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.
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.