12.3.0: Individual and Persuasive Power

In this section, we will discuss six types of power individuals possess and ways messages can be used to influence the thoughts, behaviors, and actions of others through the use of persuasive tactics.


12.3.1: Individual Power

Individuals possess six types of power: coercive, reward, legitimate, referent, expert, and informational. These types of power may overlap, differ according to the manner in which they are implemented, and differ in the ways each type of power is established and maintained.[3]

  • Coercive power:
    Coercive power uses the threat of force to gain compliance from another. Force may include physical, social, emotional, political, or economic means. This type of power is based upon the idea of coercion, and common tactics include threats and punishment. For example, coercion occurs when we imply or threaten that someone will be fired, demoted, or given undesirable assignments.
  • Reward power:
    Reward power is based on the right of some to offer or deny tangible, social, emotional, or spiritual rewards to others for doing what is wanted or expected of them. If others expect to be rewarded for doing what someone wants, there’s a high probability that they’ll do it. Reward power (positive reward) is seen when a child is given money for earning better grades or a student is admitted into an honor society for excellent effort.
  • Legitimate power:
    Legitimate power comes from an elected, selected, or appointed position of authority. Legitimate power is formal authority delegated to the holder of the position. It is usually accompanied by various attributes of power such as a uniform, a title, or an imposing physical office. People traditionally obey the person with this power solely based on their role, position, or title rather than someone’s personal leadership characteristics. A police officer is an example of someone who has legitimate power.
  • Referent power:
    Referent power is the power or ability of individuals to attract others and build loyalty. It is based on the charisma and interpersonal skills of the power holder. This power is often regarded as admiration, or charm. A person may be admired because of specific personal trait, and this admiration creates the opportunity for interpersonal influence. Referent power acts a little like role model power and depends on respecting, liking, and holding another individual in high esteem. We can increase our level of referent power as we build up our interpersonal skills. Communicators that meets others’ social needs are often perceived as possessing referent power.
  • Expert power:
    Expert power is based on what we know, what we experience, and on our special skills or talents.[8] Expertise can be demonstrated by reputation, credentials, and actions. Unlike the others, this type of power is usually highly specific and limited to the particular area in which the expert is trained and qualified. People tend to trust and respect individuals who demonstrate expertise. The expertise does not have to be genuine – it is the perception of expertise that provides the power base.
  • Informational power:
    Information power comes as a result of possessing knowledge that others need or want.[8] Information possessed that no one needs or wants is powerless. Information power extends to the ability to get information based on a position held. Not all information is readily available; some information is closely controlled by a few people, such as national security data. Information power is a form of personal or collective power that is based on controlling information needed by others in order to reach an important goal. Our society is reliant on information power as knowledge for influence, decision making, credibility, and control. How information is used—sharing it with others, limiting it to key people, keeping it secret from key people, organizing it, increasing it, or even falsifying it—can generate power.[1]
(Image: llmicrofono Oggiono, CC BY 2.0)

Doctors are an example of expert power- the power someone has based on what they know, their skills, credentials, expertise, or experience in a specific area.


12.3.2: Persuasive Power

Regardless of the types of individual power we may (or may not) hold, we also have the ability to empower ourselves and influence others through our communicative messages and the use of persuasion. Persuasion has the ability to change the way people think and feel and act. Persuasion is comprised of three interrelated components: ethos, logos, and pathos.

  • Ethos:
    Ethos refers to the credibility of a communicator and includes three dimensions: competence, trustworthiness, and dynamism. Competence refers to the perception of a communicator’s expertise in relation to the topic being discussed. Trustworthiness refers to the degree that others perceive a communicator as accurate, honest, and unbiased. Perceptions of trustworthiness come from the content of the message as well as the personality of the communicator. Dynamism refers to the degree to which others perceive a communicator to be outgoing and animated (Stiff & Mongeau, 2003). Two components of dynamism are charisma and energy. Charisma refers to a mixture of abstract and concrete qualities that make a communicator attractive to others.

    Charismatic people usually know they are charismatic because they’ve been told and people have been attracted to them because of it. Unfortunately, charisma is difficult to intentionally develop, and some people seem to have a naturally charismatic personality, while others do not. Even though everyone can’t embody the charismatic aspect of dynamism, the other component of dynamism, energy, is something that everyone can tap into. Communicating enthusiastically and using engaging nonverbals such as vocal variety and eye contact can increase your dynamism.

  • Logos:
    Logos refers to the reasoning or logic of an argument. Communicators employ logos by presenting credible information, facts, and statistics. Presenting a rational and logical argument is also an important component of persuasion. When a communicator uses logic, they make a claim, which is a statement of belief or opinion. They then provide good reasons to support their claims. For example, I could make the claim that cats are the best pets and attempt to support this with reasons such as they are cute and like to cuddle. In order to persuade another with logic, the reasons presented should be relevant to the claim, well-supported, and meaningful to the listener.
  • Pathos:
    Pathos refers to the use of emotional appeals in messages. Stirring emotions in others is a way to get them involved and can create more opportunities for persuasion and action. Learning that homes in your city are being burglarized may get your attention, but think about how different your reaction would be if you found out it was a home in your neighborhood. Communicators have taken advantage of people’s emotions to get them to support causes, buy products, or engage in behaviors that they might not otherwise if given the chance to see the faulty logic of a message. For example, a politician may try to get your vote by posing for pictures near flags, using patriotic music in their ads, or holding babies at campaign events. None of these actions hold any logical appeal, but they stir up emotions that can make us feel favorable about the politician. Emotional appeals are effective when you are trying to influence a behavior or you want the other to take immediate action (Stiff & Mongeau, 2003). However, emotions lose their persuasive effect more quickly than other types of persuasive appeals. Since emotions are often reactionary, they fade relatively quickly when a person is removed from the provoking situation (Fletcher, 2001).
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