Dr. John Banas discusses how attitudes and beliefs can be protected against persuasion through inoculation.

Producer: Michael Gordon
12/28/2020 • 02:27 AM EST

Dr. John Banas, from the University of Oklahoma, who specializes in persuasion theory and interpersonal communication, discusses the how messaging strategy of inoculationsee definition - a social psychological communication theory which has been shown to be effective at protecting individual attitudes and beliefs against devices of mass persuasion.
works to build resistance to the persuasive messaging found in propaganda and disinformation. He also discusses how inoculation compares to supportive messagingsee definition - building resistance to persuasion by reinforcing existing beliefs with supporting evidence, but making no mention of possible counter-arguments.
in effectiveness and he touches on the influence and durability of conspiracy theories.

0:00: Michael Gordon:

With us today, we have Dr. John Banas from the University of Oklahoma. He specializes in persuasion theory and interpersonal communication. His research focuses on how people resist the influence of persuasive messaging. And he's one of the world's leading experts in the field of inoculation theory. Dr. Banas, thank you so much for joining us.

0:19: Dr. John Banas:

Well, thank you for having me.

0:23: Michael Gordon:

So, let's start right out with the basic question. Can you give us a brief explanation about what inoculation strategy is and how it works?

0:31: Dr. John Banas:

Inoculation as a message strategy is based on the metaphor of viral inoculation. So, it's the idea that we can protect our beliefs and attitudes, similar to how we protect our bodies from viruses. And so, it's typically a preemptive strategy that incorporates two kind of classic persuasion ideas, which is forewarning and two-sided refutational messaging. So, an inoculation strategy would alert someone that there is a potential upcoming persuasive, you can think of it as an attack, right, as a viral attack. And then it systematically provides people with information that they will receive from this counter persuasion, and then refute them. So it involves explaining what's coming at you and then giving you information in order to refute that.

1:32: Michael Gordon:

When you discuss inoculation or some of your writings that I've read about, you mentioned in there the element of resistance. So what does resistance actually look like?

1:45: Dr. John Banas:

So it's all within the same inoculation framework. I think what you try to do is you try to anticipate, or even just analyze the messages that people are putting out, and then you look at how to combat them. And I think the trick is, and this is the work that's being done now, the trick is to help without being overly pedantic. And I think my messaging can get, this is one of the things I'm working on now, is simplifying the messaging. I think as academics, you know, reading a multi-page message with lots of citations is what I'm used to, but it's certainly not what most people are used to.

And so simplifying messaging I think is an important step going forward, but it's all, it all comes out of the exact same playbook. You warn people, Hey there, you know, these people are, there are people out there, and that's the thing. This isn't deceptive. There are people who are pushing misinformation. The reason we're so misinformed is not an accident. There are people who it's in their interest to stir up these controversies. Sometimes they're foreign actors. I'm doing a study right now where I'm analyzing troll behavior. And specifically I'm really interested in how trolls pretend to be other people. I find this fascinating, right? What, what do you look like? What language do you use? What other cues do you give off when you're trying to insert yourself in a community, and try to appear as a person from that community, when you're obviously from thousands of miles away in a foreign country?

I find these things really interesting, but at the same strategy, you look at what people are saying, you forewarn them. Hey, there's misinformation coming in about vaccines and here's the kind of things they'll say, they'll say they weren't properly tested. Or they'll say, you know, I mean, sometimes there's really crazy ideas out there too, that, well, there's microchips, they're going to put microchips in you, or it's mind control information. And then you just try to refute that. And the more you can get people producing their own arguments. Really digging in. And sometimes we need to help people, and I don't think there's enough information is done in this, we need to help people seek information that is credible.

I mean, I think one of the things that makes this research so interesting is the information ecosystem has changed so much from when I was a college student. There's so many more news channels now, and people get their information from YouTube. And so without gatekeepers, I think we've seen lots of disinformation and conspiracy theories really flourish. And so helping people seek credible information is an important part of inoculation going forward. And it's not studied enough.

4:53: Michael Gordon:

In your paper on the meta analysis of research on inoculation theory with Steven Rains, you looked at a substantial research that's been done on inoculation theory. And I found that paper interesting, because you looked at a lot of different inoculation studies, I think you over 50 of them. And what was one of the key findings or a couple of the key findings you found in that research?

5:20: Dr. John Banas:

Sure. Some of the most important findings, the biggest finding is that there's ample evidence that inoculation is successful. More successful than no message controls, but even more importantly than that, more successful than supportive messagessee definition - building resistance to persuasion by reinforcing existing beliefs with supporting evidence, but making no mention of possible counter-arguments.
. And supportive messages, if we are going to look at the metaphor of inoculation, the inoculation is you getting the flu shot. The supportive message is you exercising and drinking orange juice, right? Your supportive messaging regarding attitudes has nothing to do with counter arguing. You're just really propping up your side. And the problem with supportive messages, which are typical. The problem with supportive messages is that people are very bad at resisting persuasion that they haven't considered before.

If you think about con artists, con artists flourish in naïve populations. My wife is from Russia. Every Russian has seen all sorts of scams and tricks by the time they're of age. Whereas, if you're a sheltered kid from a rural town, you might've never seen people running scams on the street. And then when you go to the big city, right, oh, you might, Oh, wow. Look at these people selling Gucci bags. Wow. That's a great price. Right? And so people need to be prepared and that's really what inoculation does. It helps prepare you for what's coming. And it's the same thing with diseases. Why is the COVID-19 disease so deadly and so destructive? Because it's called the novel, it's the novel virus. People don't have any immunity to it. Their bodies have not built up any immunity.

And it's the same thing attitudinally with belief systems. If you haven't considered the other side, you're ill prepared to combat those. And I think it's especially important for these misinformation campaigns because I have some friends who have bought into some of these misinformation campaigns, whether it's about QAnon or whether it's about vaccines. And one of the really interesting things is, the arguments they tell me, I can, yes, I can factually demonstrate they're wrong, but the problem is that they sound good. It sounds like there's something there. And once you kind of get into the mindset that the official narrative is wrong, it's really hard to get people back believing traditional narratives. And so this is the really interesting thing where, the depth of expertise, if you will, you know, we're seeing it play out in real time.

8:21: Michael Gordon:

How effective do you think inoculation is after-the-fact when they've already gone to another side?

8:27: Dr. John Banas:

I think it depends on the issue. So one of the things that I've been studying recently is conspiracy theory propaganda, and the available evidence we have is that, once you really buy into a conspiracy theory, it's very difficult to win people back. But I think for other issues, I do think that inoculation can not only instill resistance to counter persuasion, but people who are even on the other side, I think it helps maybe find the middle ground, helps people find the middle ground.

9:06: Michael Gordon:

You mentioned inoculation versus supportive message induction. Can you explain once more the difference between the two, when you said inoculation is more effective than support message induction.

9:21: Dr. John Banas:

So metaphorically, supportive messages are the health regimen that you do to stay healthy. It's great until someone with the flu sneezes on you and then suddenly, without the antibodies working for you, you're ill prepared to fight the flu. And so that's what we see with inoculation. We oftentimes see supportive messages at the time people receive them, what McGuire called the paper tiger effect. When people receive those supportive messages, they feel great. It's only when they encounter the counter persuasion, when an attack message comes in and attacks that position and they don't have arguments to deal with them. That's really when you see the difference between inoculation and supportive treatments,

10:09: Michael Gordon:

You mentioned the role of reputational preemption. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

10:15: Dr. John Banas:

Yeah. Reputational preemption is where you explain maybe an argument or a tactic that is going to be used by the other side, and then you refute it. You explain why it's wrong and your position is more correct. And this is what people do in debates or it's how debates are supposed to work. And so this idea, what it does is it not only equips people with information that they need. I mean, inoculation, I think, is going to work best when people have an interest, but they don't have all the information they need. But the other thing it does is it really models the process of counter arguing. And I think that this process can play out in the coming hours, days, and weeks after you encounter an argument.

And I think, you know, one of the drawbacks of studying inoculation or really any message strategy, with college students, you know, maybe we give them a little bit of extra credit to participate in our study, but I think that unless it's, unless it's a really, really clever study, it's not sticking with them once they're done with it. And so I think in the real world, how inoculation works is people are forewarned about something, they're given some information and then maybe they jump on a website and they do some more information. Maybe then they talk to their friends and family and they keep this going. And so that process, which inoculation scholars have called word-of-mouth communication, that process is doing two things.

I mean, you're out there advocating you're out there, exchanging ideas and that's a commitment to a position that's going to help you resist in and of itself. And so I think that, this is the way, a lot of people I know who are really, really into a topic. It's not just one message one time right, they're on those message boards. And there they've set their computers to give them alerts when new information comes up. And they're out there exchanging ideas. And so I think that in the lab, inoculation is what we would call a small to medium effect. I think in the real world, it's much closer to a medium, medium-large effect with certain populations.

12:54: Michael Gordon:

And I think you mentioned that in one of your articles, that's the word of mouth inoculation spreading it virally?

13:02: Dr. John Banas:

Yes. I don't think it's just inoculation though. I mean, I think word-of-mouth happens in a variety of contexts, but it's interesting to think about from an inoculation perspective. I think it's also really interesting to think about in terms of disinformation and conspiracy theories, because I think those same processes are happening. I think this is one of the things that keeps people believing in these misinformation campaigns and these conspiracy theories, because they're out there doing word of mouth, you know, they're spreading this. And I think that you can definitely see social media viral spreading as manifestation of this very concept.

13:45: Michael Gordon:

In your article about inducing resistance to conspiracy theory propaganda, you did a study using the film Loose Change. Can you just give us a little background on that?

13:58: Dr. John Banas:

Sure. Loose Change, and the one we ended up using in our study was called Final Cut. There had been several iterations of this, but Loose Change is a movie that takes the position of the 9/11 Truth movement. Which is the idea that the attack on 9/11 at the World Trade Center was an inside job. And it is it's just really well done. And this is why I wanted to study it. One of my students came to me with the movie and they said, I saw a movie yesterday that blew my mind. And, you know, as a persuasion scholar, would you watch it and tell me what you think? And I watched it and it did blow my mind because I wasn't persuaded so much as I had a lot of questions.

And that's really what I thought I would find when I did my first study. I pilot studied it with a bunch of my students. I was teaching a theory course at the time, I had 200 students and we had a review session and we had like a you know, kind of before finals week. And so we did a review session on Tuesday and I said, Hey, do you want to come on Thursday and you guys want to watch part of a movie with me, and we'll do like a Q and A, and I'll buy like pizza? And everybody's like, yeah. I bought a bunch of pizza and we sat around and watched a movie. And then I just asked people, well, what do you think? And to my horror, right? They were like, wow, I didn't know that, you know? And so I was like, well, who doesn't believe this? You know?

And instead of people saying, I don't believe it, people said I have some questions about that. Right. And so, you know, what about this? What about that? What about this? And so I did the study, but what I thought would happen is I thought what it would do is it would make people feel confused. I didn't think it would move them off their attitude positions. To my horror, it did. It did a lot. I've still, that very first study that I did, I've never found effects like that. And it was because I had a completely, almost like McGuire's initial research. I had a population that had never even considered this idea. They had never heard of it before. No one had ever tried to persuade them of this conspiracy theory before.

And so they were totally unprepared to resist unless they were in my inoculation treatment group, one of the two groups. And so, it was a really, really a fun study to do. And I've done some follow-ups that really show the limits of inoculation as well. I mean, I do think inoculation is the move going forward, but I think that we need to think about how we can make inoculation effects stronger in light of some of my more recent findings.

17:03: Michael Gordon:

Okay. It looks like we're out of time today. Again, Dr. John Banas college professor and researcher in persuasion therapy and interpersonal communication. One of the world's leading experts in the field of inoculation theory. Dr. Banas, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

17:18: Dr. John Banas:

Thank you.