Tag Archives: inoculation

No Thanks. I’ve been Warned.


 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.


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.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu