Elaboration Likelihood Model

Understanding Persuasion with the Elaboration Likelihood Model

The Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) is a prominent theory in social psychology that explains how attitudes are formed and changed through persuasive communication.¹ Developed by Richard Petty and John Cacioppo in the 1980s, the ELM has become one of the most influential frameworks for understanding the processes underlying effective persuasion.² The model proposes two distinct routes through which persuasion can occur: the central route and the peripheral route.¹ Understanding these routes is crucial for marketers and sales professionals who aim to influence their target audience’s attitudes and behaviors.

What is the ELM?

The ELM is a dual-process theory that describes the different ways in which individuals process persuasive messages.¹ The model suggests that the route to persuasion is determined by the level of elaboration, which refers to the extent to which a person carefully thinks about the arguments contained in a message.²

When elaboration is high, persuasion is likely to occur via the central route. Conversely, when elaboration is low, persuasion tends to occur through the peripheral route.¹

The Central Route

The central route to persuasion involves effortful cognitive activity, where individuals carefully scrutinize the arguments presented in a message.¹ This route is taken when people have both the motivation and the ability to engage in issue-relevant thinking.²

When persuasion occurs via the central route, the resulting attitudes tend to be more stable, enduring, and predictive of future behavior.¹

These attitudes are less susceptible to counter-persuasion and are more likely to guide individuals’ actions.²

The Peripheral Route

The peripheral route to persuasion occurs when individuals lack the motivation or ability to carefully evaluate the message content.¹

Instead of focusing on the quality of the arguments, people rely on simple cues or mental shortcuts, such as the attractiveness or credibility of the message source, to form their attitudes.²

Attitudes formed via the peripheral route are generally less stable and have a weaker influence on behavior compared to those formed through the central route.¹

Factors Influencing the Route of Persuasion

Several key factors determine an individual’s level of elaboration and, consequently, the route through which persuasion occurs. These include:

  • Personal relevance of the message. When a message is perceived as personally relevant, individuals are more motivated to engage in careful processing.¹
  • Need for cognition. People with a high need for cognition tend to enjoy effortful thinking and are more likely to engage in central route processing.²
  • Situational variables. Distractions or message repetition can reduce an individual’s ability or motivation to process information, leading to peripheral route persuasion.¹
  • Nature of arguments. Strong, compelling arguments are more likely to elicit central route processing, while weak arguments may lead to peripheral route persuasion.²
  • Presence of peripheral cues. Salient cues, such as an attractive source, can serve as persuasive shortcuts when elaboration is low.¹

Implications for Sales and Marketing

The ELM has significant implications for sales and marketing professionals. Understanding the factors that influence the route of persuasion allows marketers to design more effective communication strategies.²

For example, when targeting an audience with high motivation and ability to process information, marketers should focus on presenting strong, well-reasoned arguments. In contrast, when targeting an audience with low elaboration likelihood, emphasizing peripheral cues, such as celebrity endorsements or attractive packaging, may be more effective.¹

Similarly, sales professionals can apply ELM principles to tailor their persuasive messages to individual customers. By assessing a customer’s level of involvement and ability to process information, salespeople can adapt their communication style to maximize persuasion.

For highly engaged customers, providing detailed product information and addressing their specific needs may be most effective. For less involved customers, focusing on simple, easily processed cues, such as social proof or scarcity, may be more persuasive.²

Practical Marketing Applications

  • Segment audiences based on their likely elaboration levels and tailor messages accordingly
  • Use strong arguments and detailed information for high-elaboration audiences
  • Employ peripheral cues, such as attractive visuals or celebrity endorsements, for low-elaboration audiences
  • Increase personal relevance by highlighting how a product or service addresses specific customer needs

Practical Sales Applications

  • Assess individual customers’ motivation and ability to process information
  • Provide detailed, logical arguments for customers with high elaboration likelihood
  • Use persuasive shortcuts, such as social proof or authority cues, for customers with low elaboration likelihood
  • Adapt communication style to match the customer’s level of involvement and knowledge

The Key to Successful Persuasion

The key to successful persuasion lies in accurately assessing an individual’s level of elaboration and tailoring persuasive messages accordingly. The Elaboration Likelihood Model helps with that by providing a framework for understanding the processes underlying persuasion.

Now you can use your newfound knowledge of the central and peripheral routes to develop more effective strategies for influencing your target audiences.


¹ Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer, New York, NY.
² Kitchen, P. J., Kerr, G., Schultz, D. E., McColl, R., & Pals, H. (2014). The elaboration likelihood model: review, critique and research agenda. European Journal of Marketing, 48(11/12), 2033-2050.