Monday, January 3, 2011

Inoculation and why you're not very persuasive

Inception was a really great movie to me. And the thought of influencing people at the dream level? Brilliant (for, you know, a Hollywood movie script). But ever since the movie, I always wanted to find a real-life way to perform an “Inception”. One that “planted an idea” that had the potential to influence a person to change a specific way, belief, or attitude.

I’ll play around with this idea every now and then, putting it away when it all seemed like speculation.

But then, during a research paper on the theory of inoculation, I found a piece to this puzzle. And now I’m beginning to see just not only how a real-life theory of inception might work, but also why people are so resistant to persuasion in the first place.

First, a little bit on the theory of inoculation. I did extensive research into what social psychologist scholars have found out about it through dozens of studies, and here’s what they say on it:
The theory of Inoculation has an analogy to biology: when a person is given a vaccine, they’re given a weakened form of a virus so their body can build up its defenses against it (without succumbing to the virus). In the theory of inoculation, a person is given a weakened argument and is allowed time to refute it in order to resist stronger arguments that may come later. So basically, it’s a method that increases resistance to persuasion.

There are two components that make up inoculation: the threat and the “refutational preemption”. Threat is exactly what it sounds like, and can be defined as a challenge to an existing attitude or belief. More on this part soon. Refutational preemption is a fancy term for ”the process of replying to counterarguments before they occur” (from The Handbook of Persuasion, written by Michael Pfau and James Dillard). This is the weakened argument’s refutation, which can either be provided by someone or found out on your own. Refutational preemption gets an honorable mention for being interesting (and necessary to confer resistance), but threat is where the real action takes place..

Threat is the more critical component to this theory. Providing counterarguments is important, yes, but what triggers the need to defend a belief? Threat. Threat motivates people to defend their beliefs; and once motivated, research has shown that people will strengthen their attitudes using information from the refutational preemption period as well as other material. In other words, not only will they have a defense for a weakened argument, they’ll find ways to refute other arguments as well (no one ever stopped at “horses in the Book of Mormon”, did they?).

But there’s more. How does one increase the level of threat? Well like beauty, threat is in the eye of the beholder. One major factor is how involved a person is in their attitude/belief. Involvement is defined as “the perceived importance of an attitude object to a receiver”, and is increased, of course, with continued involvement in the belief (scriptural study, prayer, sharing supportive testimonies with like-minded individuals, charity work, etc. would increase involvement for instance).

And here’s why involvement is such a big factor: when a highly-involved individual experiences threat, the individual experienced what is called “ego-involvement”. Ego-involvement enhances threat even more, and so high-involvement is continuously positively related to resistance.

Even more: when the person has a high “self-efficacy”, which means they are confident in their ability to—in this case—refute an argument that challenges their beliefs, they become angry! Superior resistance has been related to high self-efficacy due to the anger it produces. It’s worth noting, however, that a high self-efficacy also moderates emotional responses.

So what does this have to do with my inception theory? Well here’s the thing: much of the resistance to persuasion is how threatening the change in belief is (which has very unfortunate side effects). This is compacted by how involved the person may be, and especially how high their level of self-efficacy is. And this type of person is common in the realm of Mormon apologetics: most people defending their Mormon beliefs online have already gone through seminary classes, a two-year mission, are married in the temple, give 10% of their annual income to the church, etc. Furthermore, after being involved in apologetics after a while, they may feel confident in their ability to defend their beliefs. The inoculation has been very successful up to this point. This is, in large part, why your attempts to persuade someone into accepting your point of view end up nowhere.

It's all so threatening, to everything the person has ever believed in.

So what must inception do? Bypass the threat. Completely. Sure, there are ways of making the argument compelling by pointing to scholars and first-hand accounts and what not while discussing your topic. Cognitive dissonance is still an effective persuasion method. But for inception, there’s not even a hint that you’re trying to change the person’s beliefs. Or maybe, the person just lowered their defenses by approaching information with an “open mind”.

Case in point: this story about a guy who lost faith in apologetics (and eventually, his faith) over Star Wars. Also, this guy, whose Mormon friend's cry for help put things into perspective. And if someone were to read the book discussed here by Mormon Expressions (Guns, Germs, and Steel), then that’s exactly the kind of inception I’m talking about. As one of the commenters on that podcast posted, “this is one of those books that have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, but have everything to do with the Book of Mormon” (loosely quoted). But both of those stories were from former Mormons who, after years of defending the Mormon faith, got caught off guard and collapsed.

For me, the turning point from being a biblical inerrantist was when I realized all this talk about plagiarism in the Book of Mormon from various sources could be applied to Noah’s Ark and the Epic of Gilgamesh. By the same standards that proved the Book of Mormon wrong to me, I was shown how the Bible was also errant.

It went all downhill from there, all because plagiarism was such a built-up argument that I used to discern "God-breathed" from "man-breathed".

Didn't even see it coming.


  1. What a great post, and a great blog! (sorry I don't have much substantial to say now).