Understanding Reflexive Reaction to Speech and the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion

“He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind.” (Meerloo, 1961, p. 28)


To what extent does language shape and guide human behavior? Do the words we use and hear every day, produce automatic, reflexive attitudes which govern the way we interact with our environment and each other? There is an awakening to the idea of media being used as a tool of mass persuasion, pushing people into accepting a totalitarian agenda. There is little doubt, media is organized in a way that shapes beliefs and opinions towards social issues. Conservative and liberal news programs alike, describe society’s problems and potential solutions from the pre-defined political outlooks of Republican or Democrat. The beliefs of individuals within these respective parties reflect the narrative their chosen side is pushing. Controversial, attention-grabbing stories, are often framed from the left-wing view, forcing the right into a defensive posture. People on both sides instinctively stick to the script, which is undoubtedly designed to “condition and mold man’s mind so that its comprehension is confined to a narrow, totalitarian concept of the world” (Meerloo, 1961, pg. 22).

In Rape of the Mind (p. 28) Meerloo discusses Pavlovian conditioning and how it pertains to speech reflexes. He specifically states that coercion through force, which is the traditional means of gaining compliance in totalitarian states, can be replaced with a “new organization of the means of communication.” A predictable pattern of thinking can be created, according to Meerloo (p. 28), through the distribution of ready-made opinions which guide public perceptions. Pavlov found that reactions to speech are as much of a conditioning tool as any external stimulus. This was something he referred to as indirect conditioning or, stimuli of the second-order (Meerloo, 1961, p. 28). Joseph Stalin published a piece in 1950 titled Concerning Marxism in Linguistics, which was published in the International Journal of American Linguistics in 1952, where he discusses human language acting as “adaptive equipment” in response to our environment (Meerloo, 1961, p. 28). Certain tones and sounds, over centuries of evolution, have produced reflexive responses which can be used to predict human reaction to certain, social stimuli (Meerloo, 1961, p. 28).  Stalin himself states that language, opposed to culture-defining what society does or thinks, describes a “how” of thought patterns (Stalin, 1950.) He goes onto suggest that over time, and even through conquest, languages can retain their basic grammatical structure and words while adapting to new laws of development. What he is essentially saying is, and he is looking at this from an evolutionary perspective, speech and our reactions to certain sounds we make, can and have produced reflexive reactions in our behavioral patterns.

Stalin was not the only one who saw the potential of the human language as a mechanism of control. Russian psychologist, Sergej Dobrogaev, has done extensive work in this area, picking up where Pavlov left off (Chown, 2008). Dobrogaev was studying Pavlov’s work in 1918 and realized that human speech itself presents an indication of how the human brain responds to stimulation and, that it was a manifestation of preconditioned responses (Chown, 2008). In other words, human beings have theoretically, been responding to the same words, tones, and sounds the same way for centuries. From their perspective, our reaction to language has evolved into automatic reflexive responses which they have taken to calling, reflexive theory. Automatic responses to language are created through what Dobrogaev refers to as acoustic characteristics. Language, as a product of the social environment, creates a neurological pathway in the brain in the cranial zones where the processing of information takes place (Chown, 2008).

“The more frequently a particular acoustic combination is reproduced within a society, the quicker the most essential, socially significant, information on this acoustic sign is processed by a language learner, enabling him or her to recognize the constant elements of the sign in the individual manner of pronunciation of a speaker. Thus, the process of recognition of language elements represented in human speech can be defined as a conditioned reflex, or, as Dobrogaev puts it, a socio-physiological reflex. The existence of a phoneme is therefore largely pre-conditioned by the ability and physiological “readiness” of the members of a society to recognize it as one of the typical elements of their language.” (Chown, 2008, p. 314)

How does any of this apply to today’s mass media approach to presenting information? According to the book Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (p. 155), attitude change through media does not occur because of the information the media presents, but how our reactions to such information is later taken advantage of (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 157). This would imply that there is a certain understanding of our reaction to language, and messaging is deliberately planned to invoke that reaction. It was found that people often distort the information coming in (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 157), and effective attempts at persuading attitudes revolved around overcoming the barriers of people’s initial reactions. When people receive new information, it is often processed in a way that aligns with existing biases, therefore, messaging meant to influence attitude change must be tailored to overcome this reaction. Simply increasing the frequency of the information is not enough. There is also a two-step approach to attitude change which holds that the initial media message is only partially responsible for changing attitudes and opinions, and it is the community leader’s continued pushing of the message that is most effective (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 158).

Like all other studies of human behavior, the study of our reactions to media is broken down into various models. The model most in use today, developed in response to the failures of other models to adequately explain why people do or do not change their opinions, is The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 165). This process places people into two categories. Those who give a thoughtful analysis based on past experiences, and the merits of the information being presented into consideration before changing their position, and those who do not. This is known as taking the central or peripheral route of persuasion (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, pp. 165-168). The peripheral route suggests that attitude change can occur because people’s ability to process the information is low, and all it takes are simple “cues to action” in the messaging to produce the desired effect (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 168).  The central route is just the opposite and requires tweaking of the message. It is necessary, according to Petty, Priester & Brinol (2002, p. 170) to separate the public into those who may have a genuine interest in the message, and those who do not, when it comes to crafting the information meant to influence behavior. The most important element is how the information presented is perceived to have a direct impact on the individual (Petty, Priester & Brinol, 2002, p. 170). Another important element when it comes to effective messaging is the trustworthiness of the source.

Interestingly, Petty, Priester & Brinol (2002, p. 156) acknowledge The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 as being an instrumental event in understanding how mass communications affect people’s behaviors. The book Invasion from Mars: A Study of the Psychology of Panic  (see this PDF) highlights how the trust of those in the broadcast who portrayed media figures played a key role in influencing people’s reactions. It was also found that people who had the wherewithal to check the actual sources of the broadcast were least likely to have been influenced by the broadcast. Both points highlight the relevance of the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion.

“Such rare occurrences provide opportunities for social scientists to study mass behavior. They must be exploited when they come. Although the social scientist, unfortunately, cannot usually predict such situations and have his tools of investigation ready to analyze the phenomenon while it is still on the wing, he can begin his work before the effects of the crisis are over and memories are blurred. The situation created by the broadcast was one which shows us how the common man reacts in a time of stress and strain. It gives us insights into his intelligence, his anxieties, and his needs, which we could never get by tests or strictly experimental studies. The panic situation we have investigated had all the flavor of everyday life and, at the same time, provided a semi-experimental condition for research. In spite of the unique conditions giving rise to this particular panic, the writer has attempted to indicate throughout the study the pattern of the circumstances which, from a psychological point of view, might make this the prototype of any panic.” (Cantril, War of the Worlds, 1952)

There is a high likelihood, based on the information presented in this article, that media messages are based not only on what they know about human behavior but how that behavior is shaped by our response to language. Stalin and Dobrogaev both believed that the sounds and tones associated with language have created evolutionary, reflexive reactions in our behavioral patterns. Is this something that is well known among those that craft information in a way to gain our compliance with certain agendas, such as mandatory masking, vaccines, or even gun control? It is certainly possible. Social scientists have found however that gaining that compliance is not always as easy as crafting an effective message. Understanding our reactions to such messages, and how to craft them in a way that aligns with our pre-existing beliefs and attitudes is essential. This revelation gave birth to the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. This is the model most likely used in gaining compliance with coronavirus mandates as both sides of the media, left and right, are pushing the narrative while ignoring the obvious contradictions and controversies. If certain tones and words are believed to influence certain behaviors, we must understand this knowledge is certainly being employed against us to manipulate our perceptions and guide our thoughts and beliefs.


Cantril, H. (1952) The Invasion from Mars: A study on the Psychology of Panic. Princeton University Press.

Chown, K. (2008) Reflex theory in a linguistic context: Sergej M. Dobrogaev on the social nature of speech production. Stud East Eur Thought 60, 307–319.

Meerloo, J, A, M. Rape of the Mind. (1961) Martino Fine Books. Rape of The Mind: Joost Meerloo: Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming: Internet Archive

Petty, E, P., Driester, R, J. & Brinol, P. Mass Media Attitude Change: Implications of the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. From Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (2002) Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Taylor, D. (1952) Concerning Marxism in Linguistics. International Journal of American Linguistics, 18(4), pp. 273-275


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