Getting to the Target First

Early warnings about messages others will soon hear often increase resistance to those messages. In short, forewarning sabotages persuasion.

We’ve all done it.  We find out that someone is about to make a pitch of dubious value to a friend or family member.  And so we warn them.  We tell them what they will probably hear in the next hours or days, and we urge them to be wary of accepting those claims.

This process of issuing what amounts to a pre-message warning about a subsequent message is called inoculation.  It’s linguistic origin is in the medical idea that the body’s defenses can be tricked into responding as if it is infected. Those antibodies created when a benign form of a disease is introduced can have the effect of immunizing us against the real thing. Similar immunizing of a potential victim against harmful persuasion can have the same effect.

To see this at work in a structured setting recall courtroom dramas that have included scenes where the prosecution and defense take turns making opening statements.  Following real life, those statements typically warn the jury about the questionable claims the other side will offer.  “You will hear the Defense claim that the defendant was not at the scene of the robbery,” the Prosecution begins.  “But don’t believe them.  Listen carefully. They have no real evidence that the defendant was elsewhere.” And so it goes. It’s not that different from my actions as a grade-schooler when I broke a window in my house. The glass was in the way of an errant throw of a baseball to one of my friends. Thanks to his slippery hands and inability to jump ten feet I needed to be first at the car door when my parents came home. I was anxious to tell my side of the story before they heard a version that would put all the blame on me. Even children are natural persuasion strategists.

Most of the available research suggests inoculation is effective. Early warnings about future messages that will come from others substantially weaken those messages. So it generally makes sense to plan ahead when you know you will be in a struggle to win over the views of others.

Although this may sound like a strategy predicated on negative messages–to not accept what will be coming someone’s way–inoculation can actually be quite positive.  It’s mostly how we discourage kids from taking up the cigarette habit.  The Truth Campaign’s warnings about how tobacco products are “nicotine delivery systems” made to taste like candy reliably trigger a potential smoker’s natural desire to not be someone else’s pawn.  It’s one of the winning strategies in a “drug war” that can claim few persuasion successes.

This summer as candidates prepare to enter the presidential sweepstakes, expect to hear some inoculation messages.  Any candidate with unwanted personal baggage (legal, health, or family problems are the most common) will announce them in advance of the fall debate season.  All candidates want to inoculate the American public against a steady drip of leaks or embarrassing revelations.  By mentioning their problem early, the hope is that it becomes old news by the time citizens are ready to pay attention in the Fall.