The Neuroscience of Persuasion: Subjective Valuation in Relation to the Evolution of Human Motivation and Cognition
Persuasion, a powerful form of social influence, can be considered the common theme underpinning most interpersonal, social, economic, and political interactions today. As interested parties continue to pour resources into economic, social, and political industries, the stakes to persuade audiences in their favor increases. Whether it be sellers persuading buyers, politicians persuading voters, or lobbyists persuading politicians, persuasion is the guiding force behind these interactions.
To begin demonstrating the increasing magnitude of the persuasion industry, John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago notes, “advertisers spent more than US$590 billion worldwide in 2015, the 2016 political campaigns expended approximately US$6.6 billion on ads, and international conflicts and ideological wars are being waged on the Internet as well as on the battlefield” (“The Neuroscience of Persuasion”, 2017). The amount spent on persuasive appeals continues to rise as individual parties feel the collective pressure of the persuasion industry. The majority of money spent towards persuasive appeals is done so in an adversarial fashion. That is, parties invested in the persuasion industry are often competing with one another to successfully persuade an audience in their favor (e.g., competing political parties). Economists Stergios Skaperdas, from the University of California, Irvine, and Samarth Vaidya, from Deakin University present the idea of persuasion as a contest, “a game in which players invest in costly effort to win a prize”, the prize being an audience that is persuaded in their favor (“Persuasion as a Contest”, 2007).
Given the magnitude of persuasion within society, decades of research have been dedicated towards understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms involved in persuasive interactions. Traditionally, the literature has been directed towards measuring the influence of external entities presumed to direct attitude and behavior change. However, emerging literature increasingly indicates that attitude and behavior change occurs through an individual’s subjective value of communicated information, in the context of their mental framework. The manner in which humans experience, process, and integrate the information within persuasive messages emerges in relation to their self-identity. Humans instinctively operate through value-based decision-making, where the value of potential outcomes is determined in relation to their ability to fulfill certain fundamental human needs. In this review, we discuss the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms involved in subjective valuation and their significance in the evolution of human motivation and cognition.
Brief Review of the Literature on Attitudes
Although the conceptualization of attitude has been ambiguous in nature, the literature collectively points towards the fundamental process of evaluation. Alice Eagly and Shelly Chaiken, respectively from Northwestern and New York University, define attitudes as, “a psychological tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor” (“The Psychology of Attitudes”, 1993). Similarly, Richard Petty and Pablo BriĖol, scholars from Ohio State University state, “attitudes refer to general evaluations individuals have regarding people (including yourself), places, objects, and issues” (“Attitude Change”, 2010). Icek Ajzen from the University of Massachusetts states, “there is a general agreement that attitude represents a summary evaluation of a psychological object captured in such attribute dimensions as good-bad, harmful-beneficial, pleasant-unpleasant, and likeable-dislikeable” (“Nature and Operation of Attitudes”, 2001). Despite minor differences between definitions, evaluation endures as the underlying core of attitude conceptualization.
Over the span of several decades, there have been countless models theorizing on the social and neurocognitive mechanisms involved in attitude formation. These models provide a framework for comprehending how attitudes are created, and subsequently updated upon the input of new information. The development of these models is representative of the development within the literature of attitude change. That is, these models representatively characterize the literature of their time, with each new model incorporating new developments in the literature on attitude change.
In 1953, Carl Hovland and colleagues from Yale University created the Message Learning Theory, a six-step series, which if completed in its entirety would lead to successful persuasion (“Communication and Persuasion; Psychological Studies of Opinion Change”, 1953). The six steps included: (1) exposure to a persuasive message, (2) conscious attention to message, (3) comprehension of message, (4) acceptance of information conveyed in message, (5) retention of message in memory, and (6) message-congruent action. Hovland argued that if any of the steps were interrupted and left incomplete, a persuasive attempt would be unsuccessful in implementing attitude or behavior change. His theory emphasized the importance of source (i.e. expertise, trustworthiness), message (i.e. strength, frequency of exposure), and recipient (i.e. intelligence, information processing abilities) factors, and their relative effect on any of the six steps. Hovland’s theory was successful in creating a foundation to begin researching persuasion, however, its attempt to simplify persuasion as being independently influenced by single variables led to major inconsistencies.
In response to the inconsistencies displayed by Hovland’s Message Learning Theory, William McGuire from the University of California presented an Information Processing Theory, which in essence, expanded and developed upon Hovland’s six-step series (“Personality and Attitude Change: An Information-Processing Theory”, 1968). McGuire’s Information Processing Theory aimed to predict how any single variable could potentially influence any of the six steps involved in successful persuasion. McGuire proposed three postulates within his systems theory, which he suggested to be fundamental regulators of social influence communication (i.e. persuasion).
His first postulate states that any personality characteristic has the ability to influence any one or more steps of the six-step systems theory. In other words, a personality characteristic, such as intelligence, affects the way an individual will respond within each step of the six-step series. An individual with low intelligence may not successfully complete the third step (i.e. comprehension), and therefore the persuasive attempt becomes inefficacious as result of said personality characteristic. McGuire’s second postulate describes the compensatory principle of persuasion. The compensatory principle outlines the mutually oppositional nature between receiver and yielder of a persuasive interaction. That is, a particular personality characteristic will hold to be positive for one end of the persuasive interaction, and negative for the other end. In the instance of self-esteem, this characteristic suggestively protects receivers from influencibility, therefore holding a positive effect for the receiver and a negative effect for the yielder within a persuasive interaction. Lastly, McGuire’s third postulate highlights the variable effect of personality characteristics on persuasion in response to the communication situation. Depending on the nature of a particular communication situation, different personality characteristics will influence situations differently.
Despite the advancements McGuire’s work provided, research using his Information Processing Theory continued to produce empirical inconsistencies within the literature. Despite their attempts to understand attitude change through the independent influence of source, message, recipient and channel factors, behavioral research continued to suggest that there is no single external determinant of attitude change. This led to Petty and Cacciopo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion, which introduced dual processing routes that are multi-dimensionally influenced through which attitude change could occur.
Richard Petty and John Cacioppo created the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), which outlined two functionally separate cognitive routes in which attitude change could occur (“The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion”, 1986). They suggest that each route is stimulated differently, characteristically creating attitudes with varying implications. According to the ELM, attitude formation occurs through either the peripheral or central route. The peripheral route is triggered in low involvement situations where there is low motivation for idiosyncratic issue relevant thinking. In other words, attitudes created through the peripheral route are generally cue-based, where the generated attitude is not necessarily optimal, but sufficient for the immediate goals. Given their cue-based nature, attitudes created through the peripheral route are situational and susceptible to change easily. Alternatively, the central route is triggered in situations requiring high cognitive involvement where the individual is actively processing and considering various issues relevant to a particular attitude. Because these attitudes require thoughtful consideration, they are generally well articulated and logically supported. Attitudes created through the central route are persistent over time, predictive of behaviors, and resistant to change until challenged by compelling information requiring reconsideration of the attitude. Petty and Cacioppo determined that involvement level (i.e. whether attitudes are generated through the peripheral or central route) is dependent factors such as self-relevance, cognitive abilities to process message, comprehensibility of message, etc.
A similar theory, crafted by Shelly Chaiken from New York University, is the Heuristic-Systematic Model of persuasion, which distinguishes two routes of information processing: heuristic processing and systematic processing (“The Heuristic Model of Persuasion”, 1987). Heuristic processing is comparable to the peripheral route of the ELM, where little cognitive effort is put forth and cognitive presumptions based on prior knowledge are used to create attitudes. To diminish the effort required in judging a persuasive message, heuristic processing relies on rules and norms. This superficial assessment of extrinsic cues results in a simplified valuation from which attitudes emerge. In contrast, systematic processing, like the central route of the ELM, involves careful evaluation of presented arguments and thorough reasoning to create attitudes. Attitudes created through the systematic route are enduring and reflect overarching attitudes that are situationally transcendent.
Diverging from the dual-processing theories presented by the ELM and the HSM, Arie Kruglanski from the University of Maryland and Erik Thompson from Washington University created the Unimodel, proposing that the inputs influencing persuasion are functionally equivalent and go through a single processing route (“Persuasion by a Single Route: A View From the Unimodel”, 1999). According to the ELM and HSM, an individual’s motivation and ability to think determines which route information is processed by. According to the Unimodel, an individual’s subjective valuation of information is not altered by their motivation and ability to think and process information. The Unimodel proposes an integrative theory, where all incoming information is processed through a single route, and a comprehensive persuasive conclusion (i.e. attitude) is formed.
Expanding upon the ideas introduced in the Unimodel, Richard Petty from Ohio State University, Pablo BriĖol from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, and Kenneth DeMarree from Ohio State University created the Meta-Cognitive Model (MCM) (“The Meta-Cognitive Model (MCM) of Attitudes: Implications for Attitude Measurement, Change, and Strength”, 2007). The Meta-Cognitive Model holds some similarities with preceding models, but it is notably different in the manner in which it defines attitudes and attitude formation. According to the MCM, “attitudes consist of evaluative associations (positive and/or negative) along with validity tags”. This definition displays attitude as a multidimensional integrated unit with both positive and negative evaluations. The MCM posits an enduring attitude structure because it allows attitudes to be adaptive and flexible under different circumstances, expressing both positive and negative aspects of the evaluative attitude. Furthermore, the MCM characterizes attitudes with validity tags— that is, measures of evaluation, such as confidence and certainty, which influence the overall strength of an attitude. In totality, the MCM postulates that whichever attitude is dominant and holds the strongest valuation will be the one expressed.
In congruence with the MCM, the Expectancy-Value Theory presented by Martin Fishbein from the University of Illinois and Icek Ajzen from the University of Massachusetts, suggests that attitudes are products of evaluation towards expected outcomes (“Beliefs, Attitudes, Intentions and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research”, 1977). The Expectancy-Value Theory perceives individuals as goal-oriented beings that exhibit attitudes and behaviors in response to their motivations. According to the Expectancy-Value Theory, attitudes are created through expectancy and evaluation, where expectancy predicts the outcome of holding a particular attitude, and evaluation measures its potential value. If an attitude reflects positively in the framework of an individual’s motivations, it is likely to be chosen when guiding behavior, whereas an attitude that reflects negatively will be avoided. This approach suggests that individual’s behave in alignment with behaviors that hold the largest combination of predicted success and value.
In the last decade, as neuroimaging studies have become increasingly popular within studies of attitude change and persuasion, the premises of many behavioral theories have been challenged. The emerging literature within cognitive neuroscience increasingly emphasizes the role of evaluation in persuasive interactions. In congruence with the Meta-Cognitive Model and the Expectancy-Value Theory, behavioral and neuroimaging evidence suggests that individuals act in terms of value-based decision making. In other words, attitudes and behaviors are selected according to their subjective value. The approach of measuring attitudes in terms of their subjective value is supported with evidence linking subjective valuation and behavior change in response to persuasive messages.
In this review, we contend that the foundation of persuasion, on both the yielding and receiving end, is based on subjective value maximization. Valuation includes assessing all choice alternatives and weighing the perceived costs and benefits against one another. Individuals are likely to behave in accordance with whichever action holds the highest subjective value. This stance is congruent with Fishbein’s Expectancy-Value Theory, which suggests that humans are goal-oriented beings (“Beliefs, Attitudes, Intentions, and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research”, 1977). That is, an individual’s attitudes and behaviors are guided by motivations that attempt to maximize the value of their actions.
Prior theories have targeted the receiving end of persuasion while neglecting the processes and motivations guiding the yielder/communicator in a persuasive appeal. In this review, we will demonstrate that the underlying neurocognitive processes in a persuasive interaction are similar for both the yielder and the receiver. At the core of persuasion, and what ultimately defines whether an action is adopted, is subjective valuation. Communicators are concerned with the value of sharing information, while receivers are concerned with the value of being influenced and accepting new information to guide future action.
Research in the field of neuroscience indicates that this sort of value-based decision-making is embedded within our brain’s valuation system. Oscar Bartra and his colleagues, at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a meta-analysis of 206 published fMRI studies investing the neural correlates of subjective valuation. Their results indicated that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the anterior ventral striatum (VS) constitute the foundation of our brain’s valuation system. They proposed that these brain systems permit the processing and evaluation of various choice alternatives to create a general-purpose subjective value signal guiding value-maximizing choice (“The valuation system: A coordinate-based meta-analysis of BOLD fMRI experiments examining neural correlates of subjective value”, 2013).
Given the multidimensional nature of the subjective valuation calculation, neuroimaging has shown to be the most valid method for examining the underlying processes that lead to its generation. As shown through the work of Nisbett and Wilson, from the University of Michigan, self-reports tend to be unsuccessful in measuring the cognitive processes that result in certain attitudes or behaviors. As stated in their influential critique of self-report measures, “There may be little or no direct introspective access to higher order cognitive processes” (“Telling More Than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes”, 1977). That is, during self-reports, individuals may not have cognitive awareness of the totality of inputs that contribute towards the calculation of the subjective valuation signal. Functional neuroimaging bypasses the limitations of self-reports and measures all dimensions contributing to the subjective value calculation, including those outside individual’s conscious awareness.
The Role of Valuation in Persuasion
The effects of persuasion, on both the yielding and receiving end, are dependent upon the subjective valuation of relevant information. As noted earlier, Bartra’s cohesive meta-analysis of fMRI studies examining subjective valuation showed that within the brain, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the ventral striatum (VS) are the primary constitutes of the brain’s valuation system. Together, the VMPFC and VS process and integrate incoming information to form a “common value signal”. This valuation signal is placed on a common scale that allows alternative options to be scrutinized and gauged against one another. Furthermore, Bartra’s work suggests that the valuation signal is not restricted to a single category of rewards. That is, it is able to incorporate both primary and secondary rewards to compute a comprehensive valuation signal from which the individual is able to take action upon.
The valuation signal is also able to rely upon reinforcement learning to incorporate past experiences to predict possible future rewards. Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge was particularly interested in studying how reward functions in learning, goal-directed behavior, and decision making under uncertainty. Schultz theorized that the dopamine response in the brain, resulting from a particular action, is determined by calculating the actual reward minus the predicted reward. The brain’s dopamine response generates a “reward prediction error” that heavily influences whether or not an action is reinforced, and therefore, repeated in the future. If a particular action results in a negative prediction error, that is, it produces less reward than predicted, the action is devalued and less likely to be repeated. In contrast, if an action produces a positive prediction error, producing more reward than predicted, the action is more valuable and reinforced. This type of goal-directed behavior is focused on maximizing rewards and minimizing punishment/conflict (“Behavioral Theories and the Neurophysiology of Reward”, 2006).
Value-Based Decision Making in the Framework of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
As we have demonstrated so far, human attitudes and behaviors are determined based on the subjective value attributed to that particular position. An individual will align with whichever attitude or behavior has the highest perceived value. Since this theory suggests that behavior is goal-oriented, we must consider the motivations that create an individual’s interpretation of value.
In his formative paper on human motivation, Abraham Maslow, one of the leading pioneers of humanistic psychology, created his renowned hierarchy of needs. The hierarchy outlined the five levels of needs fundamentally underlying all human motivations. The five levels include physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization needs. Maslow argued that, “Human needs arrange themselves in hierarchies of pre-potency. That is to say, the appearance of one need usually rests on the prior satisfaction of another, more prepotent need. Man is a perpetually wanting animal” (“A Theory of Human Motivation”, 1943). According to Maslow, an individual’s consciousness is monopolized at a particular level, and only when those needs are satisfied, can the individual proceed to the next level on the hierarchy. Within this framework, we can understand all human states as motivated and as motivating. Human beings are naturally inclined and motivated towards self-actualization. This provides a practical foundation in which we can study the motivations embedded within persuasion, on both yielding and receiving ends.
In the context of persuasion, it appears that most individuals are motivated to fulfill psychological needs. In our society, a large majority of individuals have fulfilled their physiological and safety needs, allowing them to pursue higher-order needs such as acceptance from society, belongingness, confidence, achievement, etc. (“A Theory of Human Motivation”, 1943). As will be demonstrated in greater detail below, individuals place a high subjective value on attitudes and behaviors that allow them to fulfill their love and esteem needs. Being that humans are motivated towards social belongingness, social conformity happens to be a highly valued commodity for both the communicator and receiver of persuasion. At its core, persuasion is a social process, and as Alan Fiske from the University of Pennsylvania noted in his theory of social relations, “People’s intentions are essentially sociable, and their social goals inherently rational” (“The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations”, 1992).
Neural evidence supports the notion that subjective value is heavily reliant upon conformity to social influence. Research by Vasily Klucharev at the National Research University Higher School of Economics shows that there is high subjective value in social conformity, while divergence from social norms triggers conflict signals within the brain (“Reinforcement Learning Signal Predicts Social Conformity”, 2009). Using fMRI, Klucharev tracked the neural activity of participants when asked to rate the attractiveness of female faces followed by feedback on group opinion of the same faces. Activity within the ventral striatum was indicative of value signals, while activity within the medial frontal cortex was indicative of conflict-detecting signals. When participants were informed that their rating deviated from that of the group, activity within the ventral striatum decreased while activity in the medial frontal cortex increased. This response shows that deviation from group opinion is devalued and creates activity in brain regions known to detect and manage conflict. In response, when participants were asked to re-rate the faces after hearing the ratings of their peers, they changed their ratings to be in conformity with the group. Klucharev’s research supports the notion that value is, in part, derived from alignment with group consensus and social conformity. His findings are congruent with Maslow’s hierarchy and the proposition that, to a certain degree, humans are fundamentally motivated to achieve social belongingness. Further in the review, we will revisit the role of Maslow’s hierarchy in human motivation and the extent to which it influences engagement in persuasion.
Persuasion and the Brain’s Valuation System
In this review, we emphasize the importance of studying both the communicating and receiving ends of persuasive interactions. Traditionally, studies of persuasion have focused on the receiving end, while neglecting the neurocognitive processes of the communicator. Below, we demonstrate how although the ways in which individuals derive subjective valuation from situations differ, the underlying neurocognitive process is the same: through the brain’s valuation system.
Emily Falk, from the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the first researchers to study the neurocognitive processes of individuals issuing persuasive messages. Falk’s study involved using functional neuroimaging to observe the neural responses of individuals when exposed to potential persuasive messages. Decisions by communicators to propagate messages and share information was linked with activity in the brain’s value system, within the MPFC and VS (“Creating Buzz: The Neural Correlates of Effective Message Propagation”, 2013). In other words, activity within the brain’s value system indicated perceived value in sharing information and accurately predicted an individual’s decision to communicate information and engage in persuasion.
Another study conducted by Falk, this time studying receivers, demonstrated that activity within the brain’s value system, specifically within the MPFC, accurately predicted behavior change in alignment with the persuasive appeal (“Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain”, 2010). Falk’s study included exposing participants to persuasive messages on sunscreen use. Using fMRI, Falk was able to measure activity within the MPFC before, during, and after exposure to persuasive messages. Her results revealed that activity within the MPFC during exposure to persuasive messages was an accurate predictor of behavior change among participants. That is, participants who showed increased activity within the MPFC during messages encouraging sunscreen use reported positive behavior change within the following week regarding sunscreen use.
To further develop her investigation of the role of the MPFC in persuasion, Falk completed a follow up study in 2011 with smokers and persuasive messages encouraging smokers to quit smoking (“Neural Activity During Health Messaging Predicts Reductions in Smoking Above and Beyond Self Report”, 2011). The study was particularly interested in measuring the correlation between activity in the MPFC and participants’ reported perception of: (a) the message’s self-efficacy about quitting smoking (i.e. the empowerment the participant received about quitting smoking); (b) the participant’s increased intention to quit; and (c) the message’s perceived self-relevance. Across the board, Falk found that activity within the MPFC was linked with reports of increased self-efficacy, intention, and self-relevance. Furthermore, in congruence with prior research, her findings supported the notion that activity within the MPFC is an accurate predictor of behavior change. Even when statistically controlling for self-reported intentions, self-efficacy, and ability to relate to messages, activity within the MPFC continued to predict message-congruent behavior change among participants.
Falk’s research significantly advanced the field of the neuroscience of persuasion by outlining the primary region of interest: the MPFC. Her research also opened the door for future investigations to further understand the correlates involved in MPFC activation. A study conducted by Vezich et al., from the University of California, sought out to understand factors involved in MPFC activation, and therefore, message receptivity and behavior change. Specifically, they altered message factors and measured the neural activity in response to gain- vs. loss-framed messages and “how” vs. “why” messages (i.e. how to change a behavior vs. why one should change a behavior). Through the use of fMRI, their results showed that gain-related messages elicited greater activity within the MPFC than loss-related messages. Individuals were more likely to change their behavior if they perceived valuable gain in the behavior rather than possible loss. These results are consistent with existing theories, such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which states that individuals undervalue outcomes that are merely probable in comparison with outcomes that can be attained with certainty (“Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk”, 2013). In other words, when individuals are presented with gain-related messages, they perceive the gain as something they can achieve with certainty under said behavior change. On the other hand, loss-related messages are not perceived with such certainty, and individuals perceive the loss as a mere probability. Furthermore, this relates to Maslow’s hierarchy in that individuals are motivated in an upward trajectory. When an individual is on a particular level of Maslow’s hierarchy, their consciousness is targeted towards fulfilling those needs and proceeding upwards to continue fulfilling higher-order needs. Fundamentally, consciousness is not targeted towards preventing loss as much as it is targeted towards attaining gain. In the context of persuasion and goal-oriented behavior, the nature of human consciousness and motivation leads humans to be more attuned with changing behavior to receive gain rather than prevent loss.
In the framework of “how” vs. “why” messages, Vezich et al. demonstrated that “why” messages generated greater activity within the MPFC. The fMRI results showed that “how” messages, those involved with action planning, elicited activity within the rostral inferior parietal lobule and the posterior inferior frontal gyrus. Alternatively, “why” messages, those involved with gain and loss, elicited activity within the MPFC. Participants presented with “why” messages, showing MPFC activation, were most likely to exhibit message-congruent behavior change. Their investigation concluded, “Persuasion occurs in part via self-value integration— seeing value and incorporating persuasive messages into one’s self-concept” (“Modulating the Neural Bases of Persuasion: why/how, gain/loss, users/non-users”, 2017). Together, these results further strengthened the correlation between persuasion, subjective valuation, and the MPFC.
To further elaborate upon the influence of the brain’s valuation system in persuasion, Nicole Cooper and colleagues, from the University of Pennsylvania, created an investigation to observe connectivity between different regions of the brain’s valuation system and the effect it poses on persuasion-induced behavior change. Their investigation included exposing participants to health-related persuasive messages while monitoring brain regions associated with self-reflection and subjective valuation. Their findings suggest that the greater the connectivity between the MPFC and the VS, the primary components of the brain’s valuation system, the more likely it is that an individual will engage in message-congruent behavior change. Cooper et al. interpreted their results to mean that the functional connectivity between the MPFC and the VS allows for additional information to integrate during the generation of a valuation signal. In comparison, during single region activation, either within the MPFC or the VS, the information input to generate the valuation signal is limited. In totality, their research demonstrated that the brain’s value system works as a unit to systematically create a subjective valuation that leads to subsequent behavior change (“Coherent Activity Between Brain Regions that Code for Value is Linked to the Malleability of Human Behavior”, 2017).
The literature is consistent in demonstrating that the MPFC plays a primary role in the brain’s value system, and is therefore heavily involved in persuasive interactions. Alejandro de la Vega and his colleagues, from the University of Colorado, were interested in expanding this knowledge by functionally differentiating regions within the MPFC and identifying how each part contributes towards the totality of the MPFC’s functions (“Large-Scale Meta-Analysis of Human Medial Frontal Cortex Reveals Tripartite Functional Organization”, 2016). De la Vega et al. applied a meta-analytic data-driven approach to approximately 10,000 fMRI studies to distinguish the functionally separable regions of the medial frontal cortex. Across all studies involving persuasion and activity within the MPFC, activity was found to be localized within the anterior zone, which could be further subdivided into three functionally separable zones: the DMPFC, pgACC, and the VMPFC. De la Vega et al. suggested that these areas interact with one another throughout the entire persuasive process, and that activity occurs not only within the MPFC, but also across. In the framework of existing literature on persuasion, as with all studies discussed in this article, activity within the MPFC appears to fall primarily within the DMPFC and the VMPFC. As identified by de la Vega et al., the DMPFC conceptualizes input, as it is associated with social perception and self-referential thinking; this includes idiosyncratic issue-relevant thinking, creating an implicit link between the self and the advocated goal, and creating a detailed action plan. The signals created by the DMPFC then travel to the VMPFC, where the valuation process takes place and reward possibilities are evaluated. Together, the DMPFC and VMPFC process and evaluate information to carry out value-maximized decision making in response to persuasive appeals.
In this section, we have reviewed the brain’s value system (i.e. the MPFC and VS) and its role in persuasion. Valuation and activity within the brain’s value system can be seen on both the communicating and receiving ends of persuasive interactions. Communicators find value in sharing information, while receivers find value in personally incorporating the information being communicated. We emphasize the importance of studying both ends of persuasive interactions, because as it turns out, the same neurocognitive processes are occurring for both communicators and receivers. Although situational motivators are different for the communicator and receiver in a persuasive interaction, there is synchrony within the brain’s value system on both ends. In the following section, we proceed to discuss factors that contribute to the subjective value calculation and subsequent behavior change.
Inputs Determining Subjective Value
As the review has demonstrated thus far, subjective value appears to function as the primary determinant of the outcome in a persuasive interaction. The question then arises as to what factors influence subjective value? In other words, what factors are able to increase or decrease an individual’s subjective value of a particular position? Across behavioral theories of persuasion, self-relevance and social relevance appear to be fundamental inputs when calculating subjective value. In this following section, we outline neuroimaging research that complements behavioral theories that emphasize the role of self and social relevance in the subjective value calculation.
Self-Relevance and Subjective Value
Self-relevance has long been a central component across theories of persuasion. Hovland’s Message Learning Theory and McGuire’s Information Processing Theory, as discussed at the beginning of this review, implicitly relied upon the dynamic between self and external influences to explain attitude and behavior change in response to persuasion. However, it wasn’t until the emergence of the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) and the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) that the explicit role of self-relevance in persuasion was clarified. Both the ELM and the HSM are premised upon the role of self-relevance in information processing. These models argue that self-relevant information processes through routes that require high levels of cognitive involvement and self-reflection. Information processed through these high involvement routes result in attitudes and behaviors that are well articulated and highly valued.
Studying the relationship between self-relevance and subjective value is compelling, especially when placed in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as introduced earlier. On the esteem level, humans are motivated to cultivate a desirable self-image, both for themselves and for others (“A Theory of Human Motivation”, 1943). When humans interact and communicate with one another, they are constantly creating their self-image from which others can perceive them. Whether it occurs through conscious or unconscious neurocognitive processes, the motive to maintain a positive self-image influences the information that an individual decides to communicate. That is, if a piece of information can assist an individual in maintaining a positive self-image, the decision to communicate that information will have a high subjective value.
Neuroscientific research by Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell, from Harvard University, confirms that there is an intrinsic value in self-disclosure and sharing one’s thoughts with others (“Disclosing Information about the Self is Intrinsically Rewarding”, 2012). Through the use of fMRI, Tamir and Mitchell were able to measure the neural responses of participants when conveying information about their personal experience versus when considering the thoughts and experiences of others. The results showed that during self-disclosure, participants exhibited robust neural activity within brain regions associated with idiosyncratic thought and valuation, namely, the MPFC and the mesolimbic dopamine system. Activity in these regions is indicative of reward and high subjective valuation.
Furthermore, Tamir and Mitchell were able to demonstrate that self-disclosure elicits the same dopaminergic response as certain secondary rewards, such as earning money. In their study, participants were offered to answer questions about themselves for a small monetary reward or answer questions unrelated to them (i.e. questions about facts or others) for a slightly higher monetary reward. Their results showed that participants were willing to lose 17% in potential earnings for the opportunity to answer questions about themselves and engage in self-disclosure. For participants to forgo monetary rewards in lieu of self-disclosure indicates that there is greater subjective reward found in this behavior. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy, this type of behavior can actually be expected. If an individual has satisfied their safety needs (i.e. money), they will be motivated to fulfill higher-order needs, such as those on the esteem level, including approval and recognition from others. Given the functions of communication, as we have outlined above, self-disclosure allows individuals the opportunity to attain these higher-order needs. The prepotent nature of Maslow’s hierarchy demonstrates that an individual’s motivations and consciousness will be directed towards whichever need they’re trying to fulfill. In the case of Tamir and Mitchell’s study, participants were not motivated by monetary rewards, rather they were motivated to fulfill the needs of affiliation, approval, recognition, etc.
In addition to behavioral research, neuroimaging also supports the strong correlation between self-relevance and subjective value. A study conducted by Nicole Cooper and colleagues, from the University of Pennsylvania, provided evidence distinguishing two functionally separate clusters within the MPFC that are both involved in message-congruent behavior change (“Brain Activity in Self- and Value-Related Regions in Response to Online Anti Smoking Messages Predicts Behavior Change”, 2015). Their study involved measuring the neural activity, specifically within regions of interest in the MPFC, of participants upon exposure to antismoking messages. Participants exhibited activity within two functionally separate clusters in the MPFC associated with self- and value-related processing. Activity within these regions was significantly related to message-congruent behavior change among participants. Their results suggest that behavior change in response to persuasion is dependent upon the neurocognitive processes within the functionally separate MPFC clusters responsible for self- and value-related processing.
In totality, the existing literature agrees that persuasion is heavily linked with activity in the VMPFC and VS, for valuation, and the MPFC and the posterior cingulate (PCC), for self-related processing. To measure the significance of self-related processing in persuasion, Hannah Chua and her team, from the University of Michigan, investigated neural activity in response to persuasive appeals that varied in personal relevance (“Neural Correlates of Message Tailoring and Self-Relatedness in Smoking Cessation Programming”, 2009). Participants reported high-tailored messages as more personally relevant, and producing a greater motivation for idiosyncratic issue-relevant thinking. This response was depicted through higher activity in the MPFC and PCC (i.e. the brain’s self-related processing system) among participants in the high-tailored blocks, in contrast to those in the generic or low-tailored blocks. In turn, participants in the high-tailored block were more likely to undergo message-congruent behavior change. Their work concluded that high-tailored messages increase self-relevance and subjective valuation, both, which are fundamental determinants guiding the neurocognitive processes involved in persuasion.
Another approach towards understanding the neurocognitive mechanisms of self-relevance and its role in persuasion has involved the use of self-affirmation. Self-affirmation theory states that individuals are motivated to maintain a positive self-image that withstands external threat. Given that persuasive messages attempt to create attitude and behavior change, these messages are often perceived as a threat to one’s self-image, and therefore viewed in a biased manner. Joshua Correll and his colleagues, from the University of Waterloo, demonstrate that self-affirmation may be a useful tool to communicate messages that are perceived objectively, rather than biasedly among individuals (“An Affirmed Self and an Open Mind: Self-Affirmation and Sensitivity to Argument Strength”, 2004). Their work demonstrated that individuals affirmed prior to a persuasive message were more likely to view the message objectively and with decreased bias, resulting in greater overall argument strength. They interpreted their results by suggesting that self-affirmation allows individuals to see persuasive information as relevant within the framework of their self-identity. This allows individuals to perceive incoming information as useful, rather than as an attack from an external source.
Research from Cheryl Wakslak and Yaacov Trope, from the University of Southern California and New York University, further elaborates on the influence of self-affirmation when communicating persuasive information (“Cognitive Consequences of Affirming the Self: the Relationship Between Self-Affirmation and Object Construal”, 2009). Wakslak and Trope suggest that self-affirmation reminds an individual of their broader values, allowing them to preserve their general self-integrity in the face of new information. Self-affirmation allows individuals to structure new information while remaining focused on the big picture. In other words, individuals direct their energy from defensive protection of their self-image to idiosyncratic relevant thinking and evaluation of how new information fits in the framework of their self-image.
In addition to the work described above, neuroimaging research also supports the correlation found between self-affirmation and persuasion.
A study conducted by Christopher Cascio and his team at the University of Pennsylvania showed that self-affirmation activates the brain regions involved in self- and value-related processing (“Self-Affirmation Activates Brain Systems Associated with Self-Related Processing and Reward and is Reinforced by Future Orientation”, 2015). A region of interest analysis showed that participants who were affirmed prior to reflecting on their future-oriented core values showed greater activity within the brain’s self-related processing (i.e. MPFC and PCC) and value systems (i.e. VMPFC and the VS). Neural activity within these regions went on to predict behavior change consistent with the initial self-affirmation and successive persuasive message. In sum, their results demonstrate that self-affirmation is directly correlated to brain regions fundamental to the neurocognitive processes involved in persuasion.
Social Relevance and Subjective Value
Conscious persuasive interactions, for both communicators and receivers, involve high levels of mentalizing. As Chris and Uta Frith, from University College London, describe it, “the term mentalizing was coined to refer to the process by which we make inferences about mental states” (“The Neural Basis of Mentalizing”, 2006). Successful persuasive attempts are significantly correlated with activity in the brain’s mentalizing system, that is the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), temporal lobes, and the DMPFC. Mentalizing has a powerful influence on persuasion because it allows communicators to understand the stance and motivations of the audience they are trying to persuade. Through understanding the relationship between the mental state of self and the mental state of other, an equal platform is created where information and ideas can be effectively communicated.
To demonstrate the effects of mentalizing during persuasive interactions, Roeland Dietvorst and colleagues, from Erasmus University Rotterdam, measured the neural activity of individuals whose living depends on successful persuasion– salespeople (“A Sales-Force Specific Theory-of-Mind Scale: Tests of its Validity by Classical Methods and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging”, 2009). Their results showed that salespeople who identified as strong interpersonal mentalizers were more successful than those who did not identify as being strong mentalizers. These results were further supported with fMRI evidence, indicating that successful salespeople exhibited greater neural activity in areas implicated with mentalizing (i.e. the TPJ and MPFC). The correlation between mentalizing and successful persuasion suggests that through understanding the mental states of others, communicators create a framework for the receiver’s guiding motivators, allowing them to communicate information that is subjectively valuable and will result in successful persuasion.
Mentalizing is also a preceding neurocognitive process in the minds of receivers exposed to persuasive messages. In receivers, mentalizing indicates that the individual is making inferences about a mental state different than their own. Through the inference process, the individual is able to evaluate the subjective value of updating their mental state to that of which they’re mentalizing. If the mentalized state is perceived to hold greater reward than the state they are currently in, the individual is likely to change their stance and conform to the persuasive message.
Neuroimaging evidence supports the correlation between mentalizing, subjective valuation, and persuasion. B. Locke Welborn and colleagues, from the University of California, conducted a study demonstrating the neural correlates of mentalizing and social conformity among adolescents. In their study, participants were asked to rate various pieces of art, and subsequently received feedback on the ratings of their peers. Through the use of fMRI, the team measured the neural activity of participants upon receiving peer feedback, paying particular attention to the instances where peer feedback diverged from that of the individual. Their results showed that social influence, in the form of peer feedback, triggered increased activity within brain regions responsible for valuation (i.e. VMPFC), mentalizing (MPFC, right TPJ, left TPJ), and cognitive control (right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex). Welborn et al. showed that persuasion, in the form of social influence, induces individuals to mentalize and evaluate the subjective value of alternative states. The greater an individual is influenced, the greater activity they will exhibit in brain regions responsible for mentalizing and valuation.
The neuroscientific literature on persuasion has developed a framework that allows for a thorough understanding of the instinctual neurocognitive processes initiated during persuasive interactions. Given that all human interaction, by nature, is persuasive to some degree, it is worthwhile to consider the consequences of unconsciously operating from the instinctual neurocognitive processes involved. Acknowledging that human behavior occurs primarily as a result of subjective valuation, one can reason how an entire subjective reality emerges from the foundation of valuation. In the following sections, we explore how subjective valuation directly correlates to the evolution of human motivation and cognition.
That is, as subjective valuation directs decision-making, it also directs the frequency to which an individual undergoes transitions in their attitudes and behaviors, which inherently, is the foundation of evolution.
The neurocognitive processes involved in attitude change and persuasion are strikingly similar to what physicists term phase transitions. In brief, phase transitions are the critical points where matter transforms from one state to another. As Jennifer Ouellette from Seattle Pacific University describes, “Any substance has a specific moment when the pressure or temperature is just right to cause it to shift from one state to another. Water is the most common example: lower the temperature sufficiently and it will turn into ice; raise the temperature and it will evaporate to steam. That’s a phase transition” (“Teetering on the Edge of Chaos”, 2011). The transformative moment characterizing phase transitions can be observed in the physical world, but what about transformative moments that occur within the mental realm, such as moments consisting of attitude change?
As we have demonstrated thus far, attitude change can be predicted through activity in certain cortical regions of the brain, particularly those involved in reward evaluation and self-related processing. The reward an individual perceives within any given situation is framed in relation to their specific motivations, as illustrated in Maslow’s hierarchy. The cortical regions responsible for reward evaluation are concerned with maximizing reward and minimizing punishment, denoting an innate drive towards ascension into states of being characterized by need fulfillment.
Need fulfillment, particularly of psychological origin, is a byproduct of evolution. That is, considering psychological needs exist exclusively in relation to one’s perceptions, they are not characterized by tangible fulfillment, as much as they are by transcendence in relation to the evolution of mental frameworks constructing perceptions. On this premise, primary value should be assigned to the underlying neurocognitive mechanism that ensures sustained evolution, as it is the source of unconditional need fulfillment. We now direct our discussion towards advancing our understanding of the correlation between self-identity, subjective valuation, phase transitions, the evolution of human motivation and cognition, and how their combined function creates a particular reality that subjectively experiences persuasive messages.
Emergence of Self-Identity in Relation to Maslow’s Hierarchy
Returning to the framework of Maslow’s hierarchy, we now discuss in more detail the fundamental needs guiding human motivation and explore the neurocognitive mechanisms behind the evolution of human motivation and consciousness. All humans are innately born into the level of physiological needs. These are needs necessary to ensure the continuity of human life, and are universally shared amongst all humans. However, beyond the level physiological needs, humans vary far and wide in regards to their personal motivators. This leads to the question, what determines an individual’s motivations and presence within the hierarchy? At the levels of physiological and safety needs, fulfillment is easily identified because it comes in the form of tangible physical reality (i.e. food, water, physical health, shelter, etc.). However, upon progression into higher order psychological needs, the line defining fulfillment becomes more abstract and subjective. Fulfillment no longer occurs through physical reality, but rather through an individual’s mental reality. In other words, fulfillment is contingent on an individual’s perceptive abilities and the mental processes that allow them to make sense of the world they operate in.
The neurocognitive processes underlying an individual’s perception and experience of the world develop in relation to their self-identity. For the purpose of this discussion, self-identity can be defined as an individual’s comprehensive understanding of self, including their perceived qualities and abilities. In relation to Maslow’s hierarchy, an individual’s self-identity emerges relative to their fulfillment of certain fundamental human needs (e.g. if an individual’s self-identity lacks self-esteem, they will be motivated at the esteem level). Conversely, self-identity also includes the aspects of an individual where they perceive lack and are unfulfilled. Given that humans are goal-oriented beings, the void an individual perceives in their self-identity reveals the underlying motivations guiding their behavior. With this understanding, it can be inferred that persuasion is essentially about understanding an individual’s self-identity and underlying motivations, in order to manipulate the manner in which an individual experiences a particular experience.
As discussed earlier in the article, persuasion is only effective to the extent an individual perceives subjective value in integrating the communicated information into their sense of self. Given that, in practicality, an individual’s behavior reflects the motivations that emerge from the voids in their self-identity, successful persuasion operates through manipulating an individual’s self-identity. That is, by changing an individual’s self-identity and the motivations from which they operate, it is possible to manipulate an individual’s perceived subjective value of a persuasive message. For instance, by strengthening an individual’s self-identity and affirming their abundance at a particular level, an individual is able to direct their consciousness from preservation to expansion. In turn, an individual will place a higher subjective value to messages that reflect self-expansion into higher order mental processes. Conversely, by weakening an individual’s self-identity to create feelings of lack, it is possible to direct an individual’s consciousness towards self-preservation, hindering their expansion into more evolved states of consciousness. In sum, by manipulating an individual’s perceived self-identity, it is possible to alter their motivations, and therefore, direction of their consciousness.
Although this pattern indicates the dynamic of consciousness and the prerequisites for a phase transition, it is important to note that all of the levels, besides self-actualization, on Maslow’s hierarchy are framed in a foundation of lack, and it is this sense of lack that motivates individuals to fulfill their needs. As long as an individual perceives a void on a particular level, their underlying motivations will be directed towards satisfying the needs required to fill the void they feel.
When an individual feels threatened by a void, their consciousness is directed towards protecting them from the consequences of not having satisfied that particular level of needs. For an individual who perceives a void within their esteem, their consciousness will be directed towards proving achievement and competence, with the expectation that approval will fulfill their esteem. This pattern of directing consciousness towards manipulating physical reality in an effort to attain a particular mental reality (i.e. fulfill psychological needs and fill perceived voids) holds various implications, and can quickly become self-defeating, especially in instances where an individual spends an extended period of time attempting to fill a void within one particular set of needs.
By nature, the felt void of not having satisfied a fundamental human need, such as love and belongingness, brings feelings of pain. After repeated attempts of unsuccessfully filling a void, an individual is likely to develop defense mechanisms to protect themselves against feeling the pain of the void they are experiencing. Although defense mechanisms are created in an attempt to protect an individual from consciously experiencing feelings of anguish, they have the capacity to distort reality to an image that mirrors the past. Paradoxically, it is an individual’s established defense mechanisms that often keep them from being in a position to heal themselves of pain, allowing them to transcend into higher order mental realities.
By identifying the patterns that keep individuals stagnant in the fulfillment of their psychological needs, we can conversely identify the conditions under which an individual is able to evolve and direct their consciousness towards new, higher order motivations. When an individual ceases to perceive a void, this indicates that their consciousness, in regards to that particular need, has shifted from a place of scarcity to a place of abundance. In other words, because the individual no longer perceives a void, their consciousness is no longer monopolized by self-preservation against the fear of unsatisfied needs. Need fulfillment, momentarily, dissipates fear and the threat of pain, allowing an individual’s consciousness to shift from self-preservation to self-expansion. In these conditions, an individual is able to freely explore their reality without fear, allowing them to change their beliefs and acquire new motivations, effectively inducing a phase transition.
Neurocognitive Mechanism of a Phase Transition
In general, humans prefer certainty to uncertainty, stability to change, and practical experience to abstract potentialities. The brain’s valuation system, within the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and ventral striatum (VS), systemically operates as a feedback loop, where past experiences generate a value signal, which consequently guides future behavior. The purpose of the value signal produced within the brain’s valuation system is to maximize reward by avoiding situations where perceived reward potential is low. Nonetheless, as the brain constantly processes incoming information, the valuation system works to reduce the unpredictability of the future by valuating potential outcomes through programming of past experience.
Furthermore, in each moment, the brain is dynamically integrating new information into its programming according to the reward prediction error elicited by dopamine neurons. As discussed earlier, the reward prediction error is responsible for tracking the difference in reward between a person’s expected outcome and the actual outcome of a particular action. When an action produces higher reward (i.e. a greater release of dopamine) than expected, it is seen as more valuable, whereas an action that produces less reward (i.e. less release of dopamine) than expected, is devalued. The brain’s valuation of actions, according to reward, is continuously integrated into its programming, allowing it to correspondingly guide future behavior.
When an individual initially enters a certain level, there will be a high positive reward prediction error. It can be assumed that at this point, an individual’s mental programming is most cohesive with the external environment. Because transitioning between levels occurs in response to dissonance with the external environment, we can assume that the new level is curated directly to suit the environment at that moment in time. Furthermore, at that instant, no time has passed, meaning that the brain has not had the opportunity to input new information that could contribute to cognitive dissonance. In these initial moments, an individual’s beliefs and behaviors produce more reward than expected, which creates a high subjective value for maintaining them, with the expectation that they will continue to produce high levels of reward in the future.
However, as time passes and the individual incorporates more experience into the brain’s programming, the reward prediction error drops. As the external environment changes, the beliefs and behaviors adopted in the prior level transition are not as applicable and beneficial as they were initially. As individuals attempt to maintain these beliefs and behaviors, cognitive dissonance increases and the reward prediction error decreases (i.e. the expected reward is higher than the actual reward).
The dynamic between new experience and long-held beliefs and behaviors continues to create dissonance within an individual until eventually the reward prediction error for adopting a new set of beliefs and behaviors is greater than the reward prediction error for maintaining prior beliefs and behaviors. At this point, a higher subjective value is placed towards updating beliefs and behaviors, rather than maintaining, which triggers a phase transition. This process will repeat with every new set of beliefs and behaviors through value signals curated toward an individual’s unique motivators.
In essence, humans vehemently adhere to their beliefs and behaviors (i.e. phase) until a new set of beliefs and behaviors (i.e. phase) creates a higher subjective value signal than the one they hold for their current position. Humans are naturally inclined to maintain a stable self-identity that allows them to navigate through their environment with certainty and security. This aversion to uncertainty motivates humans to maintain and support existing evaluations, despite ensuing cognitive dissonance.
On this premise, we can theorize on the correlation between psychological stress (i.e. cognitive dissonance) and stagnancy in one’s beliefs and behaviors to preserve a stable self-identity. When an individual fails to actively process and integrate new information from their experience into their mental programming, there is a felt disharmony between their inner and outer worlds. As every passing moment holds the capacity to experience novel emotions, beliefs, and understandings, if an individual attaches to a programmed self-identity created from past experience, they restrict their experience of the present moment. In other words, psychological stress and pain emerges when an individual limits their experience of the present moment to fit within a constricted framework of the self.
Given that moment-to-moment, human experience throughout time is ephemeral, we argue that the mental frameworks processing human experience should also be ephemeral. This is contradictory to the instinctual evolutionary response of favoring stable mental frameworks that attempt to reduce risk by avoiding unfamiliar experiences. Throughout history, fixed mental frameworks have been functional in maximizing rewards rooted in three-dimensional reality (i.e. the physiological and safety needs on Maslow’s hierarchy), perhaps because a fixed mental framework can be interpreted as three-dimensional by nature— static, fixed, unchanging.
However, the case is different in the context of psychological needs, which both begin and end in the mental realm. The fulfillment of psychological needs (i.e. the love, esteem, cognitive, and aesthetic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy) has little to do with three-dimensional reality, as much as it has to do with an individual’s perception and integrative abilities that exist within the fourth-dimensional realm of time consciousness. If an individual is unable to psychologically process and integrate incoming information from their moment-to-moment experience, their psychological needs will remain unfulfilled regardless of external circumstances. This brings into question the influence of consciousness on the fulfillment of psychological needs and the evolution of human cognition and motivation.
Traditionally, consciousness has been a challenging topic to experimentally research due to its elusive and intangible nature. And still, there continues to be considerable variance, between schools of psychology, on the actual definition of consciousness. In most cases, consciousness is defined within a mental framework, which inherently binds it to the perceptive limits of human consciousness (“Psychotherapy and Spirit”, 1997). This poses several issues, given that scientific literature unanimously recognizes the limited range of perception available to human consciousness. Take for example, the electromagnetic spectrum, which delineates the entire gradient of energy that exists within, and beyond, the perceptive abilities of human consciousness. The multidimensional nature of consciousness is a notable consideration for future research, however within the context of this review, we limit our discussion of consciousness to the aspects that, to any extent, perceptibly influence the human experience.
Within the neuroscientific literature of consciousness, it is generally accepted that consciousness, in the most practical sense, is integrated information. In experimental settings, evidence suggests that a loss of consciousness is characterized by the breakdown of cortical effective connectivity. Research by Fabio Ferrarelli and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin utilized transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and high-density electroencephalography (EEG) to selectively control the connectivity between multiple cortical regions within the brain. Their results demonstrate that consciousness is lost when connectivity between cortical regions deteriorates, obstructing the process of information integration (“Breakdown in Cortical Effective Connectivity During Midazolam-Induced Loss of Consciousness”, 2010). Communication and integration of information between multiple brain areas is the basis of consciousness.
Giulio Tononi from the University of Wisconsin was one of the first neuroscientists to formulate a methodology for investigating consciousness as integrated information. Tononi’s Integrative Information Theory of consciousness (IIT) provides a foundation to investigate how, and to what extent, consciousness manifests throughout various physical systems (“Integrated Information in Discrete Dynamical Systems: Motivation and Theoretical Framework”, 2008).
The Integrative Information Theory functions to measure consciousness on the premise of its two inherently phenomenological properties: 1) at any given moment, conscious experience produces a vast amount of information by materializing a definitive experience from an infinite number of potentialities. Using Aristotelian logic, consciousness can be interpreted as the bridge from potentiality to actuality. 2) Conscious experience generates information that is integrated within a whole, meaning it cannot be discriminated into individual parts. Within this framework, the Integrative Information Theory measures a system’s level of consciousness based upon its integrative abilities when processing information from conscious experience.
Beyond theory, integrated information has been experimentally applied to discrete networks in an effort to infer the dynamics and causal architecture of systems capable of holding consciousness. A numerical analysis conducted by David Balduzzi and Giulio Tononi, from the University of Wisconsin, produced empirical evidence characterizing the processes involved in integrated information interactions (“Integrated Information in Discrete Dynamical Systems: Motivation and Theoretical Framework”, 2008). First, they determined that integrated information measures a process. That is, integrated information (i.e. consciousness) cannot operate within a static environment. Conscious experience is inherently dynamic, therefore integrated information can only be generated by a system that correspondingly transitions from one state to the next.
In the context of human experience, any individual can be understood as a system attempting to integrate information through their conscious experience. In other words, as an individual experiences their human experience through time, they are continuously presented with information to process and integrate into their mental framework. As an individual successfully integrates information into their mental framework, they trigger the evolution of their individual consciousness. In relation to the first postulate outlined above, the evolution of consciousness is a dynamic process. Assuming that an individual’s experience through time acts as a catalyst for the evolution of consciousness, the individual’s mental framework should ideally be as transient as the passing of time. That is, if an individual is integrating information at maximum capacity, their mental framework is updated with each passing moment, allowing it to be in a constant state of transition.
Second, they identified that integrated information is a causal measure. In other words, integrated information, or the evolution of consciousness, occurs only to the extent that the system transitions from one state to another in response to causal interactions among its parts. In order to generate effective information, a system must respond causally in relation to the manner in which it is perturbed. If a system responds independent to how it is perturbed, no effective information will be generated. Additionally, when perturbed, causally interacting systems respond spontaneously, and without memory, to generate high potential for integrated information. In contrast, systems that operate based on memory and whose parts operate independently do not have the capacity to generate integrated information.
The second postulate concerns the dynamic interaction between experience and evolution of consciousness. The evolution of an individual’s consciousness is not irrespective of experience. Consciousness evolves respective to an individual’s capacity to respond relative to each moment, creating a direct correlation between consciousness and experience. In other words, if an individual responds to experience in a programmed fashion, their consciousness is not engaged and will not evolve from experience. Moreover, to maximize the evolution of consciousness from any given experience, an individual should operate from a place “without memory”—that is, free from automated mental programming, allowing an individual’s consciousness to idiosyncratically engage in accordance with reality.
Third, the nature of integrated information arises intrinsically within the system itself. That is, the essence of integrated information only exists to the extent that it makes a difference from the perspective of the system. The intrinsic nature of consciousness makes external entities and their perceptions irrelevant, as they do not have the capacity to generate integrated information within the system. This allows systems to operate with complete autonomy in the generation of integrated information (i.e. the system’s evolution of consciousness).
The third postulate highlights the highly individual and self-determining nature characterizing the evolution of consciousness. In essence, consciousness can only evolve relative to the system it is evolving within. Although an individual’s experiences provide the foundation upon which consciousness may evolve, external entities do not have the innate capacity to evolve an individual’s consciousness in any manner. The evolution of consciousness exists only to the extent that an individual recognizes the process within their self. In other words, given its intrinsic nature, an individual is singlehandedly responsible for the rate at which their consciousness evolves.
Consciousness and Phase Transitions
Upon the comprehension of consciousness, as outlined above, we can begin to understand how an individual’s level of consciousness directs their experience at any given moment. As reality is subjective, the evolution of an individual’s consciousness is suggestive of how that individual approaches and experiences new information throughout time. Returning to the concept of phase transitions, we consider how consciousness conflates with the neurocognitive processes involved in phase transitions. That is, we identify the nature of consciousness during the critical points where an individual transitions from one state of being to another.
Given that consciousness is a dynamic process of information integration, we can distinguish phase transitions (i.e. moments of attitude/behavior change, such as those resulting from persuasion) as moments where consciousness is functioning at its highest capacity. During phase transitions when an individual is transitioning from one state to another, an individual is successfully integrating new information, appropriately shifting their mental framework to align with their experience at that moment in time. In these moments of transition, consciousness is directed towards self-expansion, allowing an individual to experience the novelty of time, free from the burden of self-preservation. Conversely, when an individual begins to settle into a particular state following a phase transition, their consciousness begins to stagnate as they cease to integrate new information for the sake of self-preservation.
Consciousness can be understood as the dynamic enabling the evolution of human cognition and motivation. Given the nature of consciousness, as outlined by the Integrative Information Theory, the degree to which an individual evolves throughout time is directly correlated to the level of consciousness in which they engage and respond to experience. An individual who possesses a low degree of consciousness (i.e. poor information integration ability) will evolve at a slower rate than an individual who possesses a high degree of consciousness (i.e. high information integration ability).
The nature of consciousness mirrors the nature of fourth-dimensional time— it is ephemeral, transitory, and dynamic. Given that psychological needs are fulfilled in the mental realm, where fourth-dimensional time consciousness exists, an individual’s consciousness should align with the nature of fourth-dimensional reality. In other words, if an individual wishes to fulfill certain psychological needs that exist within the mental realm, their consciousness must align with the inherently transitory nature the mental realm experiences through time. As outlined in the Integrative Information Theory, conscious experience through time is dynamic, therefore integrated information can only be generated by systems that correspondingly transition from one state to the next.
On this premise, we can recognize individuals with low degrees of consciousness as those operating out of alignment with the nature of human experience through time. Rather than embracing a transitory, ever-changing mental framework in response to experience, these individuals fixate upon a particular self-identity and distort their experience to fit within that framework. As visually represented in Figure 2, an individual who possesses a low degree of consciousness will pass through time receiving information from their experience, while failing to integrate it into their mental framework, which prevents them from evolving into higher order states of being. Individuals with low degrees of consciousness, whether consciously or unconsciously, value stability over growth. Because they perceive high subjective value in maintaining their identity, they will only find value in integrating information that aligns with their established identity, even if it is fundamentally rooted in lack (i.e. an unfulfilled need). In essence, this pattern becomes a negative feedback loop where by only integrating information in congruence with past a framework of the self, the individual becomes stagnant at a particular level. This incessant identification directs consciousness towards cultivating a mental reality that aligns with a past program rather than one with the capacity of transcending and evolving into new states of being. Without integrating information through consciousness, an individual’s experiences do not provide a foundation for evolution.
Figure 2. The relationship between evolution through time and information integration abilities. Low degrees of consciousness (i.e. poor information integration abilities) hinder an individual’s capacity to evolve in response to their experiences.
Alternatively, as represented in Figure 3, individuals with high degrees of consciousness are those who successfully integrate incoming information from their experience into their developing mental framework, allowing them to evolve into higher order states of being at a faster rate. Because these individuals are unconcerned with maintaining a particular self-identity, they are able to experience and integrate information objectively, allowing experience to catalyze their evolution. Individuals who possess high degrees of consciousness cognitively operate in alignment with the nature of human experience through time. That is, they allow their mental framework to appropriately shift in response to present moment experience, rather than directing consciousness towards preservation of the past
Figure 3. The relationship between evolution through time and information integration abilities. High degrees of consciousness (i.e. high information integration abilities) indicate an individual’s ability to appropriately respond and evolve in accordance to their experiences. Because phase transitions represent moments of maximum information integration, an individual’s information integration ability directly correlates to the frequency at which they experience phase transitions.
As a result of evolution, the human brain is mechanically equipped to minimize uncertainty by reducing the immeasurable possibilities of the future to those that can be predicted by mirroring the past. Through reinforcement learning and the generation of value signals and reward prediction errors, the brain inherently creates a timeline between past, present, and future that favors consistency over expansion. Fundamentally, these mental operations are rooted in fear and self-preservation against danger. Evolutionarily, the brain’s precautionary mechanisms served in physically protecting humans from external entities capable of harm. That is, in a world where human consciousness was primarily directed towards fulfilling physiological and safety needs in the physical realm, predicting the value of future outcomes was imperative to ensure survival. However, human consciousness, for the most part, is no longer monopolized in the fulfillment of physiological and safety needs, as much as it is by psychological needs. In the process of fulfilling psychological needs, there’s no inherent danger to fear or be precautionary against, as they exist solely in the mental realm to which only one has access. This then leads to question, to what extent are the instinctive, fear-based, neurocognitive processes of the brain benefitting humans in the fulfillment of psychological needs?
Given that the instinctive neurocognitive processes of the brain favor self-preservation, these processes inherently constrain an individual to maintain a particular identity and the void characteristic of that identity (i.e. an individual who identifies as lacking competency will be led towards maintaining that identity). By nature, one cannot transcend a need while simultaneously identifying with it. Psychological needs are intangible, existing merely in relation to an individual’s self-identity. Therefore, in essence, transcending a psychological need means transcending the framework of self that identifies with that need.
For instance, to fulfill the psychological need of being accepted by others, an individual must release the framework of self that identifies with not being accepted. The fulfillment of psychological needs is contingent upon this continuous birth/death cycle of one’s self-identity.
If an individual wishes to fulfill psychological needs, they must be capable of releasing their dependency upon a programmed self-identity to guide behavior. In Toward a Psychology of Being, Maslow affirms, “Only the flexibly creative person can really manage future, only the one who can face novelty with confidence and without fear. I am convinced that much of what we now call psychology is the study of tricks we use to avoid the anxiety of absolute novelty by making believe the future will be like the present” (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 2013). In other words, if an individual wishes to release themself from a time feedback loop where their future mirrors the past, they must consciously approach the novelty of the present moment rather than automatically operating from the neurocognitive processes of the brain rooted in fear.
Having awareness of the fundamental neurocognitive processes conceiving experience allows an individual to consciously manipulate the framework from which they operate. More generally, and in the grand-scale of persuasion, only through a thorough understanding of the fundamental processes that actualize a particular subjective reality can one successfully manipulate the existential matrix. On both the yielding and receiving end of persuasion, parties attempt to shift reality in a direction that services their underlying motivations to fulfill certain needs. Nevertheless, experiencing reality illusively prevents individuals from transcending a reality characterized by perpetual need fulfillment.
In general, humans have intrinsically programmed the conviction that their physical and mental realities are inextricable. On this presumption, individuals will seek to attain a particular mental reality through the manipulation of their physical reality, despite these realities not being inherently concomitant. In attempting to fulfill psychological needs (i.e. mental reality) through the world of form (i.e. physical reality), an individual will continuously approach experience in a manner simply unsuited for need fulfillment and evolution. On the premise that, universally, all humans are inherently inclined towards evolution into self-actualization, mental programs hindering this process, whether consciously or unconsciously, are fundamental sources of psychological stress.
As demonstrated in moments of phase transitions, consciousness, as it manifests through humans, is inclined towards ascension. During phase transitions, when information integration (i.e. consciousness) is maximized, human cognition and motivation ascends to higher orders. The movement of consciousness becomes the channel through which one can release unconscious programming and ascend into higher states of being. In congruence with Maslow’s theory that humans are inherently motivated towards self-actualization, one could contend that information integration objectively holds principal value in humans’ evolution towards self-actualization. Individuals who ubiquitously find principal value in information integration, regardless of situational conditions, accelerate their journey to self-actualization and its characterized bliss.
Through the conscious decision of placing utmost value to information integration, an individual transcends the traditional, conditioned motivations that once directed their experience. When operating from a mental framework that places highest subjective value in information integration, an individual is unconditionally motivated by growth. Rather than having motivations that are conditioned to a particular outcome in the world of form (both physically and mentally), the individual is motivated to remain in a state of evolution, regardless of the situation they are experiencing.
Individuals who place primary value in information integration experience a reality rooted in the novelty of the present moment. Rather than manipulating their reality to fit within a projection, which emerges from the programming of past experiences, these individuals free themselves from the time feedback loop. Because the value of experience is no longer contingent upon conditions, they are no longer bound to the pattern of actualizing future realities based upon their expected value, in relation to past experiences. The present moment becomes a place of absolute novelty, where an individual has complete access to the infinite future potentials available during the creation of experienced reality.
This experience of time parallels with that of self-actualized individuals, which in essence, is an experience of timelessness. When shifting into timelessness, consciousness unbinds itself from a single timeline. One can imagine unconscious programming as the string that threads past, present, and future into a single timeline. As consciousness expands, unconscious programming is diminished, and the thread tying past, present, and future dissipates. Free from the framework of past and future, the present moment expands to its infinite potentialities, allowing consciousness to co-create with experience to spontaneously actualize reality.
Moreover, it is this sense of timelessness that allows self-actualized individuals, those with high-degrees of consciousness, to recognize their creative potential in the actualization of reality. For individuals with low degrees of consciousness, reality is experienced as something to be managed, rather than created. Rather than creating each moment of their experienced reality with consciousness, they do so unconsciously from conditioned mental programming. As a result, their experience of reality is one of coping with circumstances they have unconsciously created, rather than one of creation and self-expression.
Self-Actualized Response to Persuasion
It is reasonable to assert that in developed nations, culture and persuasion are virtually inextricable from one another. The social matrix of the developed world is saturated with persuasive messages that are streamlined to the masses. If an individual is not acutely aware of all aspects contributing to their self-identity, and how this motivates their behavior, persuasive messages have the capacity of exploiting the unconscious programs from which they operate. Without consciousness, an individual will unconsciously program persuasive messages into their mental framework, which innately obstructs autonomous function in the creation of their reality. If an individual wishes to live a life of authentic expression that emerges from the depths of their unique creative potential, they must become conscious of the underlying neurocognitive processes from which they are creating.
Individuals who enable their evolution through the prioritization of information integration will find value within every single moment because information integration is available within in every moment. Maslow illustrated this by stating, “Self actualizing people do not (for any length of time) feel anxiety-ridden, insecure, unsafe, do not feel alone, ostracized, rootless, or isolated, do not feel unlovable, rejected, or unwanted, do not feel despised and looked down upon, and do not feel deeply unworthy, nor do they have crippling feelings of inferiority or worthlessness” (“Motivation and Personality”, 1954). Self-actualized individuals have transcended the scale of human emotions rooted in disappointment because, regardless of the form in which it appears, each experience is deeply valuable in relation to information integration and evolution.
Maslow conveyed the relationship between self-actualized individuals and society by stating, “Practically every serious description of the ‘authentic person’ extant implies that such a person, by virtue of what he has become, assumes a new relation to his society and indeed, to society in general. He not only transcends himself in various ways; he also transcends his culture. He resists enculturation” (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 2013). In many ways, the psyche of self-actualized individuals can be considered untouchable. Because their interpretation of value is no longer conditioned to particular outcomes in the world of form, self-actualized individuals transcend the traditional motivations guiding most human behavior. Through fulfilling all levels of fundamental human needs, they also transcend the relative self-identifications rooted in lack. Self-actualized individuals are unable to be unconsciously exploited and manipulated, on the basis of their self-identity, to behave in accordance with a particular agenda. Essentially, they resist persuasion.
With a fundamental acceptance of themselves as complete beings, there is no potential outcome with the possibility of adding or subtracting value to their life. In a universe that is quantumly uncertain, the only certainty is recognizing absolute value within the uncertain. Consciousness serves as the portal through which an individual can experience the absolute value within experience itself, and from uncertainty, create an unconditionally valuable certainty that reflects their most authentic truth.
1. Cacioppo, J. T., Cacioppo, S., & Petty, R. E. (2018). The neuroscience of persuasion: A review with an emphasis on issues and opportunities. Social neuroscience, 13(2), 129-172.
2. Skaperdas, S., & Vaidya, S. (2012). Persuasion as a contest. Economic theory, 51(2), 465-486.
3. Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
4. Petty, R. E., & Brinol, P. (2010). Attitude change. Advanced social psychology: The state of the science, 217-259.
5. Ajzen, I. (2001). Nature and operation of attitudes. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 27-58.
6. Hovland, C. I., Janis, I. L., & Kelley, H. H. (1953). Communication and persuasion; psychological studies of opinion change.
7. McGuire, W. J. (1968). Personality and attitude change: An information-processing theory. Psychological foundations of attitudes, 171, 196.
8. Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion. In Communication and persuasion (pp. 1-24). Springer New York.
9. Chaiken, S. (1987). The heuristic model of persuasion. In Social influence: the ontario symposium (Vol. 5, pp. 3-39).
10. Kruglanski, A. W., & Thompson, E. P. (1999). Persuasion by a single route: A view from the unimodel. Psychological Inquiry, 10(2), 83-109.
11. Petty, R. E., BriĖol, P., & DeMarree, K. G. (2007). The meta-cognitive model (MCM) of attitudes: Implications for attitude measurement, change, and strength. Social Cognition, 25(5), 657.
12. Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1977). Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior: An introduction to theory and research.
13. Bartra, O., McGuire, J. T., & Kable, J. W. (2013). The valuation system: a coordinate-based meta-analysis of BOLD fMRI experiments examining neural correlates of subjective value. Neuroimage, 76, 412-427.
14. Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological review, 84(3), 231.
15. Schultz, W. (2006). Behavioral theories and the neurophysiology of reward. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 57, 87-115.
16. Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological review, 50(4), 370.
17. Fiske, A. P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological review, 99(4), 689.
18. Klucharev, V., Hytönen, K., Rijpkema, M., Smidts, A., & Fernández, G. (2009). Reinforcement learning signal predicts social conformity. Neuron, 61(1), 140-151.
19. Falk, E. B., Morelli, S. A., Welborn, B. L., Dambacher, K., & Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Creating buzz: the neural correlates of effective message propagation. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1234-1242.
20. Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., Mann, T., Harrison, B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2010). Predicting persuasion-induced behavior change from the brain. Journal of Neuroscience, 30(25), 8421-8424.
21. Falk, E. B., Berkman, E. T., Whalen, D., & Lieberman, M. D. (2011). Neural activity during health messaging predicts reductions in smoking above and beyond self-report. Health Psychology, 30(2), 177.
22. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (2013). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. In Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I (pp. 99-127).
23. Vezich, I. S., Katzman, P. L., Ames, D. L., Falk, E. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2017). Modulating the neural bases of persuasion: why/how, gain/loss, and users/non-users. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 12(2), 283-297.
24. Cooper, N., Bassett, D. S., & Falk, E. B. (2017). Coherent activity between brain regions that code for value is linked to the malleability of human behavior. Scientific reports, 7, 43250.
25. de la Vega, A., Chang, L. J., Banich, M. T., Wager, T. D., & Yarkoni, T. (2016). Large-scale meta-analysis of human medial frontal cortex reveals tripartite functional organization. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(24), 6553-6562.
26. Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8038-8043.
27. Cooper, N., Tompson, S., Brook O'Donnell, M., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Brain activity in self-and value-related regions in response to online antismoking messages predicts behavior change. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 27(3), 93.
28. Chua, H. F., Liberzon, I., Welsh, R. C., & Strecher, V. J. (2009). Neural correlates of message tailoring and self-relatedness in smoking cessation programming. Biological psychiatry, 65(2), 165-168.
29. Correll, J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2004). An affirmed self and an open mind: Self-affirmation and sensitivity to argument strength. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(3), 350-356.
30. Wakslak, C. J., & Trope, Y. (2009). Cognitive consequences of affirming the self: The relationship between self-affirmation and object construal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 927-932.
31. Cascio, C. N., O’Donnell, M. B., Tinney, F. J., Lieberman, M. D., Taylor, S. E., Strecher, V. J., & Falk, E. B. (2015). Self-affirmation activates brain systems associated with self-related processing and reward and is reinforced by future orientation. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(4), 621-629.
32. Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (2006). The neural basis of mentalizing. Neuron, 50(4), 531-534.
33. Dietvorst, R. C., Verbeke, W. J., Bagozzi, R. P., Yoon, C., Smits, M., & Van Der Lugt, A. (2009). A sales force–specific theory-of-mind scale: Tests of its validity by classical methods and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(5), 653-668.
34. Welborn, B. L., Lieberman, M. D., Goldenberg, D., Fuligni, A. J., Galván, A., & Telzer, E. H. (2015). Neural mechanisms of social influence in adolescence. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 11(1), 100-109.
35. Ouellette, J. (2011, August 02). Teetering on the Edge of Chaos.
36. Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal psychotherapy. SUNY Press.
37. Ferrarelli, F., Massimini, M., Sarasso, S., Casali, A., Riedner, B. A., Angelini, G., ... & Pearce, R. A. (2010). Breakdown in cortical effective connectivity during midazolam-induced loss of consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(6), 2681-2686.
38. Balduzzi, D., & Tononi, G. (2008). Integrated information in discrete dynamical systems: motivation and theoretical framework. PLoS computational biology, 4(6), e1000091.
39. Balduzzi, D., & Tononi, G. (2008). Integrated information in discrete dynamical systems: motivation and theoretical framework. PLoS computational biology, 4(6), e1000091.
40. Maslow, A. H. (2013). Toward a psychology of being. Simon and Schuster.
41. Maslow, A. H. (1954). Personality and motivation. Harlow, England: Longman, 1, 987.