gun control, we can visualize these three latitudes. Figure 1 is an attitude/message diagram, which displays the possible attitude and message positions on a given topic. In this case, the topic is gun control and this particular listener has an attitude of +. 3 toward gun control, a very mild positive attitude. The capital ďAĒ represents this personís own attitude (before listening to the message) and each lower case ďaĒ represents a message position that is acceptable to this listener, but not exactly his or her own position. Together, these aís describe this individualís latitude of acceptance. Each ďrĒ is a possible message position that falls in the latitude of rejection. In this case, the listener rejects both extremes: messages advocating no controls on gun control and messages advocating strict gun control. The two latitudes of non-commitment, on each side of the latitude of acceptance, are represented by ďnc.Ē  Technically, there shouldnít be any spaces (every potential message position falls into one of these latitudes), but I thought that spaces would help identify the distinct latitudes. Notice that because this individual has a slightly positive attitude, the left latitude of rejection is somewhat larger than the right latitude of rejection.

Figure 1. Latitudes for a Slightly Positive Attitude toward Gun Control
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1           0            +1          +2            +3    
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncncnc aaaaaaAaaaaaaaaaa  ncncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrr


In the second example, illustrated in Figure 2 below, we have a listener who has an extremely positive attitude (about +2.8) toward gun control. Notice that this individual has only one of each of the three potential latitudes, and the latitude of rejection is quite large for this individual.

Figure 2. Latitudes for a Extremely Positive Attitude toward Gun Control
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3     rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ncncnc aaaaaAaaaaa


In the third example, Figure 3, we have a person with a moderately negative attitude toward gun control (-2.1). We can see that this person has two latitudes of non-commitment and one each of latitudes of acceptance and rejection.

Figure 3. Latitudes for a Moderately Negative Attitude toward Gun Control
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    
ncnc aaaAaaaaa  ncncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

We can create four simples rules for these latitudes. There is only one latitude of acceptance, and the listenerís own attitude is always at the center of the latitude of acceptance, anchoring it. There must be at least one latitude of non-commitment and at least one latitude of rejection. There may be two latitudes of non-commitment (one on each side of the latitude of acceptance). There may be two latitudes of rejection, but if so, there must be two latitudes of non-commitment as well (and the latitudes of rejection must be outside the latitudes of non-commitment).

Now we can consider how a listenerís own attitude (anchor), and his or her latitudes of acceptance, non-commitment, and rejection influence perception of message positions. In Figure 4, we have a listener with a slightly positive attitude who listens to a persuasive message advocating a slightly (more) positive message toward gun control. Iíve used numbers to indicate three different messages that this person could listen to. Message 1 falls into this listenerís latitude of acceptance and is likely to be at least somewhat persuasive. Message 2, which advocates fairly, but not very, strict gun control, falls into the right latitude of rejection. Message 3, which advocates few controls (but not no gun controls at all) falls into the right latitude of rejection. Neither message 2 nor message three is likely to be very persuasive; both would probably be rejected by this listener, although they would probably be rejected for different reasons (each is too discrepant from the listenerís own attitude, although in opposite directions). Probably the most persuasive message would be one at position 4 -- it does not disagree enough with the audience to fall into the latitude of rejection and be dismissed. It disagrees enough, though, that even if only accepted partially, it should create a reasonable amount of attitude change.

Figure 4. Four Possible Messages for a Person with a Slightly Positive Attitude toward Gun Control
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncncnc aaaaaaAaaaaa  ncncrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Messages:       3                1                  4              2
                  

From these predictions -- that message 1 should be somewhat persuasive and messages 2 and 3 would be unpersuasive -- we can see one of Social Judgment/Involvementís predictions. When a message falls in the latitudes of acceptance or in the latitudes of non-commitment, it predicts that the greater the difference between the message and the listenerís existing attitude (called discrepancy), the more persuasion. However, when messages are so discrepant that they fall in the listenerís latitude of rejection, they are not expected to be persuasive. And we can see that this makes sense. We are less likely to be persuaded by people who take extreme positions in their messages. In fact, Social Judgment/Involvement theory predicts that messages which fall into the latitude of non-commitment, like message 4, are likely to be most persuasive. Specifically, it predicts that the more discrepant a message is from a listenerís own attitude (the greater the difference between the audience attitude and the position adopted in the message), as long as the message doesnít fall into the latitude of rejection, the more persuasive that message will be.

Furthermore, when a listenerís attitude changes, after seeing or listening to a message, his or her latitudes will shift. The latitude of acceptance is always centered around the individualís attitude. So, if the attitude changes, the latitude of acceptance will shift along with it. The latitudes of non-commitment and rejection will also change. See Figure 5, when the latitudes shift after a personís attitude changes to favor stricter gun control. This personís attitude, and his or her latitudes are displayed before and after a persuasive message.

Figure 5. Effects of Successful Persuasion on the three Latitudes
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

before: 
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr ncnc aaaAaaaa  ncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
after: 
rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncnc aaaaAaaaa ncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


However, there is more to the process of perceiving, or judging, a message position that determining which latitude that message falls into. Social Judgment/Involvement theory also discusses two different perceptual distortion processes, called assimilation and contrast. These two effects occur when a messages is very close to the listenerís own attitude (assimilation) or disagrees (is highly discrepant) with the audience (contrast). In a way, the choice of name is unfortunate, because ďassimilationĒ sounds like it might be a good thing. If I ďassimilateĒ a message, doesnít that mean I accept or integrate it into my own beliefs?  No, in this case it doesnít. As Social Judgment/Involvement theory uses the term, it is an error in judgment that actually works to reduce a messageís persuasiveness.

In Figure 6, we have one message that is plotted in two places on the continuum of message positions (the two letters used are placed are right next to each other because they are meant to be just a little different). The letter ďsĒ refers to the message as stated by the persuader, while the letter ďpĒ stands for the message as perceived by the listener. Social Judgment/Involvement theory predicts that when a message actually (as stated by the persuader) falls in the latitude of acceptance, near the listenerís own attitude, it will be assimilated, or perceived by the listener as being nearer to his or her own attitude than it really is. This perceptual error minimizes differences between the message and the listenerís own attitude. Thus, in Figure 6, the ďpĒ or perceived message is nearer to the A of this personís own attitude than the ďsĒ or the messages as stated. This means that assimilation is an error, a process of misperception. After the listener has judged the messageís position, that message then has the possibility of creating attitude change. However, relatively little discrepancy between the (perceived) message and the listenerís own attitude will mean very little attitude change. Thus, this person can think to him or her self something like ďHey, this personís message [p] is almost exactly the same as my own attitude [A], so I donít really have much reason to change my attitude.Ē  If a listener believes that a message basically echoes his or her own attitude, there is no reason to change that attitude (in fact, that message probably reinforces the listenerís existing attitude, rather than changes it). The theory predicts that the closer the actual message (s) is to the listenerís own attitude (A), the more assimilation will occur.

Figure 6. The Process of Assimilation
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncnc aaaaAaaaa  ncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Message Position:                       ps


In Figure 7, the other process of perceptual distortion, contrast, is depicted. Social Judgment/Involvement theory predicts that when a messageís actual position (s) falls into the latitude of rejection, it will be contrasted, or perceived as even further away from the listenerís own attitude (A) than it really is. This perceptual error exaggerates the difference between the message and the listenerís own attitude. Because messages falling into the latitude of rejection are unlikely to be persuasive, this means that contrast does not help the persuader either. This theory also predicts that the farther an actual message (s) is from the listenerís own attitude (A), the more contrast will occur.

Figure 7. The Process of Contrast
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncnc aaaaAaaaa ncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
Message:                p      s


So, assimilation and contrast are both perceptual processes in which the listener decides the position advocated in a persuasive message. Both are errors in perception: in assimilation, a message is perceived to be closer to the listenerís own attitude than it really is; in contrast, a message is perceived to be further away from the listenerís own attitude than it really is. All messages are not contrasted: only those that are near to the listenerís attitude (which are assimilated) and those that are rather far away from the listenerís own attitude (which are contrasted). Furthermore, neither is helpful to the persuader. Messages that are assimilated are thought to be quite similar to the listenersí attitude, so there is little reason for listenerís to change their attitudes. Messages that are contrasted fall well into the latitude of rejection and for that reason are not persuasive.

People vary in the extent to which they are involved in a topic. Some people are highly involved in a topic: The topic is very important to them and it may affect them personally. Others may not care about a given topic (or may not care very much), and they are said to be less involved in that topic. For example, in 1999 two high school students killed thirteen people in Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado (and then committed suicide themselves). Although there are of course exceptions, gun control is probably more relevant to people who live in the area, probably causing them to be involved in the topic of gun control. Those who attend Columbine High School, or whose children attend it, and who knew the victims of this tragedy, are probably very involved in this topic. In other states, those with children in high school are probably less involved in the topic of gun control than those who live in Littleton, but they are probably more involved than their neighbors who donít have school aged children. The point is, people vary in the extent to which they are involved in a topic.

Social Judgment/Involvement theory realizes that listeners vary in involvement and makes specific predictions about involvement and persuasion. Specifically, those listeners who are less involved in a topic will have wider latitudes of acceptance and narrower latitudes of non-commitment than those who are highly involved. Figure 8 depicts an individual who is relatively uninvolved in gun control. The latitudes of rejection are much smaller, and the latitudes of acceptance and non-commitment are wider. Figure 9, in contrast, shows someone who is highly involved in gun control. The involved person has a much smaller latitude of non-commitment and correspondingly larger latitudes of rejection (Sherif & Hovland, 1967).

Figure 8. A Listener with Relatively Low Involvement
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  ncnc aaaaaaAaaaaaa  ncnc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Figure 9. A Listener with Fairly High Involvement
Gun Control
(no controls)                     (no opinion)                  (strict controls)
-3            -2             -1            0            +1          +2            +3    

rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr  nc aaaAaaa nc rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

This prediction means that persuaders, who should not want their messages to fall into an listenerís latitudes of rejection, have to take less extreme positions to be persuasive with those who are highly involved in a topic. This is a reasonable prediction: those who donít care much about a topic (who are uninvolved in that topic) are probably more willing to tolerate a difference of opinion, or a discrepant message, than those who care greatly about that topic. It also means that those who try to persuade people who are highly involved in a topic may have to settle for smaller levels of persuasion than those who persuade the uninvolved.

This theory explicitly recognizes that listeners perceive messages -- messages are not clear and objective statements of the persuaderís exact position. Sometimes people make mistakes when they perceive a message. Furthermore, different listeners will perceive the same message differently (even if they arenít making a mistake). These statements are common sense, but Social Judgment/Involvement theory explains how these processes work.

Listeners judge a messageís position according to their own attitudes, which serve as anchor points. The closer a message is to a listenerís own attitude, the more likely it will be assimilated or perceived as closer to the listenerís attitude than it really is. The further a message is from the listenerís attitude (the more discrepancy between message and listenerís attitude), the more likely it is to be contrasted, or perceived as more discrepant than it really is. Once a listener has judged a message position, we can determine how much persuasion is likely to occur. The more discrepancy between a perceived message position and the listenerís attitude, the more attitude change is likely unless the perceived message falls in the latitude of rejection. Messages that appear to fall in the latitude of rejection are not persuasive.

This means that Social Judgment/Involvement theory predicts a curvilinear relationship between discrepancy and attitude change. With little discrepancy, there is little reason to change oneís attitude. This is exacerbated by the process of assimilation: if a message is close to the authorís own attitude, it will be assimilated or perceived as even less discrepant than it really is. Because discrepancy is viewed as necessary for attitude change to occur, messages that have been assimilated offer very little reason for the listener to change his or her attitudes.



As the perceived discrepancy of the message increases, the pressure to change attitudes increases. However, once discrepancy becomes so great that the message falls into the latitude of rejection, persuasion begins to drop off. Again, this tendency for discrepant messages to be less persuasive is exacerbated by the process of contrast. Messages that disagree sharply with the listenerís own attitude are contrasted, or misperceived as being even more discrepant -- and less persuasive -- than they really are. Thus, a little bit of discrepancy creates little attitude change. As discrepancy increases, attitude change increases. However, when discrepancy becomes so much the message falls into the latitude of rejection, persuasion decreases.


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