The Personality to Persuade

by Sydney Engelstein, Kenyon ’18

The ability to express a point to others and to be able to bring others around to your opinion is one of the most valued skills for a member of society. Politicians rely on being able to convince the voters that their opinions are the best opinions. Salesmen make their living on being able to make a product seem unable to be lived without. A person with good persuasive talent is smart, charismatic, or maybe just handsome. Perhaps, though, the talent of persuasion can come specifically from certain kinds of personalities.

A new study by Shaul Oreg and Noga Sverdlik investigates the connection between personality traits and being a persuasive person. Personality in this study is based off of the Big Five tenets of personality. These are extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. Extraversion is the tendency to be talkative, outgoing and energetic. Openness to experience is based on creativity and imagination. Neuroticism is based around similar traits as extraversion but the opposite: to be high in neuroticism is to be high in negative feelings such as stress, anxiety or instability. Conscientiousness is high in people who have forward, goal-oriented thinking. Agreeable people are kind, sympathetic, and non-confrontational.

In their study of 66 undergraduate Israeli students, Oreg and Sverdlik had the volunteers take a test to determine their own personality on the Big Five scale. They then had them put in a room with someone of opposite opinion from their own on a certain topic with the goal of “reaching a consensus”. The participants then rated their new opinion after the discussion on a four point scale and also rated how persuasive they found their opponent to be.

Interestingly, the participants with the highest openness scores were rated significantly higher by their opposite as a persuasive person. The combination of imaginative and creative arguments as well as a bright and engaged face may be a contributing factor to this result. Similarly, low levels of neuroticism corresponded to both appearing persuasive, and to bringing the other participant’s opinion closer towards their own. Extraversion was the third trait which showed up strongly, a high level of extraversion made a person both come off as persuasive and better persuade others.

The truly interesting part of the results, though, is that high openness in a participant made their scores on seeming persuasive from others much higher, but high extraversion in a participant made the opinions of other participants change more significantly. In other words, openness makes a person look the part, but extraversion gets the actual job done.

Not that looking the part isn’t an important part of being persuasive. In fact, there are two different currently accepted routes of persuasion: central and peripheral. The central path is what we commonly accept as persuasion, convincing others through the content of strong logical arguments. The peripheral route is convincing others through seeming like a persuasive person. Examples of this include having multiple arguments- the content is unimportant -being well dressed, or having a trustworthy face.

A second experiment was done to test the differences in persuasiveness using both of these different pathways. The central pathway is more likely to be used in “strong situations”, or situations where there is more personal investment in the issue. Basically, someone who has been personally affected by say, adultery, will be more likely to pay closer attention to the actual arguments of someone arguing leniency with adulterous partners. That would be a strong situation, while a weak situation would be the opposite, one where a person has less reason to care.

By putting people in situations they were more invested in, the participants’ differences in persuasive ability began to be less visible. When faced with an issue that they wanted to argue about and convince their partner of, people of all varying personalities were able to be nearly equally persuasive. The only constant was high levels of neuroticism, which consistently made the person less persuasive and made the person appear less persuasive. Having someone who doubts themselves and speaks nervously causes both the actual arguments to be weaker, because of stress, which makes the central pathway argument less believable, but they also appear to not be trustworthy since they don’t even have faith in their own words so they appear less persuasive along the peripheral pathway.

This result may point to the fact that rather than a certain personality, confidence and poise may be the true keys to being persuasive. It is merely a piece of an extraverted person’s personality that they slip easier into a confident and dominating way of speech. It is also, as may be intuitive, easier to change the mind of someone with low personal investment in the issue.

The ability to be persuasive stems from imagination, confidence, and boldness, which correspond neatly to high levels of openness to experience and extraversion and low levels of neuroticism. However, with enough passion about a subject and enough self-coaching, a person of any type can embody these characteristics and appear to the world as a strong well informed individual. It could help you get a job, win an election, or maybe just change some minds for the better.

References

Oreg, S., & Sverdlik, N. (2014). Source personality and persuasiveness: Big five predispositions to being persuasive and the role of message involvement source personality and persuasiveness. Journal of Personality, 82, 250-264. doi:10.1111/jopy.12049

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