Karen Murphy and Patricia A. Alexander, “Persuasion as a Dynamic, Multidimensional Process: An Investigation of Intraindividual Differences,” American Educational Research Journal41, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 337-63.
In a study published in 2004, Professors Murphy and Alexander considered the relationship between persuasion and education research. As they note, “persuasion is neither inherently good nor evil, but a catalyst for thinking analytically about the messages encountered by individuals.”
The study consisted of 234 college students, primarily undergraduates who were given three articles from the popular press to read. The topics were likely to provoke emotional responses, assisted suicide, AIDS and school integration.
The students were examined for perceived and actual knowledge of these topics, prior to reading the articles. The students were then examined after reading the articles to determine the persuasive effects upon the students. Specifically, the researchers wanted to see how knowledge, interest and belief prior to reading the articles effected their beliefs after reading the articles.
One of the most unusual features of their research was a finding that the students with a high degree of knowledge about the topic and a high (to moderate) interest in the topic “were associated with low beliefs levels at prereading and post-reading.” That is the more they were interested and knowledgeable, the less they had firm positions (I assume that is the meaning of “belief”) on the topics.
Here is an example of something interesting which may not tell us much at all.
A person considers life precious in all circumstances. Such a person may have a very strong position on assisted suicide and think it always wrong. Having determined that assisted suicide is wrong, the person then decides not to read many arguments on the subject and has relatively little interest in subject.
Another example, I am firmly convinced that racism is wrong and thus I don’t really intend to spend any time reading arguments in favor of racism. I have little “knowledge” (in the sense of an extended body of research) and strong belief.
Or consider another person who has thoroughly studied a subject for years: Say a professional medical ethicist. The ethicist has a very high degree of knowledge and a high degree of interest – and likely has rather firm conclusions about the topic.
The subjects of this experiment were undergraduates. They are being introduced to all sorts of new ideas in college. Their high degree of knowledge and interest is likely not all that “high”. They may know more than they did in high school, but it is unlikely they have any profound understanding.
Consider this: the articles they were reading were from the newspapers and popular magazines — not academic journals. That does not make the articles bad, but the articles are certainly not exhaustive explorations of the topics. By nature of the medium, the information is will be limited to a few hundred words.
What the researchers discovered is that making education more interesting made education more effective.
They also discovered that what works for one person may not work for another. As they note, the existing studies on the topic show that “persuasion is a multidimensional process that is influenced by individual and intraindividual differences in learners and how they interact with varied texts.”