As I was reading research this morning for our scaling project, I came across a series of studies that has implications for both politicians and -- perhaps organizational leaders --- who wish to persuade others to like and support them. The question tackled by these studies in paper by Hakkyun Kim and his colleagues in the Journal of Consumer Research was when "influencers" are better of using vague, abstract high level messages -- ones that are more about "why" -- versus concrete, specific, implementation oriented messages -- ones that are "how" to get things done.
Their general hypothesis was that, given the way that people "represent" events in their minds, vague and abstract messages fit with their attention and expectations when the event is far in the future, but as the event draws closer, they become more concerned about concrete details as the practicalities begin to loom. Here is part of their argument:
For instance, a traveler preparing to leave for a vacation to Cancun the following morning is more likely to process information about speedy check-in for international flights – a low-level, concrete piece of information that is related to the feasibility of the vacation, as opposed to information about the quality of sunsets on the East Coast of Mexico – a high-level, abstract piece of information that is related to the desirability of the vacation. When processing information that does not match their mental representation, people are less likely to experience fluency, and thus may provide a less positive evaluation of the event.
They used this kind of logic to design a series of laboratory experiments where subjects were exposed to vague versus concrete messages from hypothetical U.S. Senate candidates and asked them to evaluate how positively or negatively they viewed the candidate. The key manipulation was whether the election was far off (six months away) or looming soon (one week). As predicted, abstract messages were more persuasive (and promoted more liking) when the election was six months away and concrete message were more persuasive when it was one week away.
This study has some fun implications for the upcoming elections. Let's watch Obama and Romney to see if they keep things vague and abstract until the final weeks of the campaign, but then turn specific in the final weeks. But I think it also has some interesting implications for how leaders can persuade people in their organizations to join organizational change efforts. The implication is that when the change is far off, it is not a good idea to talk about he nuts and bolts very much -- a focus on abstract "why" questions is in order. But as the change looms, specific details that help people predict and control what happens to them are crucial to keeping attitudes toward the change and leaders positive.
This is just a hypothesis based on this research. Laboratory subjects and the strangeness of political campaigns may not generalize to organizational settings, but it seems like a plausible hypothesis. Now I am going to start looking at some cases of organizational change to see if it actually seems to work.
Any reactions to the hypothesis or suggestions of cases to check out?
P.S. Here is the reference: Kim, Hakkyun, Akshay R. Rao, and Angela Y. Lee (2009), "It's Time to Vote: The Effect of Matching Message Orientation and Temporal Frame on Political Persuasion," lead article, Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (April), 877-889.