Information and Persuasion

In “Information and Persuasion: Rivals or Partners” by Katherine McCoy (2000), McCoy questions the conventional view of persuasion as a strategy distinct from simply presenting information in the context of communications design. She suggests that persuasion, rather than a less noble alternative to presenting information, is just one of two “modes of communication that overlap and interact” and that “almost any communications design uses persuasion.”

I agree with McCoy’s suggestion that there is not a clear cut distinction between persuasion and information presentation; however, I do not agree with the definition she uses to arrive there. According to McCoy, “a basic definition of persuasion is an attempt to shape or change a user’s behavior or attitude.” Miriam Webster’s dictionary definition, however — which aligns more with my own familiar understanding — is “the act or process or an instance of persuading,” which itself is defined as “to move by argument, … to a belief, position, or course of action.” (2020). This may seem semantic, but in fact this is fundamental: McCoy’s definition refers to intention, whereas this latter definition refers to outcome. The outcome here is that the recipient is indeed moved to a new belief, position, or action. Though intention and outcome are often aligned, they are frequently not — as in her own example, in which a rushing driver only briefly slows before continuing through a stop sign.

More relevantly, however, this outcome-based definition of persuasion implies that if a communication design succeeds in capturing the attention and time of at least one user, this actually entails some form of persuasion. The design, by definition, has persuaded the user to engage, process, and thus be somehow influenced to respond — even if it is by choosing not to follow through with the prescribed action. The user may even choose to rebel against the suggestion of the stop sign by speeding up. Either way, the stop sign has at the very least persuaded them to engage and has impacted their thoughts and beliefs to some degree, even if not their immediate behavior in the manner desired. Thus, I assert that all designs that communicate are designs that persuade, in one form or another.

One observation of McCoy’s that I found interesting is that of the negative, distasteful associations of the term persuade relative to the term inform. I agree that these connotations are not universally deserved. As she notes, often persuasion can be useful and enriching, as when it helpfully guides a user to navigate seamlessly through a website interface. And, conversely, sometimes what may be viewed as more rote presentation of information can be less than useful; for example, if an airport timetable were to include heaps of distracting information about air pressure, wind speed, and more that overwhelmed a poor traveler looking for his departure time.

The negative connotation of persuasion likely stems from a particular subset of persuasion that I will call exploitative persuasion. This describes a design that influences a user in such a way as to benefit some third party at the user’s expense. For example, an advertisement may well cause the user to make an unwise purchase, or to have their time wasted, or to deceive them into a dysfunctional belief that guides them to act against their own best interests. Exploitative persuasion, in fact, is very much distinct from other types of more benign or enriching persuasion. And this practice may well feature within more general cultures, cultures quite different from those seeking to benefit their audiences.

In sum, I agree with McCoy that there is no clear boundary between information presentation and persuasion; in fact, one is a necessary aspect of the other. I believe, however, that there are fundamental distinctions between competing cultures of design — just different from those she considers.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store