Speech 40: Resistance to Influence: Inoculation Theory-Based Persuasion

This course revisits a classic theory of resistance to influence: inoculation. Inoculation theory is unique. Instead of offering ways to enhance persuasion, inoculation offers resistance to persuasion. We will trace inoculation’s development; reconsider some of its assumptions; explore its application in contexts of health, politics, and marketing; and discuss ethics of resistance-based message strategies. Writing and speaking projects will guide our consideration and analysis of this underexplored dimension of rhetoric. No prerequisites. Limited enrollment.

To view the full ORC description, which indicates terms this course is scheduled to be offered, follow this link: Speech 40

Inoculation theory has been called “the grandparent theory of resistance to attitude change,”1 but as a colleague and I have argued, “This ‘grandparent theory’ remains spry, and a dormant retirement is not on its horizon.”2 Inoculation scholarship is witnessing a dynamic resurgence in quantity and quality not seen since William McGuire launched it in 1961.

What we know: It works. Inoculation has conferred resistance to pressures on adolescents to smoke, alcohol advertisements, and predatory credit card marketing directed toward college students. Scholars have established it as a viable political campaign strategy. And it strengthens peoples’ attitudes on a range of issues, both for and against legalizing marijuana, violence restrictions on television, banning handguns, and a host of others. Inoculation-based campaigns are powerful, with proven utility across contexts.

What we don’t yet know: How does it work? The conventional explanation, based on an analogy, has empirical support. Attitudinal inoculation confers resistance to persuasion much like a medical inoculation confers resistance to viruses. With live attenuated medical inoculations, a weakened version of an offending agent (e.g., a virus) is injected, strengthening the body’s defenses against future, stronger attacks (e.g., infections). With attitudinal inoculations, a weakened version of an offending agent (e.g., a counterattitudinal message) is subjected, strengthening the mind’s defenses against future, stronger attacks (e.g., persuasive messages).

But there’s more to it than that. Since the early 1990s, scholars have identified a mysterious path from inoculation treatment to resistance— a path that doesn’t fit the conventional explanation.

We also don’t yet know the precise boundary conditions of inoculation, why it sometimes fails (and even boomerangs), and how to enhance its effects. Perhaps more importantly, we don’t know how to thwart it. Inoculation theory is amoral—it explains what happens when people encounter persuasive attempts. It doesn’t explain what should happen. We’ll survey some of the ethical dimensions of inoculation in practice.

This course asks us to approach persuasion from a new perspective: Not what makes messages more persuasive, but instead, how can messages confer resistance to persuasion? This question, with roots in ancient rhetorical teachings and applications in contemporary contexts, should fuel our discussions, analysis, and projects during the term.

A close study of inoculation theory will help us to become more knowledgeable, nuanced producers and consumers of influence messages.

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1 Eagly, A. H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 
2 Compton, J., & Pfau, M. (2005). Inoculation theory of resistance to influence at maturity: Recent progress in theory development and application and suggestions for future research. In P. J. Kalbfleisch (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 29, 97-146. 

Course Goals

  • develop a more nuanced understanding of persuasion by exploring resistance to persuasion
  • understand the theory and applications of attitudinal inoculation theory
  • write and speak about inoculation theory with an informed understanding

To meet these primary objectives, I will help you to:

  • trace the development of contemporary attitudinal inoculation theory
  • see where inoculation scholarship fits into the broader literature of persuasion, communication, and rhetoric;
  • conceptualize the core component of threat in the inoculation process of resistance
  • compare the arguments for and against counterarguing during resistance
  • learn how inoculation has been applied in health, politics,and marketing
  • extend inoculation into new domains
  • consider alternative explanations for inoculation’s efficacy
  • debate ethical dimensions of applied inoculation
  • prepare and deliver an inoculation-based speech
  • write an analysis of a key theoretical or conceptual element of inoculation theory