Understanding How We Receive Messages

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Have you ever wondered why when it comes down to the same message, there are two main interpretations of it?  Sample responses include: “He was a great speaker, articulated, and seemed knowledgable about the topic at hand,” or “I did not like his argument on AI because research has shown this instead.”

Introducing the Elaboration Likelihood Model developed by Petty and Cacioppo in 1986. The purpose behind the theory is to understand how receivers receive messages.  Explaining the concept itself is a bit tricky, but I can assure you, once you understand it, it will seem like a no-brainer.  This theory is helpful to understand and apply when you are trying to persuade your audience.  Keep reading to find out why.

The Concept


Petty and Cacioppo argue there are two main processing routes: central and peripheral.  Central is when you are actively analyzing the message.  Peripheral is when you are using superficial cues rather than focusing on the content of the message.  Some of examples of these cues are the looks of the speaker, credibility and confidence of the speaker, or that catchy song being played in the background.

Here is a scenario.  Amy and Jerry are good friends with each other.  Amy’s friend cancelled last minute on her for a classical music concert performance by Yo-Yo Ma.  Jerry, with nothing else better to do, said yes to Amy when she asked if he wanted to go to the concert with her.  Unlike Amy, Jerry has little to no knowledge on classical music and who Yo-Yo Ma is.  The two went to the concert and after the concert Amy asked what Jerry thought about it.

Jerry :”It was good.  The songs he played sounded good.  He seemed passionate when he was playing the cello.  How about you?  What do you think?” [engaging in peripheral processing]

Amy: “The songs he played were more than good…it was amazing!  The techniques he used, his crescendos and decrescendos were on point.  And the sound of his cello complimented well with the orchestra.”  [engaging in central processing]

The theory recognizes the possibility of parallel processing, meaning the receiver is using both routes at the same time.  Consider when you are viewing a website.  You take into account the aesthetics of the website (peripheral processing) and the content that is included on the website (central processing).  Though this is sometimes the case, Petty and Cacioppo argue that one of the processing routes will outweigh the other.  The determining factors that lead a person to choose one processing route over another are motivation and ability.

Deciding Factors

The first factor is motivation.  If you have a greater motivation to use central processing, then you have high-involvement with the topic.  This means the topic is important to you and affects you directly or indirectly; therefore, you are more likely to engage in central processing.  If you have low-involvement with the topic, then you are going to engage in peripheral processing.

The second factor is the ability to process the information, meaning having the knowledge to analyze the content.  You are more likely to engage in central processing if you are knowledgeable about the topic at hand, while you will more likely engage in peripheral processing if you lack knowledge about the topic.


When you chooses to engage in either one of these processing routes, it affects how susceptible you are to being persuaded.

For central processing, because you are actively analyzing the message, it is harder for you to be swayed.  You become more resistant to counterarguments and develop counterarguments to counter your opponent.  When you successfully persuade someone using central processing then, the effects are long lasting.

If you use peripheral processing, then you tend to be easily swayed.  This is due to the fact you have weak counterarguments when you disagree with a message.  By persuading someone through peripheral processing, the effects are short-lived.


Peripheral processing: low motivation+low ability=easily persuaded

Central processing: high motivation+high ability=hard to persuade

For those who are more visual learners, here is a chart:

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How To Apply It

Understanding this theory allows you to know how to tailor your message for maximum effect.  You need to understand who your target audience is and what motivates them.  This is where research on your audience will come in handy.  After figuring out those two factors, test your message to see if it aligns with what you want to achieve.  Both processing routes have their pros and cons.  Persuading someone through the peripheral route is easier, but short-lived.  Persuading someone through central route is harder,  but long lasting.  Again, figure out what you want to achieve and who your target audience is to see which route you want to employ.  Good luck and comment below to let me know how it goes for you.

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