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The Nature of Attitudes and Persuasion

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Social Judgment/
Involvement
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Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
The Nature of Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
Research on Social Judgment/Involvement Theory
Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Judgment/involvement Theory
Glossary
Further Readings
Self-Test

Strengths and Weaknesses of Social Judgment/involvement Theory
This theory has several strengths compared with other consistency theories. First, it realizes, and helps to explain, the role of perception in persuasion. It seems obvious that two different people may perceive a single message differently, and when that happens, Social Judgment/Involvement theory can help explain how and why this occurs. This means that this theory can explain how perception (of messages) influences persuasion. Second, there is a lot of empirical evidence, as noted above, for a curvilinear relationship between discrepancy and persuasion. The processes of assimilation and contrast, and the latitude of rejection, all help explain why this occurs. Third, there is considerable evidence that involvement in the topic of a persuasive message plays an important role in persuasion, and this theory makes use of this concept.

This theory also has some limitations or weaknesses. First,
Sherif and Hovland (1961), in their initial formulation, limit the effects of assimilation and contrast to messages in which “the position in communication is susceptible to alternative interpretations” (p. 149). Some messages take positions that are fairly clear, and the audience has less leeway in interpreting those messages, compared with more ambiguous messages. They explain that “we would not expect that a communication taking a clearly black or white stand on an issue would be subject to such displacement” as assimilation or contrast (p. 149).

Second, except for message position, Social Judgment/Involvement theory ignores message content. There is much evidence that several message variables, like evidence or argument quality, affect persuasion. Social Judgment/Involvement theory, like other consistency theories, does not take into account any of these important message variables. It is possible, for example, that a message that falls in the latitude of rejection might not be rejected if it has strong arguments for its position. Messages that are extremely discrepant, at the far end of the latitude of rejection from the listener’s own attitude may almost always be rejected. However, some of messages that fall in other parts of the latitude of rejection might be persuasive if the messages are strong. Third, Social Judgment/Involvement theory ignores the effects of source credibility, another factor that can influence attitude change.

There are also some questions that can be raised about the theory itself. It is not clear when a listener makes a judgment about the position of a persuasive message. Is the message judged before attitude change takes place, as this theory assumes?  It is possible that the process is actually reversed. Messages that are persuasive (that change a listener’s attitudes) may then be perceived as falling into the latitude of acceptance. The listener could think something like, “That message was persuasive. It must have been near to my own attitude.”  On the other hand, messages that fail to persuade people may, after they have failed, be judged to fall into the latitude of rejection: “That message wasn’t persuasive at all. It was really different from my own attitude.”

Some have raised the possibility that the latitudes aren’t really specific to particular topics, but reflect a person’s general persuasibility (
Eagly & Telaak, 1992). People who are relatively easy to persuade have wide latitudes of acceptance, while those who are difficult to persuade have wide latitudes of rejection. There are also questions about how involvement is measured (O’Keefe, 1990). Is involvement an indication of a topic’s importance?  Is it an indication of how often a topic is encountered by an listener?  The common cold, thankfully, affects far more people that malaria, but malaria is a more serious disease. Which should be considered more involving?

Finally, there are questions about some of the research on Social Judgment/Involvement theory. It is difficult (but not impossible) to manipulate involvement. Studies by
Sherif and Hovland (1961) compared groups of people who were involved with other groups who were uninvolved. Because they did not randomly assign subjects to involved and uninvolved groups, it is possible that those people who were in the involved group differed in other ways from those in the uninvolved group. If true, differences in attitudes between these two groups could have been caused by their different levels of involvement -- as the researchers assumed -- but those differences could also have been caused by other differences between the two groups. As O’Keefe (1990) explained, “the high involvement participants had more extreme attitudes than the low-involvement participants,” which could mean that differences between the groups were due to extremity of attitudes rather than involvement levels (p. 40). Thus, more research needs to be conducted to understand this theory.

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