Communication is pivotal to the survival of any species, and yet despite the many advancements of science and psychology there are numerous mysteries that elude even the brightest minds. No one can say with any degree of certainty why people are the way they are, but the theories posited by men like Robert T. Craig provide some insight into the inner workings of the human brain, and as imperfect as current theories are, understanding them is essential for anyone who wishes to actively or passively communicate in a more effective way.
Communication theory branched off from information theory. It attempts to utilize mathematics to provide a framework for an objective understanding of subjective exchanges. To quote Claude Shannon, “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point.” To put it in simple language, communication theory tries to explain why people respond the way they do so that optimal messages can be chosen in the service of clear communication and eliciting certain responses. These theories can also be used by the keen mind to spot when someone is trying to use manipulation tactics or otherwise nudge a person to act in a way that’s not in his best interest.
Example One: Agenda Setting
Many people are under the mistaken impression that the media is capable of deciding what people think. The truth is that the media has no such power and no human being could ever wield that kind of influence over another individual. However, it is possible to guide people toward thinking about something, and when they are thinking about something after being encouraged to do so it is possible to direct their thought processes so that their conclusion is favorable to the person or group who encouraged them to start thinking.
Example Two: Attitude Change Theory
Attitude change theory attempts to explain how attitudes are formed and the effects that this process has on thought and behavior. It explores three primary mechanisms and motivations that are involved in changing attitudes. Those would be compliance, identification and internalization, and these motivations run the gamut from coercive change brought about by an external force to changing an attitude simply because it is fulfilling unto itself.
Example Three: Selective Exposure
Selective exposure theory posits that people choose to listen to those who share the same perspectives they do and only consume media that caters to their pre-existing biases. It’s essentially based on the idea that human beings aren’t nearly as malleable as some believe and that the forces that are often blamed for influencing them only make them bolder in expressing views they already hold.
Communication theories are both numerous and complex. It requires a lot of in-depth study to truly understand the implications of each idea, and it takes just as much time to compare each theory with the available evidence to see which ones are sound and which ones aren’t. The end result is a much deeper understanding of how people tick, and it’s absolutely necessary to succeed at any endeavor in life.
Nel Reed writes for several higher ed blogs. Interested in communication? Several universities offer a mass communication degree such as University of Florida.