In social psychology, it’s called the inoculation theory. Consider how medical inoculation works by exposing a body to weakened viruses. It’s strong enough to produce antibodies, but not so strong to make the person sick.
In communication, inoculation seems to work the same way. The advantage lies in being the first to expose an individual to an idea or request. Liken it to courtroom dramas, in the attorney’s opening arguments when they tell the jury about what the other side will do and say to ‘try to convince them’.
Psychologist William McGuire published his social inoculation theory in 1961. He took the basic idea behind medical inoculations and spread it to social behavior.
Inoculation works because it causes people to think more carefully and deeply about messages. The more they think, the stronger the attitude becomes.
The whole point of inoculation theory is to get people to think for themselves. When people actively generate their own ideas and thoughts, then have to vigorously defend those ideas and thoughts, they will develop considerably stronger attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
Consider all of the ways that communicators use this theory – politicians campaigning for office use it to vie for voter support if their opponents run attack ads. Non-smoking campaigns use it as a messaging technique to children and teens warning them, “Cigarette companies will tell you that smoking is cool, hip, etc…”
Do you think this tactic influences you? Have you ever experienced someone attempting to persuade you this way?