On an October evening in 1938, millions of people settled down to enjoy what had recently become a great American pastime: listening to the radio. This night, however, would prove to be unique. Listeners tuned in to hear an announcement that Martians had landed in New Jersey and were viciously attacking humans. Although the announcement was part of a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells’ famous novel War of the Worlds–and although listeners were warned that the broadcast was fictional–panic erupted within the population. Some people fled homes and cities, while others rushed to purchase emergency supplies and began stockpiling food. Thousands of frantic phone calls poured in to local police, firefighters and hospitals.
The incident, often referred to as the “Panic Broadcast,” was soon cited as an example of the Hypodermic Needle Theory of communication. Formed in response to the rise of mass communications and the emergence of propaganda techniques in the 1930s, Hypodermic Needle Theory implies that the media has the power to inject highly influential messages directly into passive and susceptible audiences. Since those audiences have no other sources of information by which to compare the media’s messages, they have no choice but to act on those messages. The theory is known by other names as well: Magic Bullet Theory, Transmission-Belt Model and Hypodermic-Syringe Model.
Unlike most other theories of communication, however, Hypodermic Needle Theory was not based on empirical research. Instead, it was founded on the assumption that humans, controlled by their biological nature, will react instinctively to passing stimuli in similar ways. Empirical research has since disproved the theory and replaced it with more sophisticated models, such as Agenda-Setting Theory.
Hypodermic Needle Theory promotes a few basic assumptions:
1. Humans react uniformly to stimuli.
2. The media’s message is directly “injected” into the “bloodstream” of a population like fluid from a syringe.
3. Messages are strategically created to achieve desired responses.
4. The effects of the media’s messages are immediate and powerful, capable of causing significant behavioral change in humans.
5. The public is powerless to escape the media’s influence.
As radio, movies and advertisements gained vast popularity between the 1930s and 1950s, the media’s effects on people’s behavior seemed all too apparent and, in some cases, extremely frightening. Newspaper and magazine ads spurred on American consumerism, drawing even thrifty people into glittering department stores. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio speeches, known as the “fireside chats,” inspired millions of citizens to support his New Deal policies in the wake of the Great Depression. Adolf Hitler used the media to spread Nazi propaganda in Germany, creating a unified force bent on conquering Europe. To the common observer, people truly seemed powerless to resist the messages that came from the media. For the first time, messages were crafted with the target audience in mind to achieve specific responses.
During this time, behavioral scholars began to study the media’s effects in earnest. Hypodermic Needle Theory was one of the first models to result from these early studies. However, the theory relied on traditional inductive reasoning with observation to support it, rather than modern deductive reasoning backed by methodical testing. Scholars were still trying to establish empirical methods for testing behavioral theories at the time.
“The People’s Choice”
One of the first studies that disproved Hypodermic Needle Theory was “The People’s Choice,” conducted by researchers Paul Lazarsfeld and Herta Herzog in the 1940s. The study analyzed the effects of media propaganda on people’s voting decisions. Lazarsfeld and Herzog examined voting data during the 1940 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and discovered that interpersonal sources of opinion influenced voters far more than the media did. In many cases, the media’s propaganda had no effect on the public at all.
The study proved that people could choose which messages to accept from the media, as well as determine the degree to which those messages would affect them. People weren’t the helpless, passive victims of the media as Hypodermic Needle Theory suggested. From his research, Lazarsfeld, along with Elihu Katz, developed the two-step flow model of communication, stating that the media’s messages are first received and interpreted by opinion leaders before they reach the general public. Even the “Panic Broadcast” incident used to support Hypodermic Needle Theory was re-evaluated and declared to show diverse reactions among listeners.
The Rise of Selective Exposure
Although Hypodermic Needle Theory was instrumental in jump-starting communications research of mass media, it has since faded into obsolescence. With so many sources of information available today through a variety of media outlets, people have more control than ever over the messages that influence them. Many people now exercise selective exposure–seeking out only the information that supports their worldview. Though the media is still very influential today, its influence is far more complex and nuanced than in the early days of mass communication. People can now interact with the media through social networking sites and can even direct the flow of information to others. Factors such as attitudes, beliefs, education and living situation determine whether a person will accept a message from the media. Still, in spite of the media’s overwhelming presence in society, the biggest source of information and influence in a person’s life continues to be interpersonal relationships.