Exemplar Study: Can Using Obscenities Make You More Persuasive? (Multigroup Design)

This multigroup experiment examined the use of an obscenity on the
persuasiveness of a pro-attitudinal message and on perceptions of the
communicator. Participants watched one of three versions of a video in
which the speaker advocated lowering tuition at another university. In the
first version, the speaker used the word “damn” at the beginning of the
message. In the second version, “damn” appeared at the end of the message.
In the control condition, the speaker did not use the word “damn.” The use of
the obscenity, regardless of position, made the message more effective.
Swearing, however, did not impact the speaker’s perceived credibility.

Scherer, C. R., & Sagarin, B. J. (2006). Indecent influence: The positive effects of obscenity on persuasion. Social Influence, 1, 138-146. doi:10.1080/15534510600747597

Discussion Starters:
• What are the design elements (IV, DV) and operational definitions?
• What are the potential confounds?
• What are the strengths and weaknesses of the study design?
• Why did the researchers use a mild obscenity to manipulate the variable of interest? Why didn’t the researchers use a more severe
obscenity to test their hypotheses? Would using a more severe obscenity raise ethical concerns in this study? Why or why not?
• This study found that the use of a mild obscenity affected the persuasiveness of the message, but not the perceived credibility of the
speaker. Would the results be similar if the speaker had indiscriminately used obscenity throughout the persuasive attempt? Why?
• In this study, a male speaker delivered the message. Would these findings generalize to a situation where the speaker was female? Why or why not?
• In the current study, the researchers found that obscenity could positively impact the persuasiveness of a videotaped speech. How might the results differ if participants read the speech rather than view a videotape of the speaker delivering the speech?

In-class Activities:
• Originally the researchers intended to have four conditions: obscenity used at the beginning of the message, obscenity used in the middle of the message, obscenity used at the end of the message, and no obscenity used in the message. However, as they explained in a footnote, the researchers omitted the condition where the obscenity appeared in the middle of the message because they realized it was not clear what this obscenity represented. That is, did the obscenity reflect the speaker’s opinion of the focus of the message (e.g., “damn school”) or his intensity or credibility? The researchers concluded that the problem represented a potential confound and consequently dropped this condition from the study. Have students try to redesign the study to eliminate the potentially confounding factor and allow them to test whether the use of swearing in the middle of the message can influence the audience.
• Have the class suggest other ways that a person may use language to enhance either the speaker’s credibility or the persuasiveness of a message. Based on these suggestions, have the class design a study to test the efficacy of these suggestions.
o Suggestions in case students get stuck: the influence of obscenities on teaching evaluations or on evaluation of political candidates.

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