Engaging with the Hypodermic Needle Theory

“Readers are not sheep, and not every pen tempts them.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Every semester, usually in more than one course, I have the opportunity to talk to students about what a grand theory is. I bring up the hypodermic needle theory (see http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/hypodermic-needle-theory for a nice review), also known as the magic bullet theory, regularly as I venture into explaining that no one theory can describe, explain, and predict all human behavior in a tidy package when it comes to media.

This usually ends up with my showing them the usual boxes and arrows, with “sender” sending “message” to “receiver” through “channel,” ending up with some “effect” (the basic 1947 Harold Lasswell depiction). They basically understand why this theory was pretty quickly disproven: “noise” can affect whether a communication is received (the receiver multitasking; the student next to the receiver talking at the same time; the maintenance crew deciding to use the floor-scrubbing machine outside the classroom and drowning out the sound of “sender,” as they seem to do outside my classes no matter what time of day it is or in which building I’m teaching).

But to get deeper into thinking about “limited-effects” perspective in general (see http://www.cliffsnotes.com/sciences/sociology/contemporary-mass-media/the-role-and-influence-of-mass-media for a very brief explanation), I’ve found a few recent stories that can help students engage with the topic a little further (but also leave them wondering about the hypodermic needle theory when it comes to kids and certain topics with adults, as you’ll see below).

The first story I’ve been employing happened in June last year, and oddly enough it came up again this morning in my Facebook news feed, after I’d already decided to write about this topic.* The original story was from 2014 (sample of coverage at http://www.cbsnews.com/news/prosecutors-mythological-tale-drove-girls-12-to-stab-friend/). In this piece, I show the students how these two Wisconsin girls attempted to stab to death a friend of theirs because, according to this article, “they were trying to become ‘proxies’ of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on creepypasta.wikia.com, a website about horror stories and legends” (more at http://www.people.com/article/slender-man-myth-wisconsin-girls-murder-friend). By committing this crime, the 12-year-olds said, Slender Man would “accept them and let them live with him in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest.”

Sadly, these girls were not unique in their fascination with this mythical man; just three months later, in September, a 14-year-old Florida girl set a fire that destroyed her family’s home (http://abcnews.go.com/US/teen-inspired-slender-man-set-house-fire-police/story?id=25262814). Apparently “she told a detective she was reading an e-book called ‘Soul Eater.’ ‘There’s a part in this book where two characters get into a fight with each other,’ Sheriff Chris Nocco said at a news conference on Thursday. ‘All of a sudden, that clicked something in her mind and she decided she was going to kill her family.’” This article also points out that this girl had been visiting a Slender Man site; “Eddie Daniels of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office told ABC News, ‘It would be safe to say there is a connection to that.’”

Now, to link this back to mass media and the Hypodermic Needle Theory (and no offense intended), I’m certainly not going to take the word of a Pasco Sheriff’s Office representative in asserting that reading Slender Man and fantasy books makes children try to kill their friends and commit acts of arson, but I will say that these stories generate some thoughtful discussion for the students and allow them to poke around in relevant theory and application. They’ve heard the endless arguments about video games “causing” kids to become violent, and how the “Jackass” movie releases resulted in an increase in injuries among people who tried and failed at some of the stunts shown in the movie. The students have formed their opinions about those media, but this is something a little different. In the first place, as I point out, these are girls being violent in a way we don’t usually see with girls. In addition, it’s an online phenomenon. “What’s going on with this?” I ask. Surely upbringing and genetics play a role, but there’s still the concept of a medium playing into it.

The limited-effects perspective allows them a way to link social behaviors with this mediated exposure to violence and, well, creepiness. I talk with them about each person’s unique levels of intelligence and education, their social interactions in their religious communities and their personal political affiliations (or those in which they were reared), and of course their personal relationships with family and friends. This leads us into discussion of the two-step flow theory (http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/) introduced by Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet in The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign (1944: New York: Columbia University Press). We talk about (at least for the two girls who stabbed their friend) the fact that leaders who find ideas to latch onto do emerge, and they can have a strong influence on their followers; people in public relations depend upon this theory as they figure out new products to sell.

At this point, many students determine that age can indeed have a strong influence on how a young mind can be shaped and forced into believing a communication, whether from a leader or because of a weak set of social or personal affiliations. Clearly psychology plays a part in this, but I usually have to be careful that we don’t stray too far from talk about media communication in these discussions.

But if youth is a factor, as are these personal affiliations, how then, I asked this semester, do we explain the recent Washington Post story entitled, “Sex toy injuries surged after ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was published” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/02/10/sex-toy-injuries-surged-after-fifty-shades-of-grey-was-published/?tid=sm_tw)? This article quoted the Consumer Product Safety Commission as saying that “emergency room care for injuries involving sex toys has approximately doubled since 2007,” and that “Much of that increase happened in 2012 and 2013, following the release of the wildly popular erotic novels in the Fifty Shades of Grey series. And the overwhelming majority of these injuries — 83 percent — require ‘foreign body removals.’”

Books are certainly a mass medium, and adults have the option to accept or reject what they’re reading; what’s up here? Do we have consider correlation versus causation in this study? Or do mediated messages about sex perhaps lower people’s resistance to the messages?

I realize that this topic may not be suitable for all college classrooms here, and again, I’m in no way trying to imply that we need to revisit the magic bullet theory in future research. It is, however, a light and funny way to get the students to revisit their beliefs — to put doubt in their minds so they have to think things through in a new way and realize that the effects of media, like the ripples of a pebble in a lake, can be far-reaching.

* For more recent information on this story, see http://abcnews.go.com/US/slender-man-interrogation-tapes-reveal-shocking-details-alleged/story?id=29117234&cid=fb_abcn_sf

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Domo arigato, Ms. Roboto

I’m a few days behind on this news piece, apparently, but it certainly jumped out at me when I saw it yesterday: http://www.pcworld.com/article/2876632/androids-will-greet-guests-at-japanese-smart-hotel.html http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/04/travel/japan-hotel-robots/index.html

These days, it’s sometimes hard to separate the technology from the message when we talk about communication; they certainly go hand in hand. We have even come up with our own verbs to link the two: “I Facebooked her” or “I tweeted him.” These are verbs of communication specific to the media platform and application; just think of the verbs they replaced: “to say” or “to write.” “Saying” or “writing” something – these are human activities. They point to the vox humana, the “human voice,” which is replete with tones and volume, or to the human hand, which can pick up a pencil or pen to share experiences. But these other verbs direct us to the application; the human-ness is left out of the equation.

So here’s this Henn-na Hotel [Strange Hotel] at Japan’s Huis Ten Bosch theme park, where three (eerily) human-looking robots will be the receptionists with whom visitors will interact when they check in. According to the CNN article, the park’s president, Hideo Sawada, says he hopes “robots will eventually run 90% of the property.” How do we talk with our students about this type of (human?) communication? I see several levels to the story about this conceptual hotel, and I think it’s important to acknowledge them to help students learn to think about such nowadays fairly mundane actualities in order to understand communication concepts more fully.

The first, of course, is the fun part – how people have applied human know-how to a pile of electronics to create a never-before-experienced venue. It’s about pushing boundaries, testing inventions and innovations, allowing visitors to try something so new, so interesting, that they’ll provide the best advertising any company could hope for: word of mouth. By asking our students how they think people will talk about their experiences at this hotel, we have entrée into the ideas of two famous communication researchers: Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld. Their 1957 volume Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications (2nd ed. 2005; New York: Free Press) brought to light the two-step flow of communication theory (see http://communicationtheory.org/two-step-flow-theory-2/ for a quick review). As we talk about this theme park, we can tell students about how the people who love cutting-edge technology and firsts of all kinds will, assuming they had a great experience, serve as opinion leaders for this incredible experiment. As we discuss the fact that CNN notes that Sawada hopes to build “1,000 similar hotels around the world,” we can then move to communication researcher Everett Rogers, his diffusion of innovation theory, and the four elements of that diffusion: innovations, communication channels, time, and social system (see http://communicationtheory.org/diffusion-of-innovation-theory/ for a quick review). These are a few ways to get students to understand how human communication helps new ideas spread and become accepted, often by using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram).

But more than this, we can talk about what the “communication” between humans and robots tells us about our culture on a mass scale. We can probably point to any number of ways to do this, but as I read the online articles, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1965; N.Y.: McGraw-Hill) came immediately to mind. McLuhan told us that it is the medium itself, not the message carried by the medium, that affects our society. I’m planning to throw this one at my students tomorrow and ask them what message is being sent when we go to a vacation resort and 90 percent of the staff we interact with is mechanical. What affects our society more – the fact that someone could build a mechanically run hotel, or that we have reached a point in our evolution where we don’t need actual humans to communicate with, but rather figures created to look like us, made from plastic and wires and microchips? How important are humans in this equation, then? If “the medium is the message,” is the message that we are now replaceable? And from a cultural aspect, what are the long-term implications of this message not only on the human psyche but on the job market as well?

Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, in his 1965 paper “Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits,”1 noted that “The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year. . . . Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase.” This prediction, now known as Moore’s Law, is one that our students need to keep in mind as they engage not only with the present advancement of technological growth but with the implications for communication in the future of our society; here’s a story that allows us to easily show them both.

I love finding articles like this through social media; they are goldmines for teaching theory.

  1. Electronics, April 19, 1965: 114–117; available at http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~fussell/courses/cs352h/papers/moore.pdf