The Elaboration Likelihood Model: Why People Won’t Switch

A common heard question in the operating systems world is, ‘if the alternatives to Windows are so much better, why aren’t people en masse switching to them?’ People come up with all sorts of answers to this question, but in fact, the social psychology world already has a fairly simple answer to this question. This answer also happens to actually explain why Zeta sold so well through the usually superficial television retail channel.This answer is what is known as the Elaboration Likelihood Model, or ELM (Petty, Cacioppo, 1986). This model is based on the presumption that in order for someone’s attitude towards a certain idea, concept, or object to change, there are two routes: the central route, and the peripheral route. Let me first explain these two routes; they are fairly straightforward.

The central route is what you could also call the ‘thinking route’: “The central route is characterised by considerable cognitive elaboration. It occurs when individuals focus in depth on the central features of the issue, person, or message. When people process information centrally, they carefully evaluate message arguments, ponder implications of the communicator’s ideas, and relate information to their own knowledge and values.” (Perlof, 2003).

You can now probably guess what the peripheral route entails: “Rather than examining issue-relevant arguments, people examine the message quickly or focus on simple cues to help them decide whether to accept the position advocated in the message. Factors that are peripheral to message arguments carry the day. These can include a communicator’s physical appeal, glib speaking style, or pleasant association between the message and music playing in the background. When processing peripherally, people invariably rely on simple decision-making rules or ‘heuristics’. For example, an individual may invoke the heuristic that ‘experts are to be believed’, and for this reason (and this reason only) accept the speaker’s recommendation.” (Perlof, 2003).

A crucial part of the ELM is that these two routes do not lead to the same form of attitude change. An attitude change via the central route will be much ‘deeper’ than one via the peripheral route; it is much more resistant to counterpersuasion, it is more longlasting, and predictive of behaviour. Attitude changes via the peripheral route are more superficial, and more easily altered by counterpersuasion.

Another crucial part of the ELM are the factors which determine which route a message will take. It are also these factors which are important to our premise: these factors are motivation and ability. In order for an attitude change to be realised via the central route, one needs to be both motivated as well as able to process the given message. And it is in this area where the problem to our premise lies.

First, let’s look at a diagram made by Petty and Wegener in 1999 (click to enlarge). This diagram looks very complicated at first sight, but if you look a little closer, you see it is actually fairly straightforward. If you follow the diagram, starting at “Persuasive communication”, you’ll see what it takes for information or a message to pass through the central or the peripheral route.

Most of you have probably gotten the gist by now. The limiting factors in converting people from their Windows installs to Linux or any other alternative is the lack of motivation, ability, or both. Let’s start with motivation.

Several factors influence motivation in the ELM, but the two most important are involvement, and the need for cognition. With involvement is ment: is the issue or subject at hand of personal relevance? Does it have important implications for your life? For us operating system enthusiasts, our computer is important; it is part of our life, and we generally do not wish to part with it for too long. Hence, whatever OS we run on it is important to us as well. This does not go for ‘normal’ people.

The need for cognition is the other factor, probably less relevant, but interesting still. The need for cognition is a need to understand how things around us work; people who score high on in this need “prefer complex to simple solutions”, and “enjoy a task that involves coming up with new solutions to problems” (Cacioppo, Petty, 1982). I don’t know about you, but this seems fairly like geeky trait to me.

The second limiting factor I just mentioned is the lack of ability to process a message or information. This entails everything from the superficial level (i.e. being distracted during the receiving of a message by watching TV or reading the newspaper) up to more deeper levels (a lack of cognitive ability and/or knowledge). To put it bluntly: stupid people are unable to process complicated messages (such as an explanation on why the Mac OS is better than Windows).

To sum the above up: when trying to convert Windows users to another platform, advocates often try to appeal to those users’ central route of processing information, but due to a lack of motivation and/or ability to do so on the users’ end, these users fall back on processing the message via the peripheral route, which is doomed to either not change the attitude, or to only a ‘weak’ attitude change, which will turn out to be unpredictive of behaviour (behaviour being installing a new operating system). Please note, however, that the ELM is just that; a model, a simplification of reality.

This leaves one question unaswered: how did YellowTAB manage to sell so many copies of Zeta via superficial teleshopping? Look at the diagram again. You will understand. The interesting bit: how many of those people who bought Zeta this way actually installed and/or used it?

I’d say fairly little.

Sources cited

  • Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E. (1982). The need for cognition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 116-131.
  • Perlof R. M. (2003) The dynamics of persuasion. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Petty, R. E., Cacioppo, J. T. (1986) The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol 19, pp. 123-205). New York: Academic Press.
  • Petty R. E., Wegener, D. T. (1999). The elaboration likelihood model: Current status and controversies. In S. Chaiken & Y Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 41-72). New York: Guilford.
  • The diagram was made using Dia.

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