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Frontiers in Psychology


Inoculation theory, a theory of conferring resistance to persuasive influence, has established efficacy as a messaging strategy in the health domain. In fact, the earliest research on the theory in the 1960s involved health issues to build empirical support for tenets in the inoculation framework. Over the ensuing decades, scholars have further examined the effectiveness of inoculation-based messages at creating robust positive health attitudes. We overview these efforts, highlight the structure of typical inoculation-based health messages, and describe the similarities and differences between this method of counter-persuasion and other preparatory techniques commonly employed by health researchers and practitioners. Finally, we consider contexts in which inoculation-oriented health messages could be most useful, and describe how the health domain could offer a useful scaffold to study conceptual issues of the theory.

Health promotion practitioners aim to create both positive and resistant attitudes toward desirable health behaviors (e.g., physical activity, dietary patterns, safer sex, avoidance of harmful substances)—positive to guide healthy behavior (cf. Ajzen, 2001), and resistant to protect these positive attitudes against challenges. Indeed, healthy attitudes and behaviors are often in danger of slippage due to exposure to social, media, and peer-group factors (e.g., Prinstein and Dodge, 2008; Comasco et al., 2010), and the use of strategies to help individuals prepare for and overcome such influence is a key objective of many health promotion campaigns. Fortunately, theory, research, and anecdotal reports have provided health practitioners with assistance in their efforts to create more resistant positive health-related attitudes. One particularly strong candidate for such theory-guided efforts is inoculation theory—a theory that has been studied and applied in health communication, but also a theory that has, to date, not reached its fullest potential. We hope to contribute to ongoing and future work with health and inoculation theory by proposing new applied and theoretical areas for this important scholarship—work that pushes forward our understanding of persuasion and has applied value as a health messaging strategy to help combat serious threats to healthy living.