Routes Of Persuasion: The Elaboration Likelihood Model

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated December 11, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The art and science of persuasion, a key aspect of social influence, has been studied by humanity for thousands of years, beginning with the birth of rhetoric shortly after the dawn of democracy around the 5th century B.C. Rhetoric refers to speech or writing that contains skillfully-crafted arguments designed to convince or persuade people of a specific point or position. The skills of rhetoric have been taught consistently in academic settings since the days of Plato, Socrates, and other early philosophers.

In social psychology, a popular model for understanding persuasion is the elaboration likelihood model, which describes two main routes for changing attitudes: the central route to persuasion and peripheral routes. The central route persuasion involves logic-driven arguments and requires the audience to be paying attention to the message presented, while peripheral routes rely on positive emotions or positive characteristics of the speaker.

Below we'll discuss the basics of these two routes for persuasion, including how they are used and why they can be effective.

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Modern philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, and communication experts continue to investigate exactly how the average person is persuaded. Several theories were proposed throughout the 20th century. One idea, the elaboration likelihood model (ELM), began a rise to prominence in the 1980s. The ELM rose in popularity over the next few decades, and today it is the most widely-accepted theory of persuasion.

What Is Persuasion Theory?

In psychology, persuasion refers to a process through which the communications of others influence a person's attitudes and behaviors without threats or coercion. In everyday conversation, someone might say that a threat “persuades” someone to change their behavior, but the persuasion definition here refers solely to changing attitudes and people's attitudes without force or fear.

Humanity began formally defining the rules of persuasion with the birth of rhetoric. However, rhetoric only describes effective methods for presenting, framing, and supporting a logical argument. Some of the most effective persuasive techniques are based on traditional rhetorical principles, but the study of rhetoric does not concern itself with the underlying psychological and sociological factors of persuasion. The analysis of those factors began in the mid-1940s with the work of Carl Hovland, a psychologist who pioneered the study of how to convince people and modify their attitudes and beliefs through persuasive communication.

Hovland's work laid the foundation for understanding various attitude change approaches, including the direct route and indirect route of persuasion. His research, along with subsequent laboratory findings, helped psychologists recognize that persuasion might require much effort and strategic communication to achieve desired persuasion results and influence others effectively, whether it's about a product's quality or a more abstract idea.

The Elaboration Likelihood Model

First introduced in 1980, the elaboration likelihood model (ELM) is a dual-process model that attempts to describe how a person can be persuaded to change their attitudes or behaviors. The ELM identifies two primary routes of persuasion, central and peripheral, and offers a theoretical framework for determining when a person might use each route.

A Note On "Elaboration"

In the ELM, "elaboration" refers to cognitive elaboration, which is the process of critically thinking through a problem to reach a conclusion. Elaboration exists along a spectrum, and several factors can influence how deeply a person considers the facts of a given situation. The ELM proposes that the central factor of persuasion is how much time and mental energy a person can give to considering the argument presented to them.

The name "elaboration likelihood model" may be a bit more intuitive once a person understands what elaboration means in this context. Basically, the ELM aims to define how likely a person is to consciously and deliberately consider a persuasive argument.

The Routes Of Information Processing

The ELM defines two routes of persuasion based on the amount of elaboration required. The central route is the "high elaboration" route, and the peripheral route is the "low elaboration" route.

Central Route

While using the central route persuation, individuals consider the points of a persuasive argument and carefully determine if the idea makes sense and if it will benefit them in some way. The central route is mainly concerned with the argument's strength. If the points are weak, the person is unlikely to be persuaded and may even be pushed in the opposite direction than the persuader intended. The person will likely change their attitudes or behaviors if the facts are strong.

It is important to note that even if someone is processing information through the central route and deeply considering the information, that does not guarantee they will reach the “correct” conclusion from the perspective of the persuader. Individual biases, pre-existing attitudes, and incorrect interpretations of persuasive arguments can all impact a person's response to a persuasive argument. This highlights the importance of an effective attitude change approach and the use of attractive speakers to help convey messages more convincingly and to better associate positivity with the proposed ideas.

Peripheral Route

The peripheral route relies on more subtle messaging to persuade a person. It relies on "peripheral cues" to attach positivity to an argument. Peripheral cues do not require much cognitive elaboration and sometimes may not need any at all. Cues may be subliminal and go completely unnoticed by the observer. Even though the person didn't notice the peripheral cue, their attitudes or beliefs may still be influenced.

The peripheral route relies heavily on the tendency of humans to be "cognitive misers." Overall, most people seek quick, adequate solutions to problems rather than slow, careful ones. While this tendency may seem to have negative connotations, it is essential to navigating daily life. No person can consider every facet of each argument, problem, or decision that is presented to them.

Information processed through the peripheral route allows a person to use heuristics (mental shortcuts) to make quick, reasonable decisions in a fraction of the time it would take to reach a well-formed conclusion—the peripheral route trades accuracy for speed to avoid a constant cognitive overload.

When Each Route Is Used

The ELM considers two main factors when determining if a person will use the central or peripheral route when considering an argument. The factors, motivation and ability, describe the likelihood that a person will engage in cognitive elaboration. The more the person elaborates, the more they will process the persuasive argument through the central route. It is important to note that both routes can be used to reach a conclusion about a single persuasive argument.

Getty/Luis Alvarez


In the ELM, motivation describes how driven a person is to engage in cognitive elaboration and use the central route of processing. Three factors are generally considered when discussing the motivation for cognitive elaboration.

The first, attitude, considers what the person already knows about the information presented in a persuasive argument. The ELM relies heavily on cognitive dissonance theory to draw conclusions about how pre-existing attitudes will influence persuasion. Cognitive dissonance theory is well-supported and describes the tendency of most humans to reject new information that conflicts with presently-held beliefs. A person who has strong pre-existing attitudes against the points of a persuasive argument is less likely to be motivated to consider those points deeply.

The second feature of motivation described by the ELM is the personal relevancy of a specific argument. The average person is more likely to be motivated to consider an argument if they feel that argument is relevant to them. Basically, if a person is personally affected by the points of the persuasive argument, they are more willing to consider them in deeper detail.

The third feature of motivation frequently discussed in the ELM is a person's individual need for cognition. Those who enjoy thinking deeply and regularly process information through the central route are more likely to consider the message and points of a persuasive argument. Conversely, those who prefer to avoid deep thinking are less likely to be motivated to evaluate an argument.


In the ELM, ability refers to the availability of cognitive resources necessary to process information through the central route. The amount of brainpower available at any time is finite, and processing information deeply requires both time and effort. A person forced to make a decision or consider an argument quickly does not have the same cognitive resources available as someone with unlimited time to consider a persuasive message.

In addition to time constraints, things like loud noises, interruptions, or "cognitive busyness" (having other things to think about that are more important) can reduce the cognitive resources available. If a person's cognitive resources are low, they are less likely to process information through the central route and more likely to rely on heuristics.

Persuasion In Practice

Persuasion techniques based on the ELM appear almost everywhere. Just a few examples include marketing, advertising, management, and politics. There is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation, and a person educated in the ELM and persuasive techniques can better recognize when persuasive techniques become malicious or maladaptive.

It may be tempting to rely entirely on the central processing route to avoid subconscious influence from peripheral cues. In practice, however, it is only possible to rely partially on central processing. For big, important decisions, it is vital to take a step back, assess the problem consciously, and reach a logical conclusion through central processing.

How Can Online Therapy Help?

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Meeting with a therapist online can help you understand and rely on the central route of processing. A therapist can help with motivation for cognitive elaboration and help increase confidence in problem-solving. A therapist can also help you identify and address individuals in your life who are negatively impacting you through persuasion. 

An online therapy session relies on the same well-supported techniques therapists use in office settings, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. These techniques are known to be effective in either setting.


The elaboration likelihood model is a well-developed theory that describes how the average person is persuaded by others. The ELM broadly describes how likely a person is to think deeply and consider the points of persuasive arguments, encompassing the central and peripheral routes of persuasion. Those who are unwilling or unable to think through each point of an argument generally rely more on cognitive shortcuts (heuristics) associated with the peripheral route. In contrast, those who are able to think through an argument generally rely on the argument's strengths and weaknesses, which is characteristic of the central route. This model helps us understand the different processes that lead to attitude changes in individuals when exposed to persuasive communication.

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