What Is the Elaboration Likelihood Model in Psychology?

Two Ways That Attitude Change Occurs

A woman is brainstorming in front of a whiteboard.
A woman brainstorms in front of a whiteboard.

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The elaboration likelihood model is a theory of persuasion that suggests that there are two different ways people can be persuaded of something, depending on how invested they are in a topic. When people are strongly motivated and have time to think over a decision, persuasion occurs through the central route, in which they carefully weigh the pros and cons of a choice. However, when people are rushed or the decision is less important to them, they tend to be more easily persuaded by the peripheral route, that is, by features that are more tangential to the decision at hand.

Key Takeaways: Elaboration Likelihood Model

  • The elaboration likelihood model explains how people can be persuaded to change their attitudes.
  • When people are invested in a topic and have the time and energy to think over an issue, they’re more likely to be persuaded through the central route.
  • When people are less invested in a topic, they’re more likely to be persuaded by the peripheral route and are more easily influenced by superficial aspects of the situation.

Overview of the Elaboration Likelihood Model

The elaboration likelihood model is a theory developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo in the 1970s and 1980s. Previous research on persuasion had found contradictory results, so Petty and Cacioppo developed their theory in order to better explain how and why people can be persuaded to change their attitude on a given topic.

According to Petty and Cacioppo, a key concept to understand is the idea of elaboration. At higher levels of elaboration, people are more likely to think over an issue carefully, but, at lower levels, they may make decisions that are less carefully thought out.

What factors affect elaboration? One major factor is whether the issue is personally relevant to us. For example, imagine you’re reading about a proposed soda tax in your city. If you’re a soda drinker, the elaboration likelihood model would predict that elaboration would be higher (since you would be potentially paying this tax). On the other hand, people who don't drink soda (or soda drinkers who live in a city that wasn’t considering adding a soda tax) would have lower levels of elaboration. Other factors can also affect our motivation to elaborate on an issue, such as how soon a potential issue will affect us (elaboration is higher for things that affect us more immediately), how much we already know about a topic (more preexisting knowledge is linked to more elaboration) and whether the issue relates to a core aspect of our identity (if it does, elaboration is higher).

Another factor affecting elaboration is whether or not we have the time and ability to pay attention. Sometimes, we’re too rushed or distracted to pay attention to an issue, and elaboration is lower in this case. For example, imagine that you’re approached at the supermarket and asked to sign a political petition. If you have plenty of time, you might read over the petition carefully and ask the petitioner questions on the issue. But if you’re rushing to work or trying to load heavy groceries into your car, you’re less likely to carefully form an opinion on the petition topic.

Essentially, elaboration is a spectrum from low to high. Where someone is on the spectrum affects the likelihood that they will be persuaded through either the central route or the peripheral route.

The Central Route to Persuasion

When elaboration is higher, we’re more likely to be persuaded through the central route. In the central route, we pay attention to the merits of an argument, and we carefully weigh the pros and cons of an issue. Essentially, the central route involves using critical thinking and trying to make the best decision possible. (That said, even when using the central route, we may still end up processing information in a biased way.)

Importantly, attitudes formed through the central route seem to be especially strong. When persuaded through the central route, we’re less susceptible to others' attempts to change our mind later and we’re more likely to act in ways that match our new attitude.

The Peripheral Route to Persuasion

When elaboration is lower, we’re more likely to be persuaded through the peripheral route. In the peripheral route, we’re susceptible to being influenced by cues that don’t actually relate to the issue at hand. For example, we might be persuaded to buy a product because a famous or attractive spokesperson is shown using the product. In the peripheral route, we might also be persuaded to support something because we see that there are a lot of arguments in favor of it—but we might not carefully consider whether these arguments are actually any good.

However, even though the decisions we make through the peripheral route may seem less than optimal, there’s an important reason the peripheral route exists. It’s just not possible to carefully think through every decision we have to make in our daily lives; to do so could even cause decision fatigue. Not every decision is equally important, and using the peripheral route for some of the issues that don’t actually matter as much (such as choosing between two very similar consumer products) can free up mental space to weigh the pros and cons more carefully when we face a bigger decision.

Example

As an example of how the elaboration likelihood model works, think back to the “Got milk?” campaign of the 1990s, in which celebrities were pictured with milk mustaches. Someone who has less time to pay attention to an ad would have a lower level of elaboration, so they might be persuaded by seeing a favorite celebrity with a milk mustache (i.e. they would be persuaded through the peripheral route). However, someone who is especially health-conscious might have a higher level of elaboration on this issue, so they might not find this ad especially convincing. Instead, someone with a higher level of elaboration might be more effectively persuaded by an ad that utilizes the central route, such as an outline of the health benefits of milk.

Comparison to Other Theories

The elaboration likelihood model is similar to another theory of persuasion suggested by researchers, the heuristic-systematic model developed by Shelly Chaiken. In this theory, there are also two routes to persuasion, which are called the systematic route and the heuristic route. The systematic route is similar to the elaboration likelihood model’s central route, while the heuristic route is similar to the peripheral route.

However, not all researchers agree that there are two routes to persuasion: some researchers have proposed a unimodel of persuasion in which there is just one route to persuasion, rather than a central and peripheral route.

Conclusion

The elaboration likelihood model has been an influential and widely-cited theory in psychology, and its key contribution is the idea that people can be persuaded of things in one of two different ways depending on their level of elaboration for a particular topic.

Sources and Additional Reading:

  • Darke, Peter. “Heuristic-Systematic Model of Persuasion.” Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Edited by Roy F. Baumeister and Kathleen D. Vohs, SAGE Publications, 2007, 428-430.
  • Gilovich, Thomas, Dacher Keltner, and Richard E. Nisbett. Social Psychology. 1st edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=GxXEtwEACAAJ
  • Petty, Richard E., and John T. Cacioppo. "The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 1986, 123-205. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/270271600_The_Elaboration_Likelihood_Model_of_Persuasion
  • Wagner, Benjamin C., and Richard E. Petty. "The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion: Thoughtful and Non-Thoughtful Social Influence." Theories in Social Psychology, edited by Derek Chadee, John Wiley & Sons, 2011, 96-116. https://books.google.com/books/about/Theories_in_Social_Psychology.html?id=DnVBDPEFFCQC