As individuals are increasingly reliant on online communication in everyday life, understanding the mechanisms underlying online information processing is essential, especially in the context of one’s trying to persuade its interlocutors. Online information processing is complex for several reasons. First, communication methods vary as they can be asynchronous (e.g. emails ) or synchronous (e.g. instant messaging). In consequence, a communication medium’s synchronicity can affect the processing of persuasive information online. Email can elicit longer response latencies, thus allowing for deeper processing, as compared to shorter response latencies associated with instant messaging, which limit information processing. Moreover, online information processing can be negatively affected by the lack of face-to-face interaction cues (visual and verbal) to assess the integrity of the information presented.
An important factor in determining how information is processed when evaluating persuasive messages is motivation. Theoretical approaches to explaining the impact of motivation have focused mainly on the dual-process persuasion models (see Elaboration Likelihood Model and the Heuristic-Systematic Model). Both models suggest that individuals are motivated to hold correct attitudes that reflect those that are held by others. Thus, the personal relevance of the information would be lower.
The unimodel (UM) of persuasion relates to whereby individuals are motivated to achieve goal satisfaction as opposed to holding correct attitudes. As such, the persuasion process depends on the context as motivation to process the information presented would be driven by self-interest concerns. This process leads then to a goal-driven behaviour where individuals aim to maximize personal benefits and minimize personal costs.
Therefore, if processing persuasive information online is motivated by goal-driven behaviour, individuals’ attention is likely to focus to systematically evaluate all the evidence (i.e. both central and heuristic) presented. This process would ensure goal achievement. Thus, when personal relevance is high, the arguments presented will be attended and processed centrally/systematically. However, if personal interest is low, individuals will engage in more superficial and less effortful processing.
This study aims to determine if the processing of persuasive online information varies as a function of context and so is motivated by goal-driven behaviour.
Ninety-one psychology undergraduates took part in this study. Two scenarios were developed for the research and were designed to be personally relevant to the participants (motivating process) and differed by the impact of the consequences of compliance would have on an individual’s time.
The findings showed that individuals process persuasive information online following their goals and not by the holding of correct attitudes. They also showed that under conditions of personal relevance, individuals do attend to peripheral details and that this type of information becomes even more noticeable under conditions where goal achievement is threatened. These results suggest that in an online persuasion context, information evaluation processes are more in accordance with the UM model principles as opposed to dual-process persuasion models.
This research has implications for organizations that aim to persuade individuals for business purposes or for politicians to gain more voters.