Research studies suggest that ‘immunized’ audiences are surprisingly resistant to later appeals.
Our cat has the daily trauma of making decisions about whether to cross the threshold of the front door to come in or out. It’s her call, and it’s always a tough decision. She prevaricates, pauses, reconsiders, and, when coming inside, frequently looks back as if she will never see the great outdoors again. We wait while she decides. And then we wait some more. I’m told it’s called “threshold anxiety,” a pattern not uncommon among cats. This behavior may explain why they have so successfully evolved. It seems like a waste our of time. Even so, there is a kind of parallel in our behavior. Experimental research on what motivates people to change shows that we are also a wily species prone to stay put.
To humans, an attractive gateway to a new attitude almost always looks like a trap. We don’t like to rearrange the mental furniture that is in our heads. And so we stay as we are, even when what is on the other side of the threshold looks so inviting.
There is a persuasion strategy that builds off this tendency. Used at the right time, it’s almost foolproof.
The effective appeal is called inoculation. An inoculation message is a warning to not be taken in by certain communications from a different source that soon will be heard from. This tactic is entrenched in many forms of persuasion—from political campaigns to court trials to prevention messages in health campaigns. The theory predicts that a persuader who delivers a message of caution about a future ploy to win us over can “inoculate” us to resist. When trial lawyers begin their opening statements to a jury noting that the other side “will try to convince you . . . ” they are inoculating. Likewise, when a friend tells us that another friend is making the rounds looking for volunteers, we may be motivated to arm ourselves with a good excuse to say no. The first warning increases already-high levels of audience skepticism, thereby ruining the second persuader’s chances. The warning is a trigger to freeze in place.
In persuasion research there aren’t many strategies where you can bet the farm on an outcome. But you can pretty much count on an immunized audience to not be effected by a later appeal.
There is strong evidence to suggest that exposure of preteens to inoculation messages work well.
Think of inoculation in terms of its metaphoric origins. Just as immunization can prevent disease by introducing a benign form that triggers the body’s defenses, so it seems equally possible to do much the same in a persuasive message. For example, there is strong evidence to suggest that exposure of preteens to anti-smoking messages work if they play out scenarios that suggest manipulation. For example: “films and friends may try to convince you that smoking is cool,” or “cigarette companies try to make you addicted so that you will be a customer for (a shortened) life.” Older teens? Not so much. It’s clear that a prime condition for effective inoculation involves being the first in line to issue a warning. Older kids have been inoculated in a different way. They have heard so many warnings that they have become immune to new lectures.