Though she’s not a policy analyst or a campaign manager, Professor Gita Johar could teach the 2008 presidential candidates a thing or two about reaching swing voters.
Her new research, which examines why people with ambivalent attitudes are more open to influence, shows that getting a glut of information to potential supporters can be very effective.
“If a candidate can provide a lot of information, some of it is bound to stick. Especially early in the campaign, when many voters are ambivalent and don’t have much knowledge about those running for office, generating a volume of information is one way to define people’s attitudes,” she explains.
Quantity trumps quality in this instance because ambivalent individuals are likely to accept messages regardless of their source’s perceived reliability, shows Johar’s research, conducted with Martin Zemborain of Austral University in Argentina. Because ambivalent individuals have conflicting positive and negative views, they are seeking a way to resolve that discord and solidify their opinions. This makes them open to persuasion from a variety of sources, reputable and otherwise.
Johar and Zemborain found that people with strong opinions, by contrast, are more likely to evaluate the reliability of a message’s source before accepting it. Their attitudes can also be influenced, however, if they are unable to check for a message source’s validity and are unaware that they are being persuaded. “People know that they shouldn’t be influenced by outside sources, but in today’s world, there is so much clutter out there that we are sometimes influenced without realizing it,” says Johar.
In three separate studies, the researchers examined how ambivalent attitudes’ susceptibility to outside influence plays out in the real world, specifically in the political and marketing realms.
First, they asked subjects to evaluate 2004 presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich (chosen because he was a lesser-known politician) before and after being exposed to either a positive or negative message about him. The subjects were told the statements came from either a friend or the radio. As expected, subjects with ambivalent attitudes toward Kucinich were less discriminating about the source, allowing their friends’ messages to sway their opinions, while those with defined opinions accepted only the radio — ostensibly a more reliable source — as an authority on Kucinich.
These results are particularly compelling given the wide array and quality of information available today, Johar points out. Voters, for example, may form their opinions of candidates based on knowledge they obtain from newspapers, television, Web sites, blogs, friends and the candidates themselves.
The same bounty of information sources applies to the marketing arena — an area where understanding what influences opinions is essential to business success. To test attitudinal ambivalence from a marketing perspective, the researchers “launched” a new shower gel brand. They measured college students’ opinions of the new product both before and after receiving an influencing message — a negative description of the product, supposedly coming from either a student at their own university or a student at another university.
As in the example from politics, the findings in this case support the idea that ambivalent people are more susceptible to persuasion because they absorb information without much discrimination. Subjects who were ambivalent about the shower gel were more likely to accept the negative information from either source, while those with strong opinions were persuaded to change their mind more often when the negative description of the shower gel came from students at their own university — a group that the subjects identified in pretesting as a source that is more likely to share their own preferences.
The real-world implication for marketers is the same as for politicians: the more information you generate, the better. “During the launch or introduction of a new product, it is important to provide consumers as much information as possible to enable them to resolve ambivalent feelings about the product,” notes Johar.
The key in both disciplines is to reach people while they are still forming their attitudes. Once solid opinions are established, what Johar calls “motivated processing” kicks in, and it becomes much harder to manipulate beliefs. “If someone decides they are supporting Hillary Clinton, for example, they might only monitor the publications or blogs that provide positive information about her and ignore other information,” she explains. Similarly, people with less ambivalent attitudes about a certain product may continue to seek information about it, but they will be less motivated to do so once their beliefs are firmly in place.
Gita Johar is the Meyer Feldberg Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.