The term, "Inoculation Theory," is drawn from the public health practice of giving injections to prevent a serious disease from taking hold.

How does this process work? The theory is that injecting a very mild dose of a virus activates the body's defences, giving the immune system the forewarning needed to build up defences against it. The immune system defends itself against the weak attack and it actually becomes stronger. If the virus attacks again, the immune system can ward off the larger raid against the body.

The first injection must be weak. If the injection contained too strong a dose, it would overpower the immune system, leaving it defenceless against the viral invader. It would cause the person to become ill and may even result in death. The dose must have enough of the virus to activate the immune system, but must not be so virulent as to conquer the host and kill it.

Inoculation Theory

The application to persuasion is obvious. If you want to reinforce or strengthen existing attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, inoculation theory suggests that you should present a weak attack on those attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Again, the attack must be appropriately weak, because if the attack is too strong it may well overpower the existing attitude, belief or behaviour and kill it. The attack has only to be powerful enough to activate the defences of the listener so that at the end of the exchange the mental immune system can beat off a future attack against it.

Below is the process for inoculation:

1. Warn the listener of the impending attack.
“Some people may tell you that you’re harming your future if you ………”

2. Launch a weak attack.
“They will say………etc., etc.………and if you were to know how would you effectively argue against what they say?”

3. Get the receiver to actively defend the attitude.

The steps are as follows.

Warn of the Attack

The warning plays a important role in the inoculation process. It stimulates existing defences in the listener. You may notice that it is normal to feel threatened when people warn you of an impending attack…your defences are immediately triggered. It is also normal that when feeling an imminent threat you automatically begin to man your battle stations and get ready for it.

Remember that last time you felt moderately threatened - a range of 
possible defensive actions began to circulate within the realms
of your conscious attention, didn't they?

When threatened, many people start immediately to prepare a counter-defence against the incoming attack. They may construct a range of possible responses and counter-moves, some of which may never be deployed.  This is what occurs amongst the strategists and tactitians on the battlefield.

Because the vast majority of people become hijacked by the 
'Argument is War' conceptual metaphor, they interpret such
attacks in the same way as they would physical or life
threatening attacks. They will act 'within the metaphor' and
organise their defenses in such a way as to attempt to defeat
the enemy.

As in real war, many of the defenses may not be deployed 
in resisting the incoming assault, but they are there in
readiness, just in case circumstances require they be called 
into action.

The key point to remember that warning of an impending attack 
triggers manning of the barricades and the process of over
-preparing in the face of an impending attack. Their efforts will
not be wasted because,as in real conflict, beingprepared for a
range of enemy actions is the key to survival.

Launch a Weak Attack

An attack on a belief, value or behaviour is viewed by most people at a deeper level as an attack on their person. Few people make the distinction between themselves as individuals and the beliefs and values they embody. This is because the prevalent metaphor on argument in the western world is that of Argument is War. That is why we 'win' arguments; blow our opponents out the the water and use every trick in the book to ensure that that we are not overwhelmed by the enemy.

Advertisers "attack" our existing attitudes when they try to get us to prefer their product to a competitor. Parents "attack" their children’s beliefs about proper conduct in public. A weak attack as part of the inoculation process is nothing extraordinary as both weak and strong attacks on our thoughts, feelings and actions go on all the time.

It is imperative that your attack when applying the inoculation technique be weak and ineffectual. If you mount a strong attack, there is a strong possibility that the thought, feeling or action you wish to fortify may be weakened, cause confusion or be overwhelmed. 

Remember, in flagging a weak attack on an idea, belief, value 
or behaviour, that you are seeking to reinforce an existing position
and not seeking to change an individual's mind to an opposite position.
If Louis Pasteur, for example, used a powerful injection when
conducting human testing on his rabies vaccineall his patients
would have been overwhelmed, dead.

The attack must only be strong enough to force the listeners to defend. It must not be so strong as to overcome the person’s defences.

Ensure the Receiver Actively Defends

Extensive research by social psychologists has revealed that the more vigorously an inoculated person defends against an attack, the more deep-seated and enduring the existing attitude will become. A vigorous defence implies that the individual not only thinks of counter-arguments, but also verbalises the counter-arguments. Ensure you get the listener to passionately and verbally mount their defence.

It is also vital to the success of the inoculation process that that the defence is mounted with minimal outside interference. You must let the listener do the defending. As in life, if other people fight your battles you never have the chance to learn how to effectively protect yourself against future attacks. The listener must conduct his or her own defence, using their own ordnance and battle plans so they do not learn helplessness.

Why Does It Work?

Inoculation works because it causes the receivers to engage in systematic processing about the attitude object. The weak attack threatens the receivers and forces them to think more carefully, deeply, and with more effort. In essence, inoculation causes the listener to think about the object of the attack. The more they think, the stronger the attitude becomes. All you do is provide the weak attack and that stimulates the hosts immune system against attack.

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


Inoculation theory has been applied to advertising, political campaigning, social marketing, and often in change management.

Recent research shows that voters are regularly the subject of inoculation practices in election and political campaigns. For example, one party may send out literature to potential voters warning them that an opposing party is likely to mount an attack on them or one or more of their candidates on specified issues. The letter would provide a weak version of the attacks, enabling the target voter to easily fend off the attack. When the real attack is mounted, the potential voter is more likely to be able to resist it.

Inoculation is particularly useful when you are speaking publicly, however it is at its most powerful and effective when you can ensure that the listener actually engages in verbal defence. For this reason it is recommended that you consider using the technique for internal presentations, such as board presentations, staff meetings, and issues that deal with physical, commercial, and cultural change.

Inoculation theory is also useful when you are canvassing customers, particularly when you are dealing with customers who may come into contact with the sales rhetoric of competitors.

Effective Inoculation

Revisit the three steps of inoculation: Warning, weak attack, vigorous defence. In going through each phase, bear in mind the following vital points.

First, the warning must serve as a threat that an attack is coming. This activates systematic thinking. Next, let there be some delay between the warning and the actual attack. This will permit more thinking and defence building.

Second, the attack must challenge, but not overwhelm the receivers. This is a delicate and subtle point. Instead of causing them to strengthen the attitude, belief, or behaviour, you might cause them to question and doubt that attitude, belief, or behaviour. Use the receivers' behaviour as a cue. If the receivers are not defending themselves and instead appear to be nervous or upset, your attack is too strong and will not work.

Finally, encourage active defending. Get each person to say or do something that shows that his or her defences are strengthening. Resist the temptation to weigh in with your own arguments, because people only learn how to be strong by doing the hard yards themselves.

A superb way in which to apply the innoculation theory is to combine it with hynotic language patterns. My book, The Charisma Effect, details how to use specific language patterns that guide listeners along particular paths of thought.

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