The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyBehavioural PsychologyThe Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions Effectively

The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions Effectively

Why you shouldn't fight fire with fire when arguing.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

The amplification hypothesis tells us about attitude certainty.

You want to convince your audience that you are right and the other side is wrong.

You think that by using strong arguments, you will be able to sway people’s opinions. But it doesn’t work that way.

How can we counter extreme positions?

Here goes:

The Power of Attitude Polarisation

The amplification hypothesis (sometimes referred to as attitude polarisation) is a well-known psychological effect.

Related theories are reinforcement theory, selective exposure theory, and subjective validation.

Attitude polarization occurs when individuals with strong attitudes on a particular issue are confronted with evidence or arguments that contradict their beliefs. Rather than modifying their attitudes, they become even more entrenched in their beliefs, leading to increased attitude certainty. 1D. K. Freedheim (Ed.) History of psychology. Vol. 1 of I. Weiner (Ed.) Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology. New York: Wiley.

The effect is believed to be due to several psychological processes, such as confirmation bias, which is the tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that supports our pre-existing beliefs, and the backfire effect, which is the tendency for people to become more firmly attached to their beliefs when they are challenged.

Displaying uncertainty about an attitude, on the other hand, can lead to attitude change because it undermines the individual’s confidence in their beliefs and makes them more open to considering alternative perspectives.

Using the Amplification Hypothesis in PR

Amplification Hypothesis

It’s common to find that counterarguments strengthen existing beliefs instead of weakening them. The harder you “attack” someone with words, the more you convince them of their belief, not yours.

The phenomenon is also known as the amplification hypothesis, where displaying certainty about an attitude when talking with another person increases and hardens that attitude.

“Across experiments, it is demonstrated that increasing attitude certainty strengthens attitudes (e.g., increases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are univalent but weakens attitudes (e.g., decreases their resistance to persuasion) when attitudes are ambivalent. These results are consistent with the amplification hypothesis.”
Source: A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis 2Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue reading

How does the amplification hypothesis work?

In a threatening situation or emergency, we resort to the primal (fastest) part of the brain and survival instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 3Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous thinking—This thinking style is at the heart of radical movements and fundamentalism. Even people who exercise abstract thinking, logic, reason, and the ability to recognize complex issues can resort to this thinking style when threatened. 4See also conversion theory.
  • Egocentric thinking—People who demonstrate non-egocentric thinking in many areas can also resort to this thinking style under stress. When a target is labelled an enemy, a series of cognitive steps justify violent behaviour and prevent altruism and empathy. 5Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted thinking—we tend to ignore details in our environments that do not support our thinking and beliefs. 6See also cognitive dissonance.

Using an emotional attack on a cognitive attitude will increase resistance, whilst a cognitive attack will be more effective. A logical attack has less impact on an emotional attitude, whilst an emotional argument is more powerful.

Attacking

To persuade, align your attitude with the target. Otherwise, you will only act to create resistance.

Defending

To put off a persuader, mismatch their attitudes. When they are logical, be emotional, and vice versa.

Read also: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

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PR Resource: Conversion Theory

Conversion Theory

The disproportional power of minorities is known as the conversion theory.

How does it work?

The social cost of holding a different view than the majority is high. This increased cost explains why minorities often hold their opinions more firmly. It takes determination to go against the norm. 7Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

In contrast, many majority members don’t hold their opinions so firmly. They might belong to the majority for no other reason than that everyone else seems to be. 8Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.

“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
Source: changingminds.org

According to conversion theory, while majorities often claim normative social influence, minorities strive for ethical high ground.

Given the power of normative social influence, minorities must stick together in tight-knit groups that can verbalise the same message repeatedly.

Read also: Conversion Theory: The Disproportionate Influence of Minorities

PR Resource: Spiral of Silence

The Spiral of Silence

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann - Spiral of Silence - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Professor Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1916-2010).

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s well-documented theory on the spiral of silence (1974) explains why the fear of isolation due to peer exclusion will pressure publics to silence their opinions.

Rather than risking social isolation, many choose silence over expressing their true opinions.

“To the individual, not isolating himself is more important than his own judgement. […] This is the point where the individual is vulnerable; this is where social groups can punish him for failing to toe the line.”
— Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann

As the dominant coalition gets to stand unopposed, they push the confines of what’s acceptable down a narrower and narrower funnel (see also the opinion corridor).

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
— Noam Chomsky

Read also: The Spiral of Silence

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 D. K. Freedheim (Ed.) History of psychology. Vol. 1 of I. Weiner (Ed.) Comprehensive Handbook of Psychology. New York: Wiley.
2 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the consequences of attitude certainty: The amplification hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810–825. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013192
3 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks and Attackers workshop held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
4 See also conversion theory.
5 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
6 See also cognitive dissonance.
7 Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behaviour. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.
8 Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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