Dr. Bobi Ivanov discusses the endurance and virality of inoculation messaging and its role in building "umbrella protection."

Producer: Stephanie McVicker
03/19/2021 • 09:12 AM EST

Dr. Bobi Ivanov, professor of integrated strategic communication at the University of Kentucky, discusses how attitudes can be protected using a messaging strategy of refutational preemption (inoculation). He then talks about how polarization is being fueled by confirmation bias and the presentation of only extreme choices, eliminating the public perception of any middle-ground. He also discusses the conduit of transmission and endurance of inoculation messages and their role in building "umbrella protection" - helping the average person build defenses to protect their attitudes against novel attacks.

0:00: Stephanie McVicker:

With us today, we have Dr. Bobi Ivanov, professor of integrated strategic communication at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Ivanov studies strategic message design, consumer behavior, and strategic communications. His theoretical work is on the study of inoculation theory, which is what we'll be discussing today. Dr. Ivanov, thank you so much for joining us today.

0:20: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

My pleasure. Thank you for having me here. I'm glad to be here. I look forward to it.

0:26: Stephanie McVicker:

Thank you. Let's start off by talking about the basics of inoculation theory. We have learned that inoculation is based on presenting threat followed by refutational preemption. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

0:38: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

Yes, absolutely. Certainly. Well, the idea of inoculation theory is tied to the analogy of biomedical inoculation, which can be used to help prevent certain diseases by injecting. weakened strains of the virus into individuals, people. That intrusion created by these weakened viruses is designed to shock the immune system into producing an immune response in the form of antibodies intended to counter the intruding agents. So, think about it or think of it as attitudinal inoculation that works in much the same way as inoculation messages are designed to provide a shock value to the system. And the shock value is intended to motivate individuals to defend their attitudes, but I'm using attitudes here very liberally. This could refer to beliefs, opinions, stances, positions, values, anything such, behaviors. So they are designed to shock the organism into generating defenses for these attitudes.

So, now more to your specific questions about, you know, the process of inoculation, think about it as the shock value is generally delivered through two main mechanisms, or I should say components of the inoculation message, the components the inoculation message actually carries. The first is what we call an explicit forwarning. And this explicit forwarning is used to the directly inform message recipients of the vulnerability of their attitudes. And the high likelihood of facing potentially attacks against the attitude in place.

On the other hand, the reputational preemption component initially is designed to deliver weakened counter arguments or I should say, counter attitudinal arguments used to implicitly deliver the threat by exposing individuals to samples of arguments that they are likely to face. This ends up rendering the threat real. So these counter arguments, in similar fashion to biomedical interventions, if you will, are designed to be strong enough to motivate the body to generate protection, but not so strong as to overwhelm the very attitude it's actually designed to defend.

So the reputational preemption then proceeds to refute this weakened counter argument presented on the other side of the issue. And as such provides defenses for an individual to shore up the attitudes in place, but also it helps by providing some counter arguing practice by showing individuals how they can engage in this defense of the attitudes. It provides them some material that actually can use in the defense of the attitude. And potentially just as importantly, if not even more importantly, it provides them with the motivation to generate these defenses to engage in this attitudinal defense.

Therefore inoculation messages are designed to elicit a resistance process that reflects engagement or motivation, the threat component that motivates the productions of counter arguments that in turn end up generating resistance, thus providing protection against attitudinal change. So in general terms, that's kind of what we're looking at in terms of the inoculation process.

4:19: Stephanie McVicker:

Do you feel that any of the political developments over the last five years or so have increased in interest in this field of study and inoculation?

4:28: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

I would think so. One of the things that we have seen with the changes in the political landscape is more of a polarization of attitudes, where individuals are getting more and more divided and end up listening to more and more to what other individuals have to say. So how do you combat those? And it's not an easy process. We actually have talked a little bit about and looked at this with some colleagues considering a future project. We even have started the first part of what we call agent-based modeling in which we're trying to play with different variables to see if we can kind of chip away from these polarizations where parties and individuals are becoming more and more polarized. By trying to go after the reasons potentially, for this polarization.

So, what we are looking at, from inoculation perspective, is how do we go after these? So there is a rational way of doing so for individuals who are maybe becoming more polarized, but for all the right information, meaning they may be getting information that's what I say for the right information - they are doing it based on the information they're receiving, rather than based on emotional decisions. And these decisions may be because they are only exposing themselves to information that confirms their current standing, and that's what's part of the confirmation bias. But they are exposing themselves to a rational information that they assimilate in their current understanding of the events. So a more rational based inoculation message is designed to kind of combat all of these opinions. But the issue is sometimes we're having trouble with, you know, people are not always rational and they don't always kind of open themselves for information that's presented in these type of settings. 

So how can we deliver messages that may go beyond this rational account? Inoculation does develop and can use emotions, although it has to be done carefully in messages. So one of our more recent studies, and I say more recent now it's been six or seven years since, since we published that study, but it showed that we can point out to individuals the effect that these types of thinking and selective exposure may have on their effects. And we can also point out how the information that's provided by potential political candidates, pundits, or individuals associated with just one side, potentially, one side of the issue. They present them or put individuals in almost a lack of choice situation. You either vote for us or you're with us, or you are on the wrong side of the issue we are. If you want, for this issue to be resolved, we are the only individuals that can do that. That's providing them with that almost false choice and suggesting that this is the only way that it can be done.

So what the inoculation messages, we have learned we can do with those is point out through the message that it's not a lack of choice situation. That actually the messages and the messengers from the other side of the issue, presenting these choices, are limiting their freedom to actually make the decisions for themselves, to self determine. And we were able to show to a degree that by pointing that out in ourselves, not suggesting that anything other than the choice is yours and allowing them to make those choices, that individuals have actually shown some anger and negative reactions against those messengers and messages when they felt that those freedoms to make those decisions by themselves, they're being taken for granted or more importantly here, they're being limited. So in these situations, we have seen some success and certainly it's something that can be translated or brought into the political milieu.

8:29: Stephanie McVicker:

You have written about a blanket of protection that inoculates people against related topics. Can you get into that a little bit, explain what you mean.

8:37: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

So, it's important also when we're thinking about inoculation messages and how we use inoculation messages, there is always the fear of great, so you identify two to three arguments in your message, maybe when it's a single argument. And we do that for a reason because the messages can only be so long before they become unrealistic. Actually, what we have done much more lately and presently as well. We're trying to get those shorter, to be used in a shortened format yet still retaining most of the inoculation components, all of the inoculation components. Theoretically, they can work, they should work. We argued that in the chapter that you referenced earlier. We've argued in other chapters as well, but we're still working on showing evidence that that is the case or finding out ourselves, whether that is the case.

So in reality, we can only use so many arguments. Most messages use two to three counter arguments and they proceed to refute. Well, it's unlikely that these counter arguments, although they may be the strongest ones presented, which is why we're using them to refute those first. There are other kinds of arguments that we cannot attend to in inoculation messages. So the fear is always okay, if the messages work only because you were able to refute the specific arguments that people see later on, then any effectiveness these messages would have is limited. It's only limited in situations in which you can show that, you know, we've kind of captured all the arguments or there's only limited one or two arguments.

In all the other situations, once you get beyond those first two or three arguments, now what happens? Now what do you do? And the originator, McGuire who provided, or who came up with a theory or proposed the theory, was one of the first recognize this and test to see why are the messages effective? And can the messages be extended to arguments that you have not seen before, refuted in the original message. And what he was able to show over and over again was when the attack messages carried the content that was previously refuted or completely novel or different content, they were just as effective. Banas and Rains had meta analysis that they did in 2010, in which they were able to show in a larger scale that this indeed holds true.

And that provides us with much greater confidence and utility in using inoculation messages, because the idea is that it is not the content itself that generates the efficacy of inoculation. In some sense, yes, it does. I mean, when you have specific arguments, you have great evidence of how to refute them. That certainly helps, but that cannot be all of it. Otherwise we should not see the same effectiveness when novel attacks are provided. So the conclusion is in this situation, it is the motivation and the practice that individuals engage in that counter arguing, that defense building, that is the reason for the effectiveness or the efficacy that we see with inoculation messages.

So in general, individuals get three components, they get the messages, get some arguments, some content they can use, but they also get practice. They're provided with a guided practice of how to engage in this practice, as well as provided with motivation to build up their defenses, because when we hear our attitudes being potentially challenged, we don't sit idol, not in today's world. We ask others, we talk to friends, relatives, we jump on a social media or jump on the Internet to try and figure out why is this the case? What do we not know?

So we engage in this defense building, and that is what provides our ability to be effective in protecting our attitudes on any arguments that are related to that context or that specific attitude. And that is what we call the creation of, some call it "umbrella protection" or "blanket of protection," or any of those attitudes that are related to that specific topic. So that's kind of what we mean by blanket of protection, that inoculation attitudes are defensible, not just against specific issues you've accounted before or arguments you've accounted before, but novel ones as well.

12:56: Stephanie McVicker:

And have you seen inoculation being used in any new and interesting ways that gets you excited about the future of the research?

13:05: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

Yes. From a theoretical perspective, what's most exciting for us is this new venture into the therapeutic area. Being able to use inoculation, not just as a resistance, but also strategy to generate change and strategy to move individuals from neutral to shape attitudes as well. But another area that's been really exciting for us is the realization. I think we always have thought about that, but never allowed, that inoculation a counter arguing process that happens. This defense building is not just something that occurs in our minds, that occurs intrapersonally, but it's a process that actually occurs interpersonally as well, that we do talk to others, and that's part of exciting research moving forward.

Okay. What does it mean? The limited research that we have done with, we know that once we have been inoculated that we talk to others to reassure myself. So I may talk to like-minded others to kind of feel like my attitudes and beliefs are indeed correct, because those were just shaken with the threat component of the inoculation message. So they talked to like-minded others for these purposes, but they also talk to others who do not share the belief because now they feel efficacious enough that they can advocate their beliefs. They have the arguments that they want to share. They have the practice and they engage others in those conversations. So we know that these actually end up strengthening their conviction with which they're holding these beliefs.

What we don't know is what happens to the others who receive these messages. Does it have a positive impact on them? If it has positive impact on them, what does it mean from there? Do they share with others? How many others did they share it with? How does that inoculation transmit or diffuse through these social networks and how far can it go? We also can have a scenario in which an individual may not be convinced by ends up still sharing the information with others and has a positive influence on others. So even though they did not receive any direct impact from the inoculation message, they were conduit of transmission to others, for whom it did have an effect.

We actually have at least one study now in progress, that's looking at this potential social network of transmission of inoculation messages. So think about what kind of effect this may have in real situations, let's say during disasters, whether it's brush fires or whether it's hurricanes, in which individuals have limited access to technology. Maybe their TVs off, their cell phones are off. They've been for days now, they can not charge those cell phones or just all the satellites are down. How do you transmit important messages in this situation, including inoculation messages? Well, if inoculation messages can be transmitted via social networks, that's another way of getting the messages to the final consumers or individuals, even though they will not directly receive the message. In earlier studies, we thought unless they are directly exposed to the original message, they don't get inoculated. We are learning that that may not be the case. They may get indirect inoculation. Now how strong that is, how effective? That's an exciting part that we're going forward with.

16:33: Michael Gordon:

Is inoculation considered currently the best method to protect attitudes in place?

16:40: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

Yeah, I believe that there are two real theories that look from a persuasion and communication perspective that are most closely associated with resistance. And those are fear of psychological reactants in inoculation theory. If you look at the persuasion handbooks or any of the persuasion books that are used in our discipline, or just in general, you will see usually only inoculation theory and theory of psychological reactants, or just short reactants being listed. The difference between the two theories is that generally when we look at psychological reactance, we're looking at as an impediment, as something we need to overcome to make sure that our strategies are effective because they may prevent our effectiveness.

And that goes to the example I was giving before to the individuals feeling like their freedoms are being restricted. When we word our messages, we have to be careful not for individuals to feel like we're giving them commands or restricting their freedoms because they may boomerang. They may react against it. So how do we overcome that? So when we're thinking about reactance, we generally thinking in terms of how do we overcome it? Inoculation is the only theory that's consistently shows up in all of these literatures that's actually designed to encourage resistance, to actually bolster resistance. So as such, it's the only theory that you will see in that regard that's consistently used and referenced. And that's why it's also been so popular and also been very frequently referenced.

Stephanie McVicker:

18:21: Okay. It looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking with Dr. Bob Ivanov, professor of integrated strategic communication at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Ivanov, thank you so much for spending time with us today.

18:33: Dr. Bobi Ivanov:

Thank you, it was my pleasure.