Home » psychology » When good advice turns bad: Behavioral Inoculation

When good advice turns bad: Behavioral Inoculation

We’ve all been there. Watching a friend do something we know they should avoid, smoking those cigarettes again after working so hard to quit, or eating the types of food they know they should avoid. Some of us try to avoid conflict, while others will step up and try to help our friends make a change in behavior. Even if we have the best of intentions, we may be unaware of the great risk we are posing to our friends and loved ones.

Inoculation simply means to make something inert, harmless, or safe. If someone is inoculated, you could almost say they have been immunized against a certain threat. Behavioral inoculation, on the other hand, means someone has gained mental resistance to a certain type of argument.

It is originally credited to William J. McGuire in 1961, and his ideas have been carried on by Dr. Pfau of the University of Wisconsin. The premise is surprisingly simple: if one gets exposed to a weak version of an argument, they will be accustomed to ignoring, or countering that argument. This is just like immunization! Give someone a weakened form of a virus, and the immune system will learn how to identify and remove it if it infects the body ever again. Clearly we are talking about mental processes and immune system processes, and yes they are quite different. However, the immunization is simply an analogy.

The good side of behavioral inoculation

Imagine you are trying to teach a group of children to avoid smoking behavior. You would first give them the basics of the repercussions of smoking – cancer, respiratory issues, addiction, etc. Then you would give the children a small list of reasons why people smoke, but they are made to sound as foolish as possible. Person one says, “I smoke because I thought it made me look cool,” person two said, “I smoked because I thought it would feel good,” and so on. Afterwards, ask the kids to tell you why those people should not smoke. This is excessively simple! The more often you engage in this line of thinking, the less likely someone will be able to change their mind in the future. To clarify, attempts to change someone’s mind that fail, strengthens their currently held view. So the argument of “it makes me look cool” was not strong enough to change their mind, therefore the kids are less likely to give into peer pressure in the future.  I know this is starting to sound like brain washing, but behavioral guidance does have its place. It’s best used when we want people to avoid the pitfalls of our society.

The bad side of behavioral inoculation

My friend and I are sitting outside and he begins smoking. The second he lights it up, I tell him, “hey, stop that! You are going to give yourself cancer! You will get sick and die 20-30 years too early, stop killing yourself!” I go all out in my attempt to open his eyes, but alas he continues to smoke. I have just made an enormous error! Any attempt to change someone’s mind that fails results in strengthening their current view. So my attempt to help him actually pushed him further away. It is the exact same mechanism as above, but this time the person is already engaged in the behavior we want them to avoid. Behavioral inoculation is a very scary cognitive mechanism that we use as you can clearly see. What hope is there for our friends who are engaged in these negative behaviors?

Just remember, if the person is not even willing to acknowledge that a change in their behavior is needed, then any attempt to change their view will likely strengthen their resolve! However, once they’ve accepted that a change in their behavior is needed… we can start to help out even more!

Forgive my use of cliff-hangers, but models of health behavior change will be discussed next time! The way in which you give advice turns out to be just as important as your timing of advice! Worry not, giving advice to your friends does not have to be as scary as I made it sound!


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