Hypodermic Needle Theory

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What is the Hypodermic Needle Theory? Meaning.

Hypodermic Needle Theory

Hypodermic Needle Theory is a mass communication theory which holds that messages reach individuals personally and media are able to directly influence their opinions and behaviors.

Origin of Hypodermic Needle Theory. History

The Hypodermic Needle Theory or (Magic) Bullet Theory originates in US during the period between the two World Wars. Immediately after the creation of mass media their presence in society was strong. This phenomenon generated concerns about the effects of media on their users at individual and collective level. Researchers of media studies started verifying the hypothesis that media were capable of influencing people’s behaviors.

At that time there were limited sources of information and on new mass communication channels. It was easy to isolate a single message and to measure its efficacy as there were no competing messages that could interfere. Moreover, people’s attitude towards mass media, including also those who were not yet media users, was extremely positive. For this reason the consequences of people’s exposure to mass communication had to be considered in such circumstances: a lack of alternatives guaranteed the success of any message.

Powerful Media

Among the first hypotheses on the effects of mass communication was the concept of Powerful Media. The new mass communication media, Radio and TV, were powerful, capable of influencing individuals’ behaviors, able to convert existing attitudes and could push people to adopt behaviors and opinions promoted in the messages broadcasted. See also: Attitude Change, Balance Theory, Cognitive Dissonance, Social Judgment Theory.

Based on the hypothesis of Powerful media, the concept of the Hypodermic Needle Theory was developed. The theory holds that messages are able to hit individuals directly and personally like a bullet penetrating into a person’s body, hence the name Magic Bullet Theory or Bullet Theory. The message, like a magic bullet, after penetrating the body of a receiver, is able to cause immediate reactions. This early interpretation of mass communication is based on very simple assumptions derived from behavioral psychology. In this perspective, a mass society was conceived as composed by individuals who were undifferentiated, isolated, automated, anonymous, with a poor level of education and easily suggestible. Masses were thus considered completely passive, unable of organizing stimuli received from the external environment. According to the Hypodermic Needle model, when a person is hit by a message he will behave in a uniform and automated way following a behavioral model known as the sequence Stimulus-Response. Compare with: Groupthink.

At the time only a few theorists, those from the School of Chicago, were skeptical about the findings of these researches. They argued audiences were passive but individuals are differentiated. In their opinion, the best and most ethical application of powerful media would have been in politics: media could have helped reinforcing democracy in order to support the minorities of a country.

The assumptions at the basis of the Hypodermic Needle Theory are nowadays obsolete. The theory has been widely overcome by the Two Step Flow Model and Roger's Innovation Curve (Multi Step Flow Model) as well as many later mass communication theories such as: Laswell’s Model, Persuasion Theory, Limited Effects Theory, Play Theory of Mass Communication, Uses and Gratification Theory, Spiral of Silence, Cultivation Theory, Dependence Theory.

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