A forewarning is a warning of an impending influence attempt. Forewarnings include such phrases as, “and now a word from our sponsors,” that precede ads designed to persuade listeners. Consistent with the old adage, “forewarned is forearmed,” psychologists have discovered that forewarning often leads to resistance, which is decreased persuasion in the direction of the influence attempt. However, under certain circumstances, forewarning can temporarily lead to acquiescence, which is greater attitude change in the direction of the influence attempt. Research typically compares those who are forewarned to those who are not, relative to the processing they engage in and the resulting attitudes.
Forewarning Background and History
The initial investigation on the topic showed that forewarning leads to greater resistance following an influence attempt. According to Jane Allyn and Leon Festinger, forewarnings engage a defensive motivation, particularly for those who are committed to their viewpoint. When high school students were forewarned that a speaker would be arguing against allowing teenagers to drive, students reported more negative attitudes after the speech compared to those who were not forewarned. So when people expect a message that is dissonant with their attitude, this arouses feelings of suspicion and hostility, resulting in resistance. Subsequent research shows that resistance following forewarning can take the form of increased generation of arguments against the proposal, called counterarguing, or increased thoughts in favor of the person’s own attitude, called bolstering.
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Other research has shown that, under certain circumstances, forewarning can lead to greater acquiescence. This occurs in the form of temporary shifts in attitudes that occur prior to receiving the message itself. According to William McGuire and Susan Millman, the expectation of an influence attempt leads people to feel vulnerable and potentially gullible. To avoid this potential threat to their self-esteem, people are motivated to shift their attitudes preemptively in the direction of the influence attempt. So when the persuasion attempt comes, they avoid facing the reality that the message persuaded them a lot. This sort of preemptive shift is not possible in the case of forewarnings that specify the topic but not the direction of the attempt. Robert Cialdini and others suggested that forewarnings that do not indicate the direction of the attempt could lead people to report more moderate attitudes prior to the message. Although they are not necessarily aware of doing so, expressing a more moderate stance helps people present themselves in a more positive light, as more flexible and broad-minded. Taken together these findings suggest that when the focus is on ensuring that the self is viewed positively, forewarning can lead to greater acquiescence prior to the actual influence attempt.
Current Status of Forewarning Research
In a recent review, Wendy Wood and Jeffrey M. Quinn were able to distinguish when forewarning is likely to lead to increased resistance as opposed to increased acquiescence. In doing so they distinguished between the impact of forewarning prior to and following the actual influence attempt.
The impact of forewarning on attitudes prior to receiving an influence attempt can be either increased resistance or increased acquiescence, depending on the type of processing that occurs. Contemporary models of persuasion, such as the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) by Richard E. Petty and John T. Cacioppo, hold that there is a critical distinction between more thoughtful processing and less thoughtful processing of issue-relevant information. The results of forewarning for attitudes prior to the actual message itself are consistent with this distinction. When the topic is important to an individual, then forewarning will lead to resistance based on thought, such as bolstering the current attitude. On the other hand, if an individual is less concerned about the topic and more concerned about how he or she appears to him- or herself, the individual will acquiesce prior to the message and engage in little thought about the issue. According to the ELM, less thoughtful processing results in attitudes that are less consequential. Consistent with this view, these acquiescence effects are temporary, disappearing following either the receipt or cancellation of the influence attempt. Thus, the impact of forewarning prior to a message is likely to be greater resistance when thoughtful processing of information related to the issue occurs, but it is likely to be acquiescence when less thoughtful processing occurs and the focus is on ensuring that the self is viewed positively.
Research to date indicates that forewarning leads to greater resistance following the influence attempt. In general, forewarning biases thoughts counter to the direction of the influence attempt, either through increased bolstering of the prior attitude or increased counter-arguing of the persuasive message. This overall effect of resistance following forewarning suggests that those who show acquiescence prior to the message nevertheless engage in more resistance in response to the message itself than those who do not receive forewarning. Processing of the message itself overwhelms the impact of concerns for whether the self is viewed favorably. Thus, while forewarning can at times lead to temporary acquiescence prior to the message, it generally leads to greater resistance once the message is actually presented.
Research on forewarning suggests that advertisers should avoid making their persuasive intent clear prior to the message itself, particularly when thoughtful processing is likely. On the other hand, commercials that only introduce the critical product or topic toward the end may be more persuasive because they circumvent resistance triggered by forewarning.
- Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2003). Forewarned and forearmed? Two meta-analytic syntheses of forewarnings of influence appeals. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 119-138.