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How will the speaker be perceived by the audience? On what basis will they form their judgments? In Chapter 2 we examined some principles of person perception and talked about the basis on which we form our first impressions of others. In Chapter 3 we examined some of the bases for our most permanent attraction to other people. We also discussed trust as it affects communication, particularly informal transactions between people. We spoke of trust as facilitating human relationships. We shall speak in the present chapter about another aspect of trust— usually referred to as source credibility—as it relates to the public communication experience.

Source Credibility

I can say categorically that this investigation indicates that no one on the White House staff, no one in this administration, presently employed, was involved in this very bizarre incident. What really hurts in matters of this sort is not the fact that they occur, because overzealous people in campaigns do things that are wrong. What really hurts is if you try to cover it up. (Richard M. Nixon in an August 29,1972, press conference, referring to the Watergate break-in)

During the administrations of recent presidents the American public has become painfully aware of the term "credibility gap." In its broadest sense, cred­ibility refers to our willingness to believe what a person says and does. It is undoubtedly the most important influence on our judgment of a speaker. One writer describes credibility as the attitude a listener holds toward a speaker (McCroskey, 1978). Thus, credibility is in the mind of the listener.

Dimensions of Credibility

Credibility is not a new concept. In the fourth century b.c. Aristotle used the term "ethos" to refer to the personal characteristics of a speaker that influence the audience. A person with high ethos was thought to possess a high level of competence, good character, and goodwill toward his or her listeners. Aristotle believed that these qualities helped a speaker gain audience acceptance of his or her message.

Writing from the perspective of twentieth-century social psychology, Hovland et al. (1953) identified two components of ethos as expertness and trustworthiness. The two are roughly equivalent to Aristotle's components (if you combine his concepts of good character and goodwill).

During this century considerable research has been conducted on the subject of source credibility. Notice our use of the word "source." Although a speaker is usually perceived as the source of his or her message, this is not always the case. When a United Nations delegate addresses the General Assembly, she may not be considered the source of her message. Similarly, when an executive of a large oil company discusses Middle Eastern affairs, he may be seen not as the originator of his message but simply as a spokesperson for the firm. In most instances, however, the source of the message will be viewed as the speaker.

Credibility is not a constant. Each person's perception of a source varies. Moreover, the credibility of any source varies from topic to topic (for example, Martina Navratilova would be more persuasive talking about tennis than football). Credibility may also vary from one situation to another (for example, a teacher may be a high-credibility source in a classroom, but a low-credibility source on the witness stand in a courtroom). Nonetheless, for some time researchers have attempted to determine whether there are in fact elements of credibility that do not vary. The results of a series of such studies are summarized by McCroskey (1966), who finds essentially two dimensions of ethos: authoritativeness and character. Authoritativeness, or expertise, refers to the speaker's perceived com­mand of a given subject—how intelligent, informed, competent, and prestigious we think the speaker is. Character, a vaguer but no less important dimension, refers to the speaker's perceived intentions and trustworthiness—how objective, reliable, well-motivated, and likable the speaker seems to be.

Both elements enter into our judgments of credibility. If a physician who also holds a doctorate in chemistry argues that preservatives in baby food have no adverse effects, most audiences will regard her as a high-credibility source. If it is then disclosed that she is a consultant to one of the largest producers of baby food in this country, her credibility may suffer a sharp decline. While the audience may not question her expertise, it will question her motives as well as her ability to be objective about a position from which she stands to gain. In one study, a convicted criminal produced no attitude change in his audience in arguing for greater personal freedom and less police power, but significant attitude change when he argued for greater police power. By supporting a position that seemed to be against his own interests, he increased his credibility considerably (Walster et al, 1966).

Many writers on public speaking believe that a third dimension of ethos is dynamism—that is, how forceful, active, and intense the speaker seems to be. It is proposed that other things being equal, the speaker who is self-assured and conveys a message with liveliness and vigor should be perceived as having higher credibility than a more reserved, passive, and slow-moving speaker. On the other hand, if the motivations of the more dynamic speaker are questionable (for example, the convicted criminal arguing for greater freedom and less police power) or the speaker's authoritativeness is in doubt, we would not expect him or her to be perceived as a high-credibility source. And if the presentation is too aggressive and vigorous, receivers may suspect that the motivation is self-interest and may doubt the speaker's capacity to be objective.

Riggio et. al. (1987) state that expressive, articulate, ... or tactful persons may be more successful in situations involving self-presentation or persuasiveness simply because they are generally perceived as more credible than individuals who lack these basic communication skills, (p. 568)

The importance of dynamism in shaping judgments about credibility seems to vary with the individual receiver. Some audience members are much impressed by a bold, assertive speaker, yet for others dynamism plays little part in perceptions of source credibility. Perhaps this variation explains why in research on credibility, dynamism is a less stable factor than either authoritativeness or character.

Information on sex differences and the effects on credibility are summarized by Pearson (1985). She indicates that men and Anglo-Saxons (perceived to have high status) are considered more effective than women, Mexican-Americans, and blacks (who are perceived to have low status). When sex differences exist (and there is a growing body of research that fails to find differences), male sources are perceived as more competent, and female sources are perceived as higher in trustworthiness.

Hart et al. (1975) offer the following suggestions: To enhance perceptions of competency, associate yourself with other high-credibility sources, use self-references to demonstrate familiarity with the topic, use the special vocabulary of the topic, and be well organized. To enhance perceptions of trustworthiness, entertain alternate points of view, make sure verbal and nonverbal behaviors are congruent, demonstrate how the listener's benefit is considered, and indicate your similarity with audience members. To enhance perceptions of dynamism, control delivery variables (e.g., few nonfluencies), use intense language, and use somewhat opinionated language so as not to appear wishy-washy.

To sum up, source credibility refers to the receiver's perception of the speaker's authoritativeness on a given topic, his or her character, and, to a lesser degree, dynamism.

Throughout our discussion of credibility let us remember the word "percep­tion." Credibility has to do not with what the speaker is but with what the receiver perceives him or her to be. Regardless of demonstrated expertise or good character, no speaker has high credibility for every audience. The vice-president of an airline may be a high-credibility source when addressing employees but not when speaking before the Federal Aviation Administration. In lecturing on the influence of mass communication on voting patterns, a sociologist from the University of Chicago may be a high-credibility source to his students; to his colleagues, how­ever, his credibility may be considerably less.

Because it is linked to perception, a speaker's credibility varies not only from one audience to another but from one point to another during the speech. Time, then, is a variable not only in two-person and small-group communication but in public communication, where the speaker is perceived in terms of his or her extrinsic, intrinsic, and ultimately total credibility.

Spitzberg and Cupach (1984) have summarized the findings of numerous studies of perceived speaker effectiveness. They conclude that there appear to be several characteristics that are generalizable: (1) communicators who are adaptable are perceived as effective (i.e., they can adapt to the situation and audience by creating a suitable and responsive message, a message which is clear, devoid of offensive language, and just seems "right"), (2) communicators who have high credibility are perceived as effective (i.e., the speaker is perceived as similar to the audience, competent, sociable, dynamic, and trustworthy), (3) communicators who are adept at listening are perceived as effective communicators, and (4) communicators who appear committed to the listener, her or his message, and speaker/listener mutual benefit, are perceived as effective.

The scales in Table 10.1 have been developed for measuring a listener's evaluation of any speaker. Scales numbered 1,2, and 3 measure authoritativeness; 4, 5, and 6 measure character; and 7, 8, and 9 measure dynamism. The closer the rating to the left end of the scale, the higher the perceived credibility.

Date: 2015-02-16; view: 1000

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