Communicate to Change Lives: Using Psychological Appeals

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Most writing books and seminars for Christians are very good at teaching the techniques of good writing and marketing, but I’m not aware of any that specifically deal with how to write to change lives. To me, writing and teaching are too hard of work to do without feeling I’m making some kind of impact on my audience: helping them laugh their way through a tough time, providing practical ways to live out their faith, or coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

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Using Psychological Appeals

“Serve [God] with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts.”
1 Chronicles 28:9

While working as editorial director of teen curriculum, each lesson I wrote had to include a cognitive, affective and behavioral goal. That was way too academic for us teen editors so we simply dubbed it know, feel, do.

It was a simple strategy. Teens would learn a biblical principle, feel conviction to apply it and then go out of class and do it. What were we thinking?!

For years Know > Feel > Do was the traditional model in the secular world as well. Message changes Attitude > Attitude changes Behavior.

But it seemed as ineffective for adults as teens! Pastors could preach powerful sermons on Sunday, but Monday, there was no appreciable difference in parishioners’ lives.

So, how does one go about changing attitude and behaviors, and thus lives? There are several theories.

Daryl J. Bem in his book, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Human Affairs, analyzes some of the more popular theories. Let’s start with . . .

Cognitive theories

Know > Feel > Do

Cognitive theories derive from the word “cognition” which means the conscious process of the mind by which individuals perceive, think, and remember. If we can change a person’s thinking, we can change his or her behavior. In academia it’s Carl Hovland’s “Yale Attitude Change Approach.”

And Scripture implies that Know > Feel > Do is an effective approach:

      “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” Jesus (John 8:32).

      Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:14, 37).

      How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom. 10:14-15).

Cognitive dissonance theories

Leon Festinger was first to coin the term “Cognitive Dissonance Theory.” (Don’t you just love these academic labels?!) His theory is that people cannot tolerate discrepancy between their own and other similar people’s attitudes as well as tension within an individual’s own cognitive system.

In supporting this theory, Bem argues, “If an individual is induced to engage in behavior that is inconsistent with his beliefs or attitudes, he will experience the discomfort of ‘cognitive dissonance,’ which will motivate him to seek a resolution of that inconsistency.”

Fritz Heider calls it “Balance Theory” in that people prefer emotional and mental balance as opposed to unbalance. It’s also called “Congruency Theory” by T. M. Newcomb who observed that individuals tend to feel most comfortable when their beliefs, attitudes, and actions are all in homeostasis or harmony with each other.

In other words:

Know > Feel badly > Do

The classic biblical example would be Paul in Romans 7:

      So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:21-24).

And that “cognitive dissonance” caused him to make a dramatic change in his life:

      Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

      You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness (Rom. 8:5-8).

We have to be careful in applying balance theories, however. Imagine I’m a millionaire. (That’s going to take some serious imagination!)

I’m sitting through a sermon that emphasizes Christ’s command to look out for the well-being of the poor. Prior to coming to church, I evicted a single mom and her three children because she was a week late in her rent. Earlier that week I had foreclosed on a struggling business. And at Christmas, I refused to allow the Salvation Army to have a red kettle outside my office building.

Suddenly, there is “cognitive dissonance” in my hard little heart! To resolve that conflict, I can do one of four things.

Defame the messenger. “That preacher is a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to tax me to death. He’s jealous of what I have and in the dark recesses of his soul, he just wants what I have but can’t have.”

Discount the message. “He’s taking scripture out of context. Christ was speaking to another culture, so this doesn’t apply to me today.”

Distort the message. “What he’s really talking about is how the bleeding-heart liberals in Congress want to tax me to death. And when they tax me to death, I can’t give $50 to the local rescue mission each year.”

Demonstrate the message. “I’ve been acting like a sinful Scrooge. I’m going to go to that single mom and apologize for evicting them and give them some extra time to pay. I’m going to give a generous donation to the Salvation Army and invite them to ring their bells outside of all my businesses. Plus, I need to evaluate my lifestyle.”

Until I have acted on one of those options, I am filled with cognitive dissonance which can be emotional anxiety or the Holy Spirit’s conviction. Humans can’t live long with anxiety. They’ve got to do something to create balance!

This anxiety can also be the result of positive pressure. Imagine, again, I’m that millionaire with a twenty-room mansion with indoor pool and racquet ball court. I have three Mercedes in my four-car garage (the fourth is a Lamborghini). And I’m planning to spend the summer on the Mediterranean. I pick up a book that claims, “Only Christ can offer real love, joy, and peace.” Prior to picking it up, I’ve been feeling depressed because all my material “things” haven’t provided the satisfaction I thought they would. Maybe it’s because I just lost a million or two in the stock market. If I can just close that deal with GM, I think I’ll be happy.”

Again, there is that dissonance in my soul that must be relieved. But, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t alienate our readers with too much pressure, or their natural instinct will be to defame the messenger, discount the message, or distort the message.

And here’s another factor: Ego involvement. The more personally invested I am in an issue, the harder I will be to persuade. This may be why Christ warns that . . .

      “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

      When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

      Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:23-26).

This is why it’s so important for us to allow the Holy Spirit to do the convicting. Our job is to present the case in a compassionate, compelling manner (the know) but leave the conviction (feel) to the Holy Spirit.

And one more challenge: Cognitive complexity. A professor in grad school described it best with the question, “How many holes do you have in your pasta maker?”

If I am a rigid legalist, I may have only two holes in my mental pasta maker: black and white. In psychology, these people are diagnosed as having “borderline personalities.” A “gray” message cannot be accepted, but will be forced through either the black or white hole. They have no gray hole; everything is black or white.

The fewer the holes in the pasta maker, the harder to offer a new option or alternative in their thinking.

However, if I have more of a sieve than a pasta maker, I will accept any and all options. We see this in the attitude that there are no absolutes, everything is relative. In India, for instance, I found it very hard to share my faith in Christ. “Oh, Jesus,” they would reply, “He is one of our favorite gods.”

In today’s culture, the problem is too many holes in the pasta maker! And every hole is of equal validity!

People also play a very real—and powerful—role in Know > Feel > Do

Social construct theories

Kurt Lewin, of the University of Michigan, argued that contrary to the Yale Attitude Change Theory persuasion occurs, not simply by receiving a persuasive message, but by depending on others for knowledge about the world and even about himself. He called this “Group Dynamics Theory.”

Bem refers to it as “nonconscious ideology” Beliefs and attitudes are taught by a person’s “reference group” of family, friends, and society as a whole.

Another theory argues that “collective socially constructed realities” (gotta academic terms!) such as family, friends, teachers, and peers unconsciously ?and irresistibly” form our values and beliefs.

See > Feel > Do (Imitate)

Bem argues that, despite our claims of individual critical thinking, we are more susceptible to others than we would like to think. Bem writes:

      Nearly every group to which we belong, from our immediate families to our societies as a whole, has an implicit or explicit set of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors which are considered appropriate for its members. Any member of a group who strays from those norms risks isolation and social disapproval; in other words, groups regulate beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors through the use of social reward and punishment.

Others called it “Referential Persuasion” The person is not necessarily by the persuader, but by the reactions of those around them that respect to the persuader. The message is legitimized by peers.

And where do we see “referential persuasion”? Junior High! Fashion, music, what’s “in” and “out” is all determined by our social construct.

And we never outgrow it! Just watch a church board meeting. Board members will look to the church ?boss” for clues on how to react to a proposal.

In a study of a 1954 election in Ann Arbor, Michigan, S. J. Eldersveld and R. W. Dodge studied the effects of three groups on voters.

• One group personally visited voters to discuss the benefits of the proposed legislation.

• One group received four mailings in favor of the legislations.

• And one group was exposed to only broadcast and print media’s support of the legislation.

Of those personally visited, 75 percent voted in favor of the legislation.

Of those receiving the mailings, 45 percent voted in favor.

And of those exposed to only media, 19 percent voted in favor of the legislation.

Which raises the important question? Why am I wasting my time writing books and articles?! And why are you wasting your time at this seminar?

In 1957, E. Katz observed that any effect of the media is a “two-step flow of communication.” Media may influence “opinion leaders,” but “rank and file” are influenced by what the “opinion leaders” say— not what the media says directly.

The Katz model, then is: Media changes Attitude/Behavior of “Opinion Leader” > Opinion Leader changes Attitude/Behavior of Rank and File.

Know > Feel > Do (Influence)

So, that’s why I’m writing a book aimed at the “opinion leaders”—writers and speakers. Our audience may not be the person in the pew, but the person in the pulpit or public office.

Scripture documents how peers and powerful leaders provided a persuasive effect:

      They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-43, 46-477).

      I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me (Paul in 1 Cor. 4:14-16).

Behavorial theories

Bem also explored behavioral or “Pavlovian Conditioning” on our attitudes and beliefs. Remember Pavlov’s dog that associated food with the sound of bell, so when the bell rang, the dog began to salivate—even if there was no food is sight.

Bem quotes a 1958 study by Arthur and Carolyn Starrts on the development of racial prejudice claiming that attitudes toward various nationalities were “learned” through classical conditioning.

Bem also quotes studies that show that what a person believes he or she feels about a certain stimuli, can be manipulated by feedback from peers. In fact, the author argues we don’t know what we’re feeling until someone tells us what we’re feeling!

To prove his point, Bem describes a 1962 experiment by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer. Subjects were injected with adrenalin and then placed in a room with a confederate. When the confederate appeared angry, the test subjects claimed the drug made them feel angry as well. When the confederate appeared euphoric, the test subjects reported the drug made them feel euphoric.

Bem directly challenges “the common assumption that one cannot change the behavior of men until one has changed their ‘hearts and minds’ first.” The author argues that behavior must first be changed for the heart and mind to be changed.

Do > Feel > Know

One could imply this from Romans 12.

      And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask? Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is (Rom. 12:1-2 NLT, italics author’s).

Thus, behavior changes attitudes and beliefs.

Marriage counselors have found this effective For instance, a couple comes in and each says, ?I don’t feel love for him or her.” Studies have show that if each act as if they love the other flowers, notes, hugs, kisses they actually begin to feel love for one another.

Is the behavioral theory why the church has become so ineffective in changing society? According to a George Barna study, so-called “Christians” exhibit virtually no difference from non-Christians in their lifestyles. “Desiring to have a close, personal relationship with God” ranks sixth among the twenty-one life goals tested among “born-again” believers, trailing such desires as “living a comfortable lifestyle.”

Twenty-five percent of non-Christians engage in premarital sex compared to 24 percent for Christians making them statistically identical.

Thirty-seven percent of pastors admit to sexually inappropriate behavior with parishioners.

And, on a somewhat related topic, “born again” church members are more likely to get divorced than non-church members! Some 25 percent of all adults have been divorced, but 29 percent of Baptists and 34 percent of non-denominational church members have divorced. Mainline churches had a similar rate to the general public.

All the preaching on the Ten Commandments seems undercut by the behavioral example in the pulpit and pews.

No one theory is sufficient

Each theory has validity, but it is more likely that we are influenced by all sources from head knowledge to modeling of social behavior.

Bem, writes, “A man’s beliefs and attitudes have their foundation in four human activities: thinking, feeling, behaving, and interacting with others.”

Think of each theory, then, as a tool. Obviously a variety of tools may be necessary to complete home repair project. Hammers work well for pounding nails, but are less effective in driving screws. One would be hard pressed, however, to drive nails with a screwdriver. And, in most cases, one would not use a screwdriver and hammer simultaneously.

In the same way, various cognitive, affective, and behavioral tools may all be needed to complete a persuasive project. This of course, is humbling to the writers who believe their words alone can make a significant change. It underscores the need for divine help in the process of changing hearts and minds.

      ” . . . when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).

      My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

      This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:13-14).

      You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:2-3).

Change is often incremental

Ministers love the story of Saul of Tarsus’ miraculous transformation into the apostle Paul. It’s nearly an instant 0-10 transformation from persecutor of Christians to preacher of Christ!

Unfortunately this Damascus Road experience is not typical. More often it’s Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night (John 3). No immediate decision or change occurs. In fact we find him next, along with other religious leaders, questioning Jesus’ teachings in John 7. It is not until John 19:39—twelve chapters later— that see Nicodemus again, this time helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Christ’s body for burial.

At what point did Nicodemus decide to follow Jesus? Was it a number of steps from 0-3, 3-7, 7-10?

Most people change incrementally—perhaps one or two steps at a time. Jesus seems to imply this as He uses the examples of seeds, vines, and branches for spiritual change and growth. You don’t plant a mustard seed on Tuesday and expect to find a mustard tree on Wednesday. It’s often slow growth.

If our audience is at a 2 spiritually, perhaps we should urge them to move to a 3 or 5. They are probably not ready for 9 or 10. Yes, there are people who dramatically, miraculously leap from 1-10. And 10 should always be the goal. But most people change incrementally.

For example, instead of urging the abolition of abortion, perhaps we should urge abstinence-based sexual education, parental notification laws, and more encouragement to keep babies (and provide the resources necessary for a poor woman to do that).

Let the record show, I’d like to see abortion completely disappear from our world, but I’m practical enough to realize, the change will probably come in baby steps. maybe unborn baby steps

Communicating to change lives is a long, and at times, frustrating process. But don’t become discouraged with a lack of immediate, dramatic results. It took nearly two hundred years to eliminate slavery in the United States, but the faithful, persistent writing and speaking of abolitionists eventually prevailed.

If you’re writing for a godly cause, you too will prevail, but probably not by next Thursday!

In conclusion

1. Have a specific goal
☐ Know > Feel > Do
☐ Know > Feel badly > Do

2. Grab attention with humor; increase comprehension and retention

3. Include testimonies of people influential to target audience
See > Feel > Do

4. Provide an incremental action point
Do > Feel > Know

Copyright © 2006 James N. Watkins

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