TV News Shows Use Truth Inoculation To Gain Loyal Audiences
Section: Spin News
In 1961, a social psychologist named William McGuire proposed a new explanation for why people refuse to listen to counter-arguments to their ideas. He referred to with new idea as inoculation theory because he believed people could be inoculated against listening to arguments that could change their minds.
McGuire conducted a number of experiments to confirm his idea. In the first phase of the experiment, people would receive an inoculation treatment. He asked people to listen to a debate between two individuals. One individual would present strong arguments for their idea while the second debater would only present very weak arguments. As expected, when questioned about their own beliefs people who watched the mock debates agreed with the debater who presented strong arguments.
In a second part of the experiment, McGuire asked people to listen to strong arguments that the weak debater didn’t use. What he found is that most people not only weren’t persuaded by the strong arguments, they barely remembered what the debater had said. In other words, after listening to the debate people made up their minds and were fairly impervious to new information. The effect held regardless of which side of the argument the strong debater took. Research has found this is a more effective strategy for maintaining a person’s existing attitudes then addressing counterarguments after-the-fact.
McGuire and others argued the inoculation treatment can be useful for preventing people being influenced by strong propaganda. That is, the approach can be used to teach people to develop resistance to misleading arguments. The above video by Dr. Chuck Edwards give an example of McGuire’s research.
However, the approach is misleading because strong counter-arguments are not presented so what tends to happen is the person makes up their mind without all the facts. If the person’s original opinion on the issue is correct, inoculation treatments can inoculate a person against the truth. Furthermore, when this approach is used repeatedly on a person, their attitudes can harden and they can become impervious to new information. Plau documented the use of this approach in politics in 1984 so the approach can be used to develop political ideologies.
Inoculation theory also states that, the receiver must be warned of an impending attack. In politics, a person may be warned by party affiliation. This may in part explain why politicians spend a great deal of time attempting to assign negative labels to opposing political parties. This initiates a defensive where the inoculated person refuses to think through or listen to new arguments.
A “refutational same” message attempts to refute specific potential counterarguments that the inoculator suspects the target will be exposed to. For example, a Republican candidate developed a refutational same message that stated that while the Democratic candidate was in favor of tough sentences, merely tough sentences could not reduce crime. The purpose was to maintain the belief among his constituency that he was tougher on crime than his opponent without careful consideration of the facts. However, Plau found that inoculation theory works without having to address each specific position of the candidate. For example, once one identifies as a conservative they may become impervious to liberal arguments of any kind.
Since 1961, McGuire’s theory has received widespread support. In fact, so much so that it’s no longer considered a theory but an aspect of human psychology. The research has also found that inoculation has long-lasting effects.
McGuire developed his theory to explain why some Americans imprisoned during the war with North Korea betrayed their country. The results of his research suggest these prisoners were not tortured or brainwashed in the traditional way people think of brainwashing. Rather their beliefs were altered to make them not believe in American values by using a variety of techniques including truth inoculation.
McGuires theory has been used widely in American life from inoculating soldiers against enemy propaganda, politics, smoking prevention efforts, advertising, advertising for children mass media, inducing sexism and racism and corporate advocacy.
Many TV news shows use a format that include a strong and weak debater. Their reasons for doing this may not be to deliberately harden people’s attitudes. Rather, TV shows attempt to generate loyal audiences by creating likeable characters. Having the main character always win the debates makes the main character appear to be knowledgeable which is an attribute that garners greater loyalty among TV news viewers. Nevertheless, these shows have a format that is either intentionally or unintentionally using inoculation treatments to harden people’s attitudes.
Many TV shows use this format. For example, Fox News Hannity and Colmes featured strong arguments from Republican Hannity versus timid responses from moderate Colmes. Morning Joe, takes the format even further. After lengthy arguments from Joe Scarborough, Democrat Mika Brzezinski frequently doesn’t respond at all or presents a very weak response. According to Mika, she is paid fourteen times less than her cohost. Mika’s father, Zbigniew Brzezinski ( US National Security Advisor President Carter ), coined the term stunningingly superficial to describe Scarborough’s actual knowledge of foreign affairs. Yet, his ideas are rarely challenged on the show. Media Matters has repeatedly pointed out that his claims have no merit. For example, he falsely claimed Obama “Apologized Repeatedly” After the Benghazi Attack. Similarly, he supported many false claims made by Romney. His economic ideas have received similar criticism. In some have his ideas to be despicable but they typically go unchallenged on Morning Joe.
by Todd Miller
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