Limited Effects Theory

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Description of Limited Effects Theory. Explanation.

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Definition Limited Effects Theory. Description.


The Limited Effects Theory is a mass communication theory which argues that the influence from a mass media message on individuals is limited or even trivial.


The Limited Effects Theory was developed in late 1940s by sociologists researching about social context and media effects. At that time media studies were commissioned by the US government and the administrative research was supported by political parties. The scope of the research was to analyze how to leverage media to best promote political candidates.

By studying electoral campaigns it was assumed that media could have had three types of effects on audiences:

  1. Activate floating voters to take a decision.
  2. Reinforce the preference in convinced voters.
  3. Convert convinced voters to switch their preference.

Research by Paul Lazarsfeld demonstrated that media effects where strong only for the second type. A conclusion of the research was that audiences where not passive, because the response to a stimulus was not passive, immediate and mechanistic as defined by the Hypodermic Needle Theory. The response is instead mediated by resistance of the receivers, so it is configured as follows: Stimulus Resistance Response. (The same configuration of the response to media messages can be found in the Persuasion Theory).


Lazarsfeld also found that mass communication is linked to non-medial communication intrinsic in any social context. In other words, all relationships between components of a social group serve to mitigate media messages. Often the presence of Opinion Leaders tends to create a communication known as Two-Step Flow. The Limited Effects Theory is considered a major trigger for the development of new mass communication theories like the Two-Step Flow Model, Uses and Gratification Theory, Play Theory of Mass Communication, Cultivation Theory, and Dependence Theory.


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