Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Like a shot in the arm: inoculation theory applied to student credit card debt attitudes

The denial of scientific research can have dramatic consequences.

Sure, denying the existence of the dinosaurs or arguing that the Earth isn't round isn't going to kill anyone (unless you decide to sail off the edge of it), but denial of the effectiveness of vaccines because it is believed that they cause autism is causing a rise in the number of preventable diseases.

When we present evidence that contradicts someone's beliefs, that someone's beliefs may grow even stronger. When proving that vaccines aren't linked to autism, anti-vaxxers express their belief even more strongly. The same occurs with the idea that humans are causing climate change; presenting more evidence can lead more people to believe the contrary.

The famous facepalm


To  neutralise misinformation found in misconceptions like "there is no such thing as global warming", one should make use of inoculation theory. This theory applies inoculation, often associated with vaccines, to knowledge. First developed by McGuire in 1961, inoculation theory helps us to preserve our original attitudes and beliefs in the face of persuasion. Just like a shot in the arm uses weakened or dead viruses that stimulates our immune system to protect against future attacks, an inoculation uses a weakened version of a future persuasion attempt.

inoculation applied to drugs

Research on inoculation

The theory has been replicated widely, being used in politics, PR, and smoking and drinking prevention. Recognizing a serious problem with student credit card debt, and with no clear way to solve this (at the time), Compton & Pfau (2004) tested whether inoculation theory would extend to students under attack from credit card marketing.

Compton & Pfau set out their inoculation in 3 phases:

1) Participants were assessed whether or not they had a credit card and their attitude towards credit cards.

2) Their attitudes towards credit cards were assessed again, followed by an inoculation message.

3) Participants were then subjected to a simulated credit card advertising message, then again were assessed on their attitudes towards credit cards


Inoculation helped to defend against credit card advertisements, with students protecting healthy attitudes about credit cards (table below). Students were also more likely to pay-down their credit card debts if they had them, whilst word-of-mouth communication towards their peers about attitudes related to credit cards increased. 

How does it work?

Inoculation works by engaging the central route of processing an attitude. The inoculation message's weak attack causes the person to think carefully, unlike peripheral processing in which people bypass the whole thinking part. Inoculation causes people to think more than they would otherwise. This thinking develops stronger attitudes about an object, in the above case; attitudes about credit card use, and this will lead to a behaviour change (as the picture below shows).

So if you want to succeed in inoculating people against those pesky credit card companies, or against any cold-calling companies then it'll be good to follow these three rules:

1. Warn the person of an impending persuasive attack
2. Make a weak attack (inoculation message; not too strong, not too weak)
3. Have the person defend their attitude 


Compton, J. A., & Pfau, M. (2004). Use of inoculation to foster resistance to credit card marketing targeting college students. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 32, 343-364.

McGuire, W. J., & Papageorgis, D. (1961). The relative efficacy of various types of prior belief-defense in producing immunity against persuasion.The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology62, 327.

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