Department of Communication



Ethos: A Dominant Factor in Rhetorical Communication

Chapter 5

Ethos Defined—

An attitude held by the receiver (the audience) toward the speaker (the source). We commonly refer to this as source credibility, the prestige of the speaker, and personal proof. Ethos can be initial (the beginning of the message), it can be derived (produced during the message) and it can be terminal (source credibility at the close of the message). Ethos is in the mind of the receiver; the receiver has it; we as an audience determine if the communicator is credible. The ethos of a source may vary greatly; especially if he/she is controversial. And the ethos may vary even within the same message. We commonly and mistakenly speak as if the source has the ethos. The source may be a group or organization; does not have to be an individual. Ethos is dynamic; always subject to change; may even be volatile.

Ethos—argument by character of the speaker. If you are respected, have good character and are trustworthy, your audience is likely to grant you considerable influence and/or leeway in your argument. Aristotle said, “A person’s life persuades better than his word.” He said that the three essential qualities of persuasive ethos are (a) virtue, (b) practical wisdom, and (c) selflessness or disinterest.

Virtue—the audience believes you share their values. You don’t have to be pure of soul or universally good. But you must “seem” to have the right values as does your audience. Values change from audience to audience. For example, pop culture tends to value youth, money, good looks and body enhancements. Not everyone would agree. If you want to be persuasive you must understand your audience’s values and then at least appear to live up to them.

Practical Wisdom—your audience must see you as a sensible person; one who is sufficiently knowledgeable to deal with the problem at hand. This is a common sense that things can get done with your plan. This is more than looking up decisions in books or sticking to universal truths. It’s an instinct for making the right decisions on every occasion. Therefore, we often think of practical wisdom as “flexibility wise leadership.” All great heroes have it. To demonstrate this you need to show off your experience; show your experiences have worked in the past. Sometimes we may have to bend the rules to get the job done. For example, there was an iincident when Indiana Jones was confronted by a master swordsman wielding a large scimitar. What did Jones do? He pulled out his pistol and shot the guy—he bent the rules. And when we take a middle course or position inside the extreme fringes, we tend to make our audience more comfortable. It was the ancient Greeks who felt most decisions lied somewhere between the extreme ends of an issue.

Selflessness—free of special interests; as well as not uninterested or bored. Many of our politicians like to paint themselves as not coming from moneyed-interests or rich country club lifestyles. Instead, they like to tell us about their impoverished childhoods and how they had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. (Who knows, this may even be true in some cases.) This strategy attempts to show the audience that they have made it on their own and are beholden to no one.

The Dimensions of Source Credibility

We evaluate others with ethos, since this is an evaluative attitude. Specifically, we tend to consider ethos to be the degree of expertness, of trustworthiness, and intention toward us, the receiver. Other factors have been added; namely that of dynamism or the liveliness of the source in delivery. But after all the dust settled, the two most critical factors that influenced the receiver to determine ethos were competence and character. And the element of goodwill or “intentions toward the receiver” cannot be ignored. Which of these factors is more important for an audience? Is it competence? Character? Goodwill? Some research suggests that goodwill was deemed greater than competence but less than character or trustworthiness. But that is no guarantee that all audiences feel the same way. If we encounter two sources of equally character but one is a higher level of perceived competence, not surprisingly we are likely to accept the one with higher competence. But if one is very high in competency with questionable character, while the other is very high in character but with dubious competency, it is unclear which one we’ll believe. In short, audiences will assign some degree of ethos to the speaker on the basis of what they perceive to be an acceptable level of competence; on whether or not they feel the speaker is of good character and whether or not the speaker treats the audience with respect. (You’ll want to study the last paragraph on page 86 very carefully!)

The Effect of Initial Source Credibility—

Not surprisingly, speakers with high ethos are more likely than those with low ethos to affect opinion changes. If you have a reputation or have established your competency and experience with the audience, you have a much greater change of shifting their attitude. This is logical and research merely supports what we would likely suspect. Sometimes we assign some degree of ethos to speakers whose qualifications are not relevant to the issue being argued. We might be swayed to some degree by race, age, gender, etc, whether or not they have much relevancy to the case in point. While such factors can sometimes have “some” impact, they do not compare favorable when matched against relevant and objective ethos factors. Sponsorship effect—the effect of higher ethos rubs off on the speaker/communicator is that speaker is in the midst of higher ethos subjects. The mere fact that we might be physically located near someone of great credibility may have a positive effect on our ethos as well. If possible, we would be wise to surround ourselves with highly credible people if we are attempting to influence others. Physical attractiveness is also a factor that positively impacts source credibility. But the particular sex of the source is less important than the fact that the source is attractive. Does this suggest we are shallow and easily influenced or just a fact of being human?

Initial Source Credibility and Learning—

The main value of ethos in informative message settings is to increase the attention span of the audience members. If the message is coming from an expert we are more likely to pay closer attention than if it came from some guy we never heard of before. Given the option, we will expose ourselves to the experts and avoid those who we consider are not. High initial learning can affect increase learning in two ways: (a) we will probably expose ourselves to those we believe have high ethos; and (b) we are more likely to pay close attention to high ethos sources.

Derived Source Credibility—

Aristotle’s term of “rhetorical choices” (page 90) refer to what we choose to discuss; the facts and other evidence; how we choose to structure and support our message. We have to be careful what we select to speak or write about. You must select your evidence with care; what you choose to include in your message will influence how your audience perceives you. Even those who have considerably high initial ethos need to have solid evidence. We can only trade on our reputation for so long. But make sure the evidence is something the audience doesn’t already know. Telling us that if we play with fire we’ll get burned may be true, but hardly enlightening and does little to impact your derived ethos. And if the evidence is poor or erroneous then your ethos is likely to be damaged. Other factors to consider:

Delivery aspect of derived ethos—good delivery will always help; poor delivery will always hurt. Additionally, speaking fluently is a big plus while being hesitant, having vocal flaws, and being unsure will damage your ethos.

Be sincere when you speak. Lack of sincerity toward your audience will always undercut ethos. Sometimes we can be fooled by a person who appears to be sincere but is not. But it is vital that we treat our audience with sincerity. Perception is everything here.

Organization of ideas contributes to derived ethos. Messages which are easy to follow and see the structure enhance the speaker’s credibility. Strong fear appeals from a low-ethos source will hurt the communicator’s credibility but fear appeals coming from high-ethos sources can enhance credibility.

Common ground means that the source should make the audience aware of any similarities between the source’s background, experiences, etc. and the audience’s world.

Goodwill toward the audience means speaking with the best interest of the audience at heart. This is the process of getting the audience to see the source as having the right attitude toward them.

Transfer means that a source may benefit or profit from references to affiliation with worthy organizations. Having a background in an area relevant to your audience is important. Having worked in an industry; having joined a club, just being affiliated with positively perceived people or businesses. For example, having a speaker who graduated from UTA may elevate his or her standing to students who are currently enrolled.

The element of humor or irrelevant digression can be helpful to reduce tension or put issues back in perspective. Must be used carefully as humor always carries risks of backfiring and reducing ethos.

The Romans coined the term “decorum”—meaning character-based agreeability. It means to fit in, to be suitable for your audience. In argument, as in evolution, survival belongs to the fittest. It follows the audience’s rules; not your own. Decorum tells your audience, “Do as I say and as I do.” The speaker should sound like the collective voice of his or her audience. To show proper decorum, the speaker should act the way the audience expects them to act. Which means you don’t necessarily look and sound just like your audience. You look, speak, dress, and behave like a person in your position is expected to behave. Even though the Romans arrived at this conclusion thousands of years ago, we have many self-help books that advance the same argument today. Modern communication theorist, Kenneth Burke, said in 1950 that ‘You persuade a man only insofar as you can talk his language by speech, gesture, tonality, order, image, attitude, idea, identifying your ways with his.” Some people don’t care what others think or feel about them. Fine, have it your way. But be prepared to fail in persuasion over and over again. In short, you cannot be indecorous and persuasive at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive.

Terminal Source Credibility—

This is the product of the initial and the derived ethos. Terminal ethos can vary in importance. Sometimes it is critical to leave the audience with strong, positive feelings. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Messages may be concept-centered where the primary purpose is to modify the audience’s attitude toward or understanding of some topic (like a commercial advertisement hoping to convince you to buy a product). Or messages may be ethos-centered where the goal is enhance the ethos of the speaker (a politician looking for a vote). Most rhetorical communication is concept-centered. With concept-centered communication the speaker or writer uses their credibility to increase the favorable response to their message. With ethos-centered communication the speaker or writer will rely on the audience’s positive feelings to increase their credibility. A person in a one-shot communication setting does the communicator not care about terminal ethos. When you think this is the end of your contact with that audience and never will interact again, then terminal ethos doesn’t matter. But be careful about “burning your bridges;” you might need them later. Bottom line: if you plan on communicating with your audience again at some later time, then you should be concerned with terminal ethos.

Long-Term Effects of Source Credibility—

Source credibility can have a powerful initial affect on audience. Whether it has long-term effects is somewhat debatable. High-credibility sources tend to lose some or a lot of their impact over time. Surprisingly, research says that sometimes low-credibility sources can (potentially) gain effectiveness over time! This so-called “sleeper effect” says that in the absence of stimuli reinstating the credibility of the source over time, the audience remembers the message but forgets the source. This doesn’t mean that the evidence is weak or that the source is untrustworthy. But rather we frequently tend to remember what was said more so than who said it. It is hard to predict what the long-term effects will be on credibility. But a consistent pattern is that a high-credibility source always seems to lose some effect on the audience. But if the audience is reminded about the high-credibility source at various times, the effect is reinstated. In short, if we don’t have a well-known reputation then we need to keep the focus on our evidence. If our reputation is well known and respected, then we need to keep that awareness in the audience’s collective mind from time to time.

Interpersonal Attraction—

This is the perception that one person holds for another. Three factors are examined that may have some impact on a source’s credibility:

Physical Attraction—While we cannot control what we look like; how tall we are; or what our nationality is, we can have total control on looking the best we can when it comes to clothes, cleanliness, style, etc. Physical attraction has some impact early on with messages, but as time wears on the audience is going to be more interested and influenced by what we say rather than how we look. In short, the better we know a communicator, the less their appearance matters to us. We care more about what they know, how they think, how they treat us, etc. This can be reversed as well for those who are physically attractive but have little of value to share with their audience.

Social Attraction—This refers to how much we think we’d like to spend time with the person in some social setting. If this person seems like a “nice guy” and fun to be around, they can be more influential with any message.

Task Attraction—This refers to the degree of attraction toward working with the speaker/communicator. These are people we like working with because the job gets done right and all involved feel a sense of satisfaction or reward.

Homophily—“coming from the same group”

The “Principle of Homophily” argues that when we see others as similar to us, we are apt to try to communicate with them in the same manner. Consequently, the odds of our success go up due to our concerted effort, and as a result, they are likely to become even more similar to each other. There are three types of such homophily:

Demographic homophily—the social or physical characteristics of a person. The more we look like others, are the same gender, race, age, etc., the more likely we identify with them.

Background homophily—those with similar life experiences as us. This may be hard for a rhetorical communicator to know how his or her life’s experiences relate to the audience. But some research can be helpful and provide some insight.

Attitude homophily—It is just as important for the communicator to know the attitudes shared with the audience, as it is to share those they differ on. Knowing what issues are important to you and how you feel about them is vital. Try not to bring up matters where emotions are hot and you have a different view from your audience.


(Pages 101-102) For the most part, this is a bit redundant from what has been stated in this chapter. So for your reading pleasure, you can omit this material from your study.

Power and Ethos—

Power is thought of as the capacity to influence people to believe or do what they would not have done without our effort.

Researchers French and Raven compiled an often-used list of power types available for communicators:

Coercive—the power to punish; or the receivers’ perception that they are subject to being punished if they don’t follow the source’s direction.

Legitimate—or “assigned” power that comes from the role we play or the position we hold; gives us the right to influence others.

Reward—the receivers’ perception that they can be rewarded for following the sources’ direction.

Expert—receivers perceive that the source is very knowledgeable about the subject; and the competence is influential.

Referent—based on the receivers’ identification with the source. Charismatic or interpersonal attraction factor makes the source influential.

Use of coercive or legitimate power will reduce your ethos. Use of expert or referent power will increase your (the source) ethos. Use of reward power tends to have little impact on ethos—plus or minus. Be very careful when using coercive or legitimate power. Our audience will usually resent those acts even if we are within our rights to use them. In short, the more we use coercive power, the more we lose all other types of power.