Carl Hovland: Biography and Study on Persuasive Communication

Carl Hovlan strongly believed that, if the media could change opinions and attitudes in the audience, they could be considered an effective tool in social matters as serious as prejudices or stereotypes.

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The man who concerns us today, Carl Hovland, is a brilliant experimental psychologist who did not belong to any particular psychological approach, but his research laid the foundations for numerous social, experimental and cognitive psychological models. Carl Hovland has been one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

His professional career was dedicated to research in the field of persuasion, group dynamics, communication and thinking. All his academic life was spent at Yale University. He also cooperated in very important research work for the United States Army and the Rockefeller Foundation.

He was the founding father of the famous school or group of Yale and carried out the first investigations on persuasion and persuasive communication. The results of their research are known as the Hovland-Yale model.

It was during World War II when Carl Hovland, while working for the Department of Defense of the United States, developed his studies on the motivation and attitude change of the soldiers.

His life

He was born in Chicago in 1912. It seems that young Hovland was an intelligent and introverted child who had trouble socializing with his classmates. However, his teachers described him as a bright and shy student, who lived in his dream world and found it difficult to relate to the group.

He studied Mathematics, Biology, Physics and Experimental Psychology at Northwestern University. Subsequently, he completed his postgraduate studies at Yale University. There he had the opportunity to be influenced by many important psychologists of the moment, such as Clark L. Hull, who was his mentor and with whom he would work for several years.

During his postgraduate course, he published six academic articles. Finished his studies, he remained as a professor at Yale for the rest of his professional career. Around his work, the research group known as the Yale group was created.

He married in 1938 and formed a family. World War II interrupted its investigations in Yale and was summoned by the Department of Defense in which it continued its studies on the effectiveness of the propaganda and the films of training to soldiers.

The objective of this propaganda seemed to be to raise the morale of the soldiers who were fighting against the Japanese troops, in a campaign that was being painful and negatively affected the morale of the troops.

After the war, he returned to Yale, where he was appointed chairman of the department of psychology and, at 39, was elected president of the American Psychological Association, APA. After a dramatic family episode starring his wife, who fell seriously ill and suffered a fatal accident, Carl Hovland also died prematurely as a result of cancer at the age of 49 years.

The investigations of Carl Hovland

During the time he worked with Clark L. Hull, both researchers designed a series of studies with the purpose of evaluating memory learning and the integration of the language of psychology with mathematical equations. Later, and without Hull, Hovland became interested in other aspects of the human condition such as communication.

As we have advanced, during World War II, he was recruited by the army to supervise military motivational training programs. These studies investigated in depth the resistance to change of opinion and developed methods to overcome it.

The results were diverse, but it should be noted that Hovland and his team managed to refute Nazi propaganda theory about the effectiveness of the unilateral presentation of information. This theory held that a successful persuasive communication should present only one aspect of an argument. But the investigations of Carl Hovland managed to contradict it.

After the war and back at Yale, his research branched into various areas of social communication. In collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, he organized a research program on the change of attitude through the presentation of information.

His legacy

As a result of this project, Hovland extended its studies to the fields of problem solving, communication, change of opinion and social judgments. In this sense, their contributions are considered as the greatest individual contribution to the field of social communication that nobody had done until that moment.

Carl Hovland studied all the elements that intervene in the communication process and his investigations focused on the influence of all its variables. He identified the different phases in effective communication focused on attitude change: exposure to the message, attention, understanding, acceptance and retention.

He also deepened in the different circumstances of the message scenario such as the credibility of the sender, the nature of the message and the disposition of the receiver. In 1953, he published a volume of work on mass communication, entitled Communication and persuasion, in which he considers his main conclusions and analyzes about persuasion processes.

Carl Hovland revolutionized the studies related to communication and persuasion. His research remains of interest and marked a new direction in subsequent studies.