Inoculation Theory
Ouch!  But It’s Good For You or The Best Defense Is A Bad Offense

BrainwashingDuring the Korean War (1950-1952), the American public was introduced to a new idea:  Brainwashing.  This word was invented to explain the unexpected acts of treason that were committed by a few American soldiers who were captured.  For the first time in our history a significant number of our captured soldiers willingly cooperated with the enemy.  It was a jarring shock to America and it caused people to try and figure out what had happened.

The first speculation was that the enemy had used a clever combination of torture and punishment to beat our soldiers into submission.  The evidence suggests otherwise.  The brainwashing sessions did not necessarily include torture, but rather featured a lengthy debate between the captured soldier and a skillful questioner.  And the debate was about America and American beliefs about freedom, democracy, and equality.

Amazingly, many of our soldiers had great difficulty defending their political and social beliefs.  They believed that democracy was the best form of government, but they could not explain why this was true.  And their captors merely attacked these simply held beliefs until the soldiers began to doubt their validity.  After that the road to “treason” was easy.

The lesson learned translated into important changes for the American military.  New soldiers began to receive more extensive political training along with the typical military instruction.  No soldier would ever hold naive beliefs or be unable to defend America verbally or militarily.

These ideas translated into one of the most interesting persuasion tools ever developed.  The most important question was, “How do you get people to hold a belief more strongly?”  It was obvious from the war experience that mere education was not sufficient training to strengthen important beliefs.  You can lecture people about the joys of capitalism or socialism and they can learn the lecture well enough to pass a true-false test on it, but when the real world mounts a serious attack on the information, many learners will crumble.

How do you get people to hold a belief or attitude more strongly?

Inoculation theory, that’s how.

The main point of Inoculation Theory is:  Attacks make beliefs (and attitudes) stronger.  To understand this theory, we need to draw upon a medical analogy.

A Medical Analogy

InoculationThe term, “Inoculation Theory,” is drawn from the public health practice of giving shots to prevent serious diseases.  Almost every American gets some kind of shot to prevent polio, diphtheria, and a wide range of other viruses.  How does this process work?

Interestingly, the shot actually gives the person a weak dose of the virus.  This in turn activates the body’s immune system.  The immune system fights off this weak attack and (here’s the good part) the immune system actually becomes stronger.  Thus, the next time the virus attacks, the immune system can handle an even larger assault.

The key word in all this is, “weak.”  If the shot contained too strong a dose, it would overwhelm the immune system, make the person sick, and perhaps even kill the person.  The dose must have enough of the virus to activate the immune system, but must not be so strong that it overpowers.

Inoculation Theory

The application to persuasion is apparent.  If we want to strengthen existing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, inoculation theory suggests that we should present a weak attack on those attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.  Again, the key word here is, “weak.”  If the attack is too strong, it will cause the attitude, belief, or behavior to get weaker or even move to the opposite position.  The attack has to be strong enough to challenge the defenses of the receiver without overwhelming them.

Here are the steps of effective inoculation:

1.  Warn the receiver of the impending attack.
2.  Make a weak attack.
3.  Get the receiver to actively defend the attitude.

Let’s look at each of these steps in detail.

Warn of the Attack. The warning plays a key role in the inoculation process.  It serves to activate the existing defenses in the receivers.  As soon as the warning is made, receivers are threatened.  They know an attack is imminent and they must get ready for it.

When people are threatened in this way they immediately begin to generate possible defenses against the coming attack.  In fact, people will produce ideas that may never be directly useful or necessary during the coming attack.  It is like a group of soldiers who have some time to prepare for the enemy.  They may not know exactly what the enemy is going to do, so the soldiers get every weapon and construct every barrier they can.  Maybe they won’t use everything, but it’s there if needed.  Threatened receivers perform the same kind of mental preparation.

It is crucial that receivers over prepare in this way.  All that extra work is not really wasted even if is not actually used to defend against the coming attack.

Make a Weak Attack. Now, if you think about it, an attack is simply an act of persuasion.  An attack is an attempt by some source to change the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of receivers.  Advertisers “attack” our existing attitudes when they try to get us to prefer their product over a competitor.  Parents “attack” their kids’ beliefs about proper conduct in public.  In fact, most of this book is aimed at making you a more effective “attacker” in your world.  So, understand that the attack in the inoculation process is nothing special or different.

It is important, however, that the attack be weak and ineffective.  If you produce a strong attack, what will happen?  That’s right.  The attitude you wanted to strengthen will get weaker and maybe even move in the opposite direction.  It would be as if Louis Pasteur used too strong a shot in his first small pox vaccine and it killed everybody.

The attack must be strong enough to force the receivers to defend.  It must not be so strong as to overcome the defense.

Make the Receiver Actively Defend. Many years of careful research have shown that the more actively the receiver defends against the attack, the stronger the existing attitude will become.  An active defense occurs when the receiver does more than merely think, but rather performs actions.  It is therefore important to get the receivers to verbally and loudly express all those defense thoughts.

It is also crucial that the receiver does the defending with as little outside assistance as possible.  Again, a fighting analogy is useful.  People will not learn how to physically defend themselves during an assault if someone else intervenes.  The inoculation process operates the same way.  The receivers must do their own fighting with their own resources and learn not to rely on others.

Why Does It Work?

Inoculation works because it causes the receivers to engage in central route processing about the attitude object.  The weak attack threatens the receivers and forces them to think more carefully, deeply, and effortfully.  In essence, inoculation is a kind of judo where the receivers are tricked into thinking about the object.  The more they think, the stronger the attitude becomes.  And the receivers do all the work.  All you do is provide that weak attack that gets the whole thing started.

The whole point of inoculation is to get people to think for themselves.  When people actively generate their own ideas and thoughts, then have to vigorously defend those ideas and thoughts, they will develop considerably stronger attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.  Thus, Inoculation is a central route process where forewarning and attacking produces high WATT thinking and a focus upon self generated arguments.  It literally provokes a highly biased, deeply elaborated response.

And, it is most effective if the target doesn’t realize it is a deliberate weak attack.  Thus, inoculation requires a fair amount of finesse on the part of the source.  You have to not only be smart enough to make a weak attack, but you also have to be self-effacing enough to look like a loser.

Applications Of Inoculation

This theory has been applied to advertising, political campaigning, and social marketing.  Let me share a couple of brief examples.

First, over the past several years the various long distance phone companies (AT&T, MCI, Sprint) have been trying to hold onto their customers.  It is a very competitive business especially since deregulation and the forced breakup of the original AT&T system.  If you scrutinize the ads these companies run, you soon realize that many of them try to inoculate their customers.  The ads will feature some guy getting a phone call from “another phone company” and the ad shows this fellow actively telling the “other company” to drop dead.  I think that AT&T has been the most active here since they have a large existing base of customers they are trying to keep.

Second, some really interesting new research shows that you can inoculate voters in political campaigns.  For example, the Republican party would send out literature to potential Republican voters warning them that the Democrats are likely to attack the Republican candidate on various issues.  The literature would provide a weak version of the attacks which the voter would easily defeat.  Then when the real Democrat attack comes, the potential Republican voter would fight it off.

In the first edition of the Primer written in 1992 I noted:

“Given the current interest in the “attack ad,” I expect that many politicians will turn to inoculation to help preempt these potential attacks.  Keep an eye out for this new wrinkle in American politics.”

Gennifer FlowersYou might recall the infamous “woman” problem of President Bill Clinton (1992-2000).  What you may not remember is that this problem popped up during the Presidential primaries held over the winter of 1991-92.  A former amorous partner, Gennifer Flowers, scheduled a press conference declaring her adulterous relationship with the then Governor of Arkansas.  The Clinton campaign got wind of this planned press conference by Ms. Flowers and on the Sunday night before that following Monday afternoon event, Bill and Hillary Clinton appeared on an episode of the popular TV news magazine show, “60 Minutes.”  In it, the reporter directly asked about the “woman” problem and the Clintons, especially, Mrs. Clinton responded in a way that seemed to acknowledge past marital problems, but that these problems were way in the past, and that they were together in marriage as husband and wife.

This is an excellent practical application of inoculation.  Before the “real” attack from Gennifer Flowers could occur, Mr. Clinton managed to produce a weak attack on voter attitudes about fidelity, marital privacy, and politics.  The appearance on “60 Minutes” was their first large scale national appearance in the media, so many viewers were getting their first look at the Clintons.  And, that first looking included a weak presentation of the “woman” problem and how the Clintons handled it.

When Gennifer Flowers came along the next day, not only was her press conference “old news” it was also inoculated news.  People had already been attacked on their attitudes about Mr. Clinton’s character and alleged defects and they had already defended their attitudes on that issue.  When Ms. Flowers came along, many people could easily defend their attitudes and beliefs about Mr. Clinton and just as easily discount Ms. Flowers’ claims as a tawdry and transparent attempt to gain her “fifteen minutes” of fame.

It is also interesting to note that Mr. Clinton went to law school at Yale University during the time when one of the primary researchers in inoculation theory, Professor William McGuire, was at Yale doing this research.  There is no evidence that Mr. Clinton took any seminars from the Yale psychology department, but it is easy to imagine that he would have learned about this theory a long time ago.  And nobody thinks they actually learn anything useful in college.

Healthy Inoculation

This theory creates an all-purpose prosocial persuasion tool.  Anytime you want to strengthen an existing position, use inoculation.  I will give you another example based on an interesting study.

Everybody knows that smoking is harmful to your health.  Our society is engaged in a massive campaign designed to get people to quit.  But quitting is difficult and some people are not able to do it.  So, our society is taking a different line.  We are trying to find ways to keep people from starting this harmful and addictive habit.  And who are we targeting?  Adolescents, of course.  These young kids are the ones who will be most likely to start and will probably find it most difficult to quit.  So, how can we keep these kids from smoking?

Already you should see that this problem is a perfect application for inoculation.  Most kids already know that smoking is harmful and that they should not start.  Thus, they already have existing attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are “correct.”  The problem is these attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are not strong enough to keep all kids from starting smoking.  Therefore, we must inoculate them.  Research recent suggests this approach works.

Middle school students were simply shown one inoculation video during regular classtime in their health classes.  Six months later, the attitudes of these students were assessed with self report scales.  With students of low self esteem, the inoculation video served to strengthen and maintain attitudes against smoking.  And all on the basis of one inoculation.

Beyond this social application of inoculation theory, there are other more practical uses.  Anytime any student is already doing what you want, simply provide a weak, questioning, attack to make the attitude, belief, or behavior stronger.

Effective Inoculation

Recall the three steps of inoculation:  Warning, weak attack, active defense.  In doing each step, keep in mind three important points.

First, the warning must serve as a threat that an attack is coming.  This activates High WATT thinking.  Next, let there be some delay between the warning and the actual attack.  This will permit more thinking and defense-building.

Second, the attack must challenge, but not overwhelm the receivers.  This is a tricky and subtle point.  Especially in situations where you may possess higher status or power and  are “attacking” lower status, lower power receivers, it can be very easy for you to overwhelm your targets.  Instead of causing them to strengthen the attitude, belief, or behavior, you might cause them to question and doubt that attitude, belief, or behavior.  Use the receivers’ behavior as a cue.  If the receivers are not defending themselves and instead appear to be nervous or upset, your attack is too strong and will not work.

Finally, encourage active defending.  Get each receiver to say or do something that shows their defense is working.  Also try not to provide defenses yourself.  Remember the receivers only get strong by doing the work for themselves.  If you give assistance then they will stop thinking and simply respond with the ideas you provide.

References And Recommended Readings

McGuire, W. (1964). Inducing resistance to persuasion: Some contemporary approaches. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 1, pp.191-229). New York: Academic Press.

Pfau, M., & Burgoon, M. (1986).  Inoculation in political campaign communication. Human Communication Research, 15, 99-111.

Pfau, M., Kenski, H., Nitz, M., & Sorenson, J. (1990). Efficacy of inoculation strategies in promoting resistance to political attack messages: Application to direct mail.  Communication Monographs, 57, 25-43.

Pfau, M., Van Bockern, S., & Kang, J. (1992). The effectiveness of peer and adult inoculation videos in promoting resistance to smoking in adolescents.  Communication Monographs, 59, 213-230.