Persuasive Inoculation Theory (and Defending One’s Faith)

If you are a regular reader, you know that I am a debate coach, and my kids participate in Team Policy Debate. For the past 4-5 years, we have tried to attend one debate camp each summer. It gives us a jumpstart on the upcoming season, information about the new resolution, new tips, and gets the gears moving again toward another season. 

A couple of summers ago, I attended a debate camp with my kids in the Chicago area. During one lecture, led by a former debater who now debates in college (and, incidentally, who won the National Moot Court competition last year as a college freshman), I heard a new concept called “Persuasive Inoculation Theory”. The speaker was applying this theory to debate, and I wanted to understand it better, so once I got home, I did my own research on the subject.

I was thinking initially I’d research about how to better understand the applications in debating, but the background story is fascinating, and its applications have been used in advertising, politics, business, etc. I have been working on this post off and on since October, when I posted that entire month on various aspects of communication, which starts here. This post was in my queue for that series, and I planned this for a “bonus” post for that series. :)


During the Korean War (1950-1952), some American soldiers were captured by the Koreans. What was shocking to the American public is that a number of them committed acts of treason and cooperated with the enemy. How could this have happened?

At first, it was thought they had been tortured, or brainwashed, or forced into submission. 

Actually, the evidence suggested another reason, as researched by a psychologist named William McGuire. It was not torture; in fact, surprisingly, it was actually “debating”.

Perhaps you are as surprised as I was when I first read that. They were debating? The soldiers were involved in lengthy debates between themselves and a skilled questioner/captor.  

What in the world were they debating?

They debated America, the concept of America, and American beliefs about freedom, democracy, and equality.

The American soldiers believed democracy was the best form of government, but as they continued to be questioned, they could not explain why, or defend their beliefs. Their captors continuously attacked these beliefs until the soldiers began to doubt themselves. Once they began to doubt, treason was an easy next step, with the soldiers cooperating with the enemy.

Knowledge of this tactic led to changes in the American military. New soldiers began to receive political training along with their military training: no solider would be unable to defend themselves and their beliefs verbally (or militarily).

This knowledge also led to the development of an interesting persuasive tool. The question was: “How do you get people to hold a belief more strongly?”

The answer: Inoculation Theory, that’s how.

Vaccine Analogy

To understand this concept, we draw upon a common medical analogy: the vaccine. People all across the globe are given shots to prevent certain types of diseases. How does this process of disease prevention work?

The shot, or vaccine, gives the individual a weak dose of the actual virus. This weak dose activates the body’s immune system, which fights off the weak attack, and this actually makes the immune system stronger. The body generates antibodies against the invading germ, and the next time, the body is prepared to handle a larger assault.

The key is that it is a “weak” attack. If the initial vaccine dose is too strong, it could make the person sick, or result in death. The dose must be the right amount – small enough to activate the immune system, but not so much that it overpowers it.

Inoculation Theory

Applying this concept to persuasion: if we want to strengthen existing attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, inoculation theory says we should present a weak attack on those attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. The key word again is “weak”.  If the attack is too strong, it will cause the attitude, belief or behavior to get weaker and cause the opposite position. The attack has to be strong enough to challenge the position but not overwhelm.

Put another way, the inoculation theory was proposed in response to a situation where the goal is to persuade someone not to be persuaded by another. The theory is a model for building resistance to persuasion attempts by exposing people to arguments against their beliefs and giving them counter arguments to refute attacks.

The theory therefore offers mechanisms by which communication is used to help people defend their beliefs. How is this accomplished?

The How 

How does one go about presenting an “incoluation” message? Generally there are three components of an inoculation message.

  1. Threat. The first part is to warn the receiver of an impending attack or threat. The receiver then becomes aware of his/her vulnerability to a persuasive attack. The perception that there is an impending threat psychologically motivates a person to defend his beliefs and attitudes. It can be compared to a group of soldiers who are aware of an impending attack, and who have some time to prepare for the enemy; they may not know exactly what the enemy is going to do, so the soldiers get every weapon and tactic ready.  Maybe they won’t utilize everything in their arsenal, but it is there if needed.  Threatened receivers perform the same kind of mental preparation.
  2. Make a weak attack. The second component of an inoculation message is the attack itself. An attack is an attempt by another to change the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors of receivers.  Advertisers “attack” our existing attitudes when they try to get us to prefer their product over a competitor, for example.  Parents “attack” their kids’ beliefs about proper conduct in public. It is important, however, that the attack be weak and ineffective.  If you produce a strong attack, what will happen?  The attitude you wanted to strengthen will get weaker and maybe even move in the opposite direction.  It would be as if Louis Pasteur used too strong a shot in his first small pox vaccine and it killed everybody instead of inoculated them.
  3. Get the receiver to actively defend the attitude. The third part is actually on the part of the receiver. The more actively the receiver defends against the attack, the stronger the existing attitude will become.  An active defense occurs when the receiver does more than merely think, but rather performs actions.  It is therefore important to get the receivers to verbally express all those defense thoughts. It is also crucial that the receiver does the defending with as little outside assistance as possible.  Again, a fighting analogy is useful.  People will not learn how to physically defend themselves during an assault if someone else intervenes.  The inoculation process operates the same way.  The receivers must do their own fighting with their own resources and learn not to rely on others.


Why Does It Work?

The weak attack threatens the receivers and forces them to think more carefully and deeply.  The more they think, the stronger the attitude becomes.  The receivers do all the work.  All the attacker does is provide that weak attack that gets the whole thing started.

The point of inoculation is to get people to think for themselves.  When people actively generate their own ideas and thoughts, then must vigorously defend those ideas and thoughts, they will develop considerably stronger attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

Moreover, it is most effective if the receiver does not realize it is a deliberate weak attack.  Thus, inoculation requires a fair amount of finesse on the part of the attacker.  You have to not only be smart enough to make a weak attack, and encourage the receiver to defend himself, but also not appear overtly as if you are making an attack. 

Applications Of Inoculation

This theory has been applied to advertising, political campaigning, business, social marketing, and more.

What is known: 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. 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 issues. Inoculation-based campaigns are powerful.

One example when this tactic was used was when the movie “The Da Vinci Code” was about to be released. The movie was based off a controversial novel of the same name. Before the release of the movie, the Catholic church took steps to inoculate its followers by sending out inoculation messages that showed that the movie was a threat to Catholic beliefs. They anticipated and successfully counter attacked the various arguments that were presented in the movie.

Another example was used by the Clintons when Bill Clinton was making his first presidential bid in the early 1990’s. About that time, the Clinton campaign became aware of Gennifer Flowers’ plan to hold a press conference to talk about an earlier relationship between Bill Clinton and herself. The Clinton campaign heard it was happening, and the night before her press conference, they appeared on “60 Minutes” and were prepared to answer questions about that relationship. This was the Clinton’s first national TV appearance, they were asked about the upcoming press conference, acknowledged the past, and stated that all was well now. Because the public had been “inoculated” to the story already, viewers were able to defend their personal opinions and beliefs about the Clintons, and discount Flowers’ claims as not being an important issue to them.

Defending One’s Faith

Here is yet another application. I came across this video, by Summit Ministries, which explains inoculation theory, and how it can be applied in defending one’s faith:


Isn’t that fascinating?

What is interesting is that the video above presents a tangible, possible cause of why so many young people who attend college abandon their faith. Consider the fact that in general, the college landscape is unfriendly, and even hostile, toward Christianity. Think about a student who is born-again, but who has not been equipped or has not been exposed to alternative worldviews, and who starts attending lectures by intelligent professors with alternative worldviews in college. The student may be surprised (and even intrigued) by these ideas. Suppose he is not able to adequately articulate his faith, he cannot explain why he believes as he does, he cannot defend himself against the arguments of the other side, he starts to question his beliefs, and eventually begins to accept the other viewpoint.

If, on the other hand, this student had received some training on other worldviews, what types exist, what their core beliefs are, and how to respond to them, then that student has received the “inoculation”. If the student is told he will be exposed to these worldviews in college, in the workplace, etc., the student has received notice of “warning” that an attack will likely happen, so he starts mentally preparing for the attack.

(I realize there are likely other reasons young people walk away from their faith in college; I understand it is not necessarily one variable.)

But, I do think this provides a compelling reason to teach school-aged students about worldviews and how to respond to them. This is one issue that can be addressed and prepared for in advance. As these students learn, they will grapple with their own faith, internalize these questions, and develop articulate answers for themselves; they will wrestle with their own faith and examine “why” they believe as they do. Maybe some of that wrestling comes later in college, but the “inoculation” should happen earlier.  They will “…be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…” (I Peter 3:15)

In summary, the three parts of an effective inoculation message are: warning, weak attack, and active defense by the receiver.  As in many other persuasive techniques, it it important to use these tactics toward good and healthy purposes.  











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