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The Psychology of Persuasion (1920)

London: Methuen, pp. 70–74, 135–55 [with elisions].

Published onApr 21, 2024
The Psychology of Persuasion (1920)


Editor’s Introduction

Patrick Parsons

Unlike the scholarly Fenton, William Macpherson (see note) was writing for a popular audience. He was “an assistant master of method” at London Day Training College, University of London, in the 1920s and 1930s, teaching classes in literature and the arts, but applying a psychological filter to his subjects. He is interesting here for his early examination of cinema and advertising as vehicles for persuasion.

In fact, and in contrast to most of the literature of the time, his term of preference for the process of attitude formation and modification was “persuasion,” foreshadowing the change in nomenclature brought about in the 1940s. At the same time, he also used “suggestion,” and in the following excerpt, reviews the literature on both, sometimes combining the terms, and arguably even conflating them. For Macpherson, both are non-rational and emotional phenomena, but “suggestibility,” “the capacity that we all possess of accepting beliefs without any rational demonstration of their truth,” is the core mechanism in the process of persuasion.

Along with others noted previously, he also foreshadows the cognitive selectivity process and confirmation bias of contemporary social psychology. “The starting-point,” he states, “of all persuasion, of ourselves or others, is a belief or wish. Holding a certain belief; or desiring that a certain course of action shall be pursued, we set out to justify our belief and the conduct that it implies.”

In the second half of the excerpt, Macpherson moves to a detailed discussion of “the persuasion of the cinematograph.” Movies were a relatively new form of the popular arts at the time; talking pictures weren’t introduced until the late 1920s. Macpherson examines the use of cinema as a propaganda tool in World War I and then considers the unique characteristics of the medium, such as its ability to collapse time and space through editing, which enhance its manipulative capabilities.

He puts a similar lens on advertising and “publicity campaigns,” again using wartime experiences as examples and “demonstrating conclusively” the efficacy of advertisement as a means of persuasion.


No additional biographical information is available.

The Psychology of Persuasion (1920)

William Macpherson

London: Methuen, pp. 70–74, 135–55 [with elisions].


MAN has been described as a reasoning animal; and every one likes to think that the description is applicable to himself. The instinctive and impulsive side of our nature, as contrasted with the rational, has been apt to be ignored both by the man in the street and by the writer on psychology: it has been considered, perhaps, to be not quite respectable. In recent years, however, writers on psychology have come to recognise fully the important part that impulse and emotion play in human life. As a matter of fact, men do not, usually, act rationally in the sense that they first carefully calculate the means that will enable them to realise their end, and only then act; and, whether they calculate thus or not, the fundamental source of their actions is always some instinct or emotion that they seek to satisfy. To say this is to say nothing derogatory to human nature; indeed, as we all know, to act on impulse is often much more respectable than to act from calculation. If much of the wrong-doing of the world may be attributed to the uncontrolled working of selfish impulses, it should also be remembered that impulse is the source of art and science, and of many of the best things in life.

Impulse is one of the non-rational elements in our nature, but this does not imply that it is necessarily irrational, or that it works against reason. In this chapter an attempt will be made to show that the process of persuasion is, fundamentally, a non-rational process, dominated much more by the emotional and impulsive part of our nature than by the rational. But this circumstance, while it accounts, partially, for the extreme ease with which we are able to delude ourselves and others, must not be regarded as in itself a condemnation of the process, or as implying that it is, of necessity, irrational.

The starting-point of all persuasion, of ourselves or others, is a belief or wish. Holding a certain belief; or desiring that a certain course of action shall be pursued, we set out to justify our belief and the conduct that it implies. Thus, before he begins to speak, the orator whose aim is persuasion has already present in his mind a belief or wish, fully formed, from which all his arguments and appeals flow; and the effectiveness of his persuasion will be proportionate to the clearness and fulness with which the belief has been defined, and the degree of conviction with which it is held. When we persuade ourselves, also, it is no less true that the belief or wish we seek to confirm is given before­ hand. In this respect persuasion differs from the process of rational logic.

When we employ the process of rational logic our object is either to discover or to demonstrate. We may desire, for instance, to discover the conditions under which a candle will burn, and this we may do by a process of induction from a series of experiments. The mere fact that here we are seeking to discover a true conclusion indicates that it is not given beforehand! Again, when logical demonstration is our aim, a proposition is advanced hypothetically, no pre-supposition being made as to its truth or falsity, and the whole course of the reasoning is directed to furnish proofs of its inherent validity. The methods of logical discovery and demonstration are most successful when they are applied to natural phenomena on which we can experiment, but they are also applicable to human affairs: men do reason logically and disinterestedly about human conduct (especially other people’s conduct), discriminate between alternatives, and refuse to assent to beliefs the implications of which they have not investigated. The method of persuasion, however, is much more common. In it we start from a belief or wish that is given beforehand: instead of following, the belief precedes the process. Superficially, indeed, the logic of persuasion may resemble, or simulate, a logical demonstration, but in reality, starting not from a hypothesis but from a belief already fully formed and accepted, and destined to dominate it through­ out, it is quite different.

Our effective beliefs regarding human life and conduct are determined not by reasoning but by many unconscious and frequently irrational factors. We believe because we wish to believe, so that we may satisfy our instincts and emotions and sentiments, because our environment and education have made certain beliefs seem necessary, because our fathers have believed before us, or because it is convenient and expedient to think as our neigh­bours do. In self-persuasion the belief from which the process starts is often held by us quite unconsciously, having its origin in many remote factors, and the process itself may be to a large extent unconscious. In the persuasion of others we begin with a conscious belief, and the subsequent process is a conscious, deliberate, and more or less systematic attempt to impress our belief on others. But always, alike in the persuasion of ourselves and others, our purpose is to gain approval, our own or that of other people, for beliefs or wishes already formed and accepted by us.

We have used the terms ‘belief’ and ‘wish’ as if they were synonymous. Our beliefs and our wishes, indeed, are inextricably interwoven; or rather, they are not really to be distinguished. The state of mind from which persuasion starts implies an intellectual element, which we may express by the term ‘belief,’ and at the same time a practical element, a reference to conduct and action, which we may express by the term ‘wish’; but in an ultimate analysis those elements are seen to coalesce, the essence of both being that they are latent courses of action by which our environment may be modified. When a politician makes a speech in which he advocates the nationalisation of land, we may indicate the state of mind from which his persuasion starts by the term ‘belief,’ or by the term ‘wish,’ indifferently; he believes, and also wishes, that land should be nationalised; the fundamental character of his belief or wish is that it is a latent course of action. The object of persuasion is to make explicit and definite the course of action implied in the initial belief or wish, and to furnish adequate motives and justification for it. [...]

Our beliefs and wishes, from which the process of persuasion starts, our latent and premeditated courses of action, depend mainly on the emotional elements in our nature. The motive force that impels men to action is always some instinct, tendency, emotion, sentiment, or passion. We accept a belief or wish, and act so that it may be realised, primarily with a view to satisfying some aspect of our emotional nature. [...]

The fundamental character of persuasion, as a process that aims at modifying conduct and inducing action, is that it is an emotional process. In this respect, again, it differs from the process of rational logic, which should have no tincture of emotion, or so little, and of such a character, as, having exercised no diverting influence on the course, of the reasoning and on the conclusion ultimately reached, may be considered negligible.


AT no previous period of the world’s history has the human tendency to associate in groups been so marked as it is at present, and for this reason the influence exercised by group­ ‘pressure on men’s persuasions has never before been so widely and deeply operant. In every aspect of life evidences of the increasing tendency towards group-effort may be observed. [...]

That the loyal co-operation of individuals within a group is calculated to gain the immediate ends in view cannot be doubted. It makes for practical efficiency. Whether its results will be good or evil depends entirely on the nature of the ends sought and the means employed to realise them. Of co-operation as a mighty influence for good more will be said later; in this chapter we shall deal mainly with the evil influence that it frequently exercises in the form of organised group-pressure.

The tendency of man to associate in groups is closely connected with the quality of suggestibility: the capacity that we all possess of accepting beliefs without any rational demonstration of their truth, because they are held, or have been held, by other people. It is man’s innate tendency to suggestibility that makes social life possible. And this quality operates fundamentally, also, in the process of persuasion: in the first place, it dictates to a large extent the beliefs from which the process starts, while those beliefs, with their underlying emotions, may dominate absolutely the course that the process follows; and, in the second place, it is mainly on this quality that the speaker or the writer who aims at persuading others relies to enable him to attain his end. The potency of suggestion varies according to the individual, and women are supposed to be, in general, more suggestible than men; but it holds sway over us all, in every individual, and at all places and times. Its power is, however, most strikingly exhibited when people are gathered in crowds. Then the art of suggestion may be employed with immediate or startling effect, and the orator and the demagogue find their profit therein: men’s natural kinship declares itself, and they are moved, often impulsively and irrationally, to common action. Similarly, the power of suggestion over an individual may be especially strong if he belongs to a particular group having for its aim the promotion of certain interests or supposed interests. In such cases, supported by the opinions of their fellows and by the power behind an organised combination of forces, buoyed by the atmosphere of suggestion that sustains all collective effort, men may easily persuade themselves wrongly: specious arguments, and irrelevant appeals to imagination and emotion, may readily be enlisted in the service of the desired end, any argument, and any appeal, being considered valuable if only it seems likely to promote the realisation of the end. The members of a group are united by the bond of a common object to which great importance is attached, and their loyalty as members is proportionate to the thoroughness with which they identify themselves with it. Under those circumstances, it is obvious that there will be a natural human tendency, greatly augmented by the force of suggestion, to reject as of no value any considerations unfavourable to the interests of the group, and to emphasise unduly, as of great value, all favourable considerations.

It is difficult, or impossible, for the members of a group, who are pledged to afford one another mutual support, to exercise complete independence of judgment, or to resist the opinions of the majority. An individual member who persists in acting contrary to the opinions or mode of action dictated by his group is liable to be ejected therefrom, and so to lose the comfort and support, and the material advantages, conferred by his membership. Thus the professions of medicine and law, which are practically close corporations, have each its own “etiquette,” its system of rules, forming a kind of written or unwritten law which all the members are pledged to obey; and those who choose not to conform to the prescribed code, ceasing to be recognised as members of the profession, may lose their means of livelihood—a serious consequence, tending to induce members, even if they should disagree absolutely with certain of the prescribed usages, to waive their disagreement, and conform.

Suggestibility may play its part here also, and encourage the members of a group to abandon, or refrain from stating, their private beliefs. Suppose for instance, that the activities of a group involve the employment of secret methods of impression, and that the opinions and feelings of some member are wholly opposed to such action: so compelling is the force of suggestion that, meeting his fellow­ members frequently and coming under their influence, he will be apt presently to fall into line with them, and end by approving the plans that originally he had condemned. And in this change of front, even if there might still survive in his mind some feeling of repugnance to the methods employed, he would readily be assisted by the specious reflection that, at any rate, he was acting for the support and protection of his fellow members. As we have noted in the preceding chapter, the belief that “the end justifies the means” often serves to justify unscrupulous conduct, not only in groups, but in individuals: on that ground, for instance, Napoleon’s arbitrary acts have often been defended. We have already examined this principle, and found it to be radically fallacious. It often serves merely as an excuse to enable people to satisfy their desire for power, or their instincts of cruelty and revenge, under a specious appearance of altruism.

Suggestion may work in a group through any of the emotions, and sometimes it works through fear: it may happen that the members of a group are positively afraid to commit any action that might seem antagonistic to the general group-principles. This is especially likely to be the case if secret methods of impression or punishment are employed by the group. Mr. J.M. de Beaufort, in Behind the German Veil, remarks that there is no cause for wonder in the fact that the Germans were afraid of one another, for even before the war they spent £4,000,000 a year on their spy system; and he adds that the employment of secret methods had bred in them a kind of subtle reliance on co-operation, quite opposed to freedom of action and personal courage—the single-handed German would adventure little, but joined (and watched) by his fellows he would dare almost anything.

The persuasions of those who have been caught fast in the machinery of a system are almost of necessity stereotyped, and, in some instances, to attempt to escape from the controlling machinery would be even dangerous. There is evidence that at the beginning of the War many of the German soldiers shrank from committing the cruelties and barbarities enjoined on them by the policy of “frightfulness,” but were constrained to obey, as men inextricably involved in the machinery of a powerful system.

One of the main characteristics of groups is that they are powerful: from that circumstance, partly, they originate. Most individuals, as individuals, possess but small, power to impose their ideas and will on others; but as members of a group they share a common strength. The desire for power is almost universal; and, when once power has been acquired, it is not relinquished willingly. As members of a group, many people who, of themselves, in virtue of their own qualities or capabilities, could never hope to exercise any considerable influence on the opinions and lives of others, are enabled to experience the sense of power, and find it precious—perhaps the more precious in precise proportion.


ANY one who studies the process and elements of persuasion, and the manifold aberrations of which it is capable, cannot but be liable to a kind of cynicism; and, indeed, for that matter, who that looks into his own heart could be other than cynical at times? The process of persuasion, as we have analysed it, is seen to be fundamentally a non-rational process. Its very starting-point derives from the non-rational, the beliefs or wishes from which our persuasions start being accepted by us, not because they have been proved by rational demonstration to be true, but, ultimately, to satisfy some aspect of our instinctive nature. For most of us, the strongest motive to belief is furnished by the herd instinct in one form or another. We tend to accept as true the opinions and beliefs of the herd, or that portion of it with which we are in most intimate contact, and to reject antagonistic beliefs as untrue. The most potent factors in the determination of our beliefs are our primal instincts, race and rationality, education, books, newspapers, and the immediate circle of our neighbours and friends. Further, we are, as a rule, entirely unconscious of those, the real, sources of our beliefs, and flatter ourselves that we believe on exclusively rational grounds. The mental process, also, that follows the initial belief in persuasion may be described as being non-rational, since it is essentially an emotional process. Consisting in a series of judgments the value of which is proportionate to their capacity to reinforce and justify our belief, it follows throughout an emotional bias in the direction of the end proposed: underlying all the judgments that constitute it are instincts, tendencies, emotions, sentiments, or passions that we seek to satisfy. In the course of our persuasions we are apt to accept unquestioningly all ideas that harmonise with and reinforce those emotions, while such as appear to be inconsistent with them we reject.

Described in those terms, the process of persuasion, on first consideration, might easily be regarded with suspicion, as one not likely to lead us to true conclusions or just actions. In any case, the very birthright of an Englishman entitles him to feel afraid of a process that can be described as emotional. In this connection, however, it may be comforting, and it is important, to bear in mind that the non-rational is not necessarily irrational, and that, more often than not, fortunately for us, the non-rational processes of mind work on the side of, and not against, reason. The wisdom of past ages may be none the less wise because it has descended to us from the past; and the beliefs that we accept through suggestion, not from logical demonstration may be just and true. Were this not so, humanity would be in a sad plight indeed. Further, because a process is emotional, it is not therefore irrational: the instincts and tendencies that are most deeply rooted in our being may work on the side of reason, and preserve and develop the life both of individuals and communities. The really irrational method of dealing with a human problem is to neglect any of its essential conditions, among which always, are emotions and sentiments. In the consideration of any question bearing on human life and action, it is the merely logical person, not he who includes within his view the emotions and sentiments inherently involved, whose persuasions are futile. More and more it is coming to be recognised that (in Mr. G. K. Chesterton’s phrase) from reason in itself nothing rational has ever proceeded. Following out this line of thought, Mr. Benjamin Kidd asserts that the cause of all human progress is “psychic emotion.” “The great secret of the coming age of the world,” he says, “is that civilisation rests not on Reason but on Emotion. . . . It is clearly in evidence that the science of creating and transmitting public opinion under the influence of collective motion is about to become the principal science of civilisation, to the mastery of which all governments and all powerful interests will in the future address themselves with every resource at their command. . . . The immature imaginings of the past about the place of reason in the world will all be put aside. . . . Civilisation has its origin, has its existence, and has the cause of its progress, in the emotion of the ideal.”1 [...]

A form of pictorial persuasion which is of special interest at the present time is the persuasion of the cinematograph. During the War several Government Departments employed the moving picture extensively as a means of conveying information and making propaganda: thus both in our own and in allied countries steps were taken to impress on people, by means of the cinema, the true causes of the War, and the nature of German atrocities in the conduct of the War. Again, such films as “Where are my Children?” illustrate the value of the cinematograph as a means for presenting social questions in a striking and dramatic form.

The principal element of persuasion in the representations of the cinema is narration. The film is well adapted to unfold to us vividly a series of actions, events, or incidents: it excites our emotions through the senses and the imagination, depicting imaginary situations or situations that have actually occurred.

The plastic arts generally, it has been already remarked, contain some of the elements, and may be employed as instruments, of persuasion; but the cinema has enlarged the boundaries of pictorial art, and created a fresh form of expression, more fully adapted to realise the purposes of persuasion. Painting and sculpture, employing as signs colours and figures in space, can only express properly objects which are coexistent, or the parts of which coexist—that it to say, bodies. They may represent actions, since all bodies exist not only in space, but also in time, and at each moment of their existence may assume a different appearance; but they can do this only suggestively, through the medium of bodies, and can represent only one particular moment of an action. They cannot represent movement absolutely; they fix a momentary aspect or arrangement of bodies, and give to it a character of permanence—so that Keats can say appropriately of the lover and the maid carved on the Grecian urn “forever wilt thou love and she be fair.” The proper domain of the plastic arts, then, is space; they are strictly limited in regard to the category of time.

The cinematograph, on the other hand, is not so limited: it may depict a series of events the duration of which is supposed to extend through months or years, and, in a single picture, it may represent the successive appearance of a situation, as seen in the varying groupings and attitudes of the actors. It resembles painting in so far as, the signs it employs being figures in space, it is well adapted to represent bodies, and, through them, simultaneous actions; but it transcends painting, and approximates to the art of verbal narration, in that it can represent effectively successive action in time.

In some respects, indeed, the moving picture is even better fitted than narration to exhibit the time-relations of events. For instance, two events significantly related to one another and happening simultaneously may be brought before us with telling effect in almost an instant of time, while in narration lengthy successive explanations would be required to make clear their proper relation. In a propagandist film that has been widely exhibited, “My Four Years in Germany,” one of the pictures having represented a banquet given in honour of the United States ambassador by high political personages in Berlin, who profess the utmost good-will towards America, the next picture shows, in effective contrast, a simultaneous meeting of the German military authorities, at which the real hostility and the secret plans of Germany are made clear. This is a typical instance of the methods of persuasion to which cinematographic representation is well adapted: the sequence of the pictures is intended to produce in the spectator a particular emotion favourable to a particular belief.

The comparative freedom that the cinema possesses in the representation of time-relations is illustrated in another characteristic device, which expresses also the freedom from time-limitations that is characteristic of thought. We all know how, in a given situation at a particular moment, our thoughts may revert to the past or project themselves into the future, and how this retrospection and prevision may affect our persuasions: this faculty of mind the film is naturally fitted to illustrate. When the United States ambassador is informed that he will not be handed his passports until he has given an undertaking that all German ships interned in American ports shall be restored, there passes before his mind’s eye a vision of the dinner-table, adorned with American flags, at which he had recently sat, and he recalls the cordial professions of friendship made by his hosts and fellow-guests-his memories are represented concretely on the film, on which the picture of the banquet again takes visible form, and vanishes, as quickly and silently as it had-passed before the ambassador's mental vision. Or, again, in a similar propagandist film, when the hero, a young American, is invited to undertake a dangerous twelve ‘honest men and true’ the man who seems to you to be the most intelligent, and who appears to take the most interest in the case. Your whole object should now be to capture him. . . . But you must not leave the other eleven gentlemen out in the cold, because if they think you are taking no notice of them, they, decent men as they are, will be hurt and feel slighted at you, a learned limb of the law, giving them no notice.”2 The main object of the salesman, too, is to “capture” his client; and to achieve his purpose he must apply discretion and good judgment, adapting his words and manner to the customers personality. Above all, remembering that the public are only too ready to impute to him exclusively interested motives, he should not be obtrusive: in some customers, such an attitude would at once arouse ‘contrariant’ ideas, hostile forces with which persuasion of every kind frequently has to reckon.

Advertisement is similar to salesmanship in many respects as a form of persuasion. The ordinary trade advertisement seeks, as a rule, to stimulate and reinforce in individuals some generally felt want or need, and it is prompted, primarily, by the desire for gain. As being written, however, and not spoken, advertisements afford less scope for the exercise of the more personal qualities that may appear in salesmanship. On the other hand, they are more completely, if more formally, organised, and may employ as signs pictures as well as words. They embody, in miniature, all the elements, and exemplify many of the principles and methods, of written persuasion generally.

The aim of most advertising is to induce the reader to buy some particular commodity; but in recent years its scope has been greatly enlarged. The “advertising agent” is now dubbed a “publicity expert,” and he is held to be qualified not only to help traders to sell their wares, but to propagate ideas on questions of public and national interest, to assist, for example, a local authority to carry on a campaign against a public abuse or danger, or a political party to persuade the electors, or the State itself to appeal to its individual members. In this country, some of the “publicity campaigns “ that were initiated during the War by Government Departments led to remarkable practical results, demonstrating conclusively the efficacy of advertisement as a means of persuasion.

With a view to illustrating certain characteristics of advertisement generally, the following typical sentences may be quoted from a lengthy advertisement issued by the Ministry of National Service in 1917:—

NATIONAL SERVICE: INDUSTRIAL ARMY: 1917.—Defeat the enemy’s attempt to starve you. . . . Place yourselves—free men and uncompelled—at the disposal of National Service. . . . Britain MUST become as nearly self-supporting as possible. . . . Help to bring a speedy peace by releasing fit men to fight. Enrol to-day. Go NOW­ apply at the nearest Post-Office or National Service Office for Voluntary Service Form—and; sign it NOW.

It has been stated in Chapter I that the process of persuasion always starts from a belief or wish in the speaker’s or writer’s mind. In this instance the writer’s persuasions set out from the belief or wish that as many men as possible should volunteer for national service.

Underlying this belief were certain sentiments and tendencies which the writer sought to arouse also in his readers: the individualistic instinct of self-preservation, threatened by the possible curtailment of food-supplies; the sentiment of patriotism; anger at Germany’s declaration of war on the sea-traffic of the world; moral indignation at her disregard of law and humanity; and fear of the consequences. Those emotional tendencies formed the motive-power and directing force of all the writer’s persuasions, and he sought to induce them in his readers, as being fitted to lead to the desired action.

A more intellectual element also appears: the writer supports his case by simple arguments. Men who volunteer, he says, will be fulfilling a patriotic duty, since they will be helping to avert starvation and defeat the enemy; and their action will also assist in bringing peace more quickly.

In the formal expression of the advertisement the most conspicuous features are the simple, direct, and striking style of presentation, the use of bold type to emphasise the need for immediate action, the repetition of such suggestive words as “the Enemy,” and the frequent employment of urgent and imperative phrases—“defeat the Enemy’s attempt to starve you,” “Britain must become self-supporting,” “Place yourselves at the disposal of National Service,” “Help to bring a speedy peace,” “Enroll to-day.” “Sign now.” This use of the direct and imperative form of address is in accordance with the principle noted above, that in all effective persuasion a definitely personal note must be struck: the appeal must be driven home to each of the individuals addressed. In any form of national propaganda this principle is specially important, for, while we all acknowledge certain social or national duties that are incumbent on us, our acknowledgment of them is often merely passive and implicit: the publicist’s function, then, in making national propaganda, is to transmute the vague and general recognition of duty to the State into a particular purpose tending to definite and individual action—he must lead each of his readers to perceive a direct relationship between himself and the obligation predicated.

Ordinary trade advertisements illustrate the same principles and methods. They appeal, however, mainly to individualistic instincts and tendencies, and their essential aim is the gain of the advertiser. Here again the imperative is frequently the mood; and as the appeal made is often to primitive tendencies, such as the need of food and drink, or the desire for health and enjoyment, little is required in the way of argument to enforce it. But particular instances of the beneficial results produced by the wares advertised, or testimonies of approval, are often cited. The most common form of “argument” in advertisement is merely strong assertion, which by frequent repetition exercises in itself a suggestive and persuasive power. [...]

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