hypodermic-needle-theory

What Is The Hypodermic Needle Theory? The Hypodermic Needle Theory In A Nutshell

The hypodermic needle theory was first proposed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences.

Understanding the hypodermic needle theory

Lasswell developed the theory after observing the effect of propaganda during the First World War. During a period where public support for the war was critical, the media was used to increase morale and drum up support. In the United Kingdom, the government even established the Ministry of Information to create the necessary propaganda. This mass persuasion strategy was later imitated by the Russians, Germans, Spanish, and Italians in subsequent conflicts. 

lasswell-communication-model
The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.

In the intervening years between war, the ability for world leaders to influence their citizens using the media then became known as the hypodermic needle or “magic bullet” theory. This theory was rooted in behaviorism, a psychological movement that considered human behavior as something that could be manipulated.

According to the hypodermic needle theory, a mass audience passively receives whatever message is being communicated by the media. The theory argues that this audience can be manipulated in a controlled and conditioned way.

The classic supporting example of the theory is the now-infamous radio broadcast of The War of The Worlds by Orson Welles in 1938. In one episode of the radio-based drama series, the program was interrupted by a fake announcement of a Martian invasion. The announcement caused widespread panic across the United States, with many suggesting the audience had been conditioned by the messages told in the story until that point.

Criticisms of the hypodermic needle theory

Despite its apparent efficacy, the hypodermic needle theory is based purely on assumptions about human behavior. Common sense would suggest that the theory only works if the individuals comprising a mass audience shared similar traits, experiences, beliefs, or prior knowledge. 

Studies suggest social media literacy is one way modern consumers can easily avoid the passive consumption of media messages. These users are more likely to question the validity or credibility of claims made by the media. What’s more, they tend to form their opinions based on prominent social media influencers and other thought leaders.

Modern applications of the hypodermic needle theory

The hypodermic needle theory has experienced a revival in recent times. 

Today, big data analytics is used to identify user preferences and send many tailored messages to audience members as a linear form of communication. This more personalized approach subverts the role of a social media influencer, which means individuals in a target audience are more likely to be conditioned by traditional forms of media.

While there is no single generic message as there was in Lasswell’s time, big data allows the communication process to nonetheless occur en masse and as a result, has the power to exert influence on a large group of people.

Key takeaways:

  • The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences. It was developed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in the 1920s.
  • The hypodermic needle theory posits that a mass audience passively receives whatever message is being communicated by the media. It is rooted in behaviorism, a psychological movement based on the manipulation of human behavior.
  • The hypodermic needle theory is based on the assumption that every individual within a mass audience will behave the same way. This may hold true if the group is relatively homogenous, but in most cases, people react to media messages in different ways and many will use social media to form or validate their opinions.

Main Free Guides:

Communicational Frameworks Connected To The Hypodermic Needle Theory

linear-model-of-communication
The linear model of communication is a relatively simplistic model envisaging a process in which a sender encodes and transmits a message that is received and decoded by a recipient. The linear model of communication suggests communication moves in one direction only. The sender transmits a message to the receiver, but the receiver does not transmit a response or provide feedback to the sender.
berlos-smcr-model
Berlo’s SMCR model was created by American communication theorist David Berlo in 1960, who expanded the Shannon-Weaver model of communication into clear and distinct parts. Berlo’s SMCR model is a one-way or linear communication framework based on the Shannon-Weaver communication model.
lasswell-communication-model
The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.
five-canons-of-rhetoric
The five canons of rhetoric were first organized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his treatise De Inventione in around 84 BC. Some 150 years later, Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored each of the five canons in more depth as part of his 12-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria. The work helped the five canons become a major component of rhetorical education well into the medieval period. The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication.
communication-strategy-framework
A communication strategy framework clarifies how businesses should communicate with their employees, investors, customers, and suppliers. Some of the key elements of an effective communication strategy move around purpose, background, objectives, target audience, messaging, and approach.
7-cs-of-communication
The 7Cs of communication is a set of guiding principles on effective communication skills in business, moving around seven principles for effective business communication: clear, concise, concrete, correct, complete, coherent, courteous.
transactional-model-of-communication
The transactional model of communication describes communication as a two-way, interactive process within social, relational, and cultural contexts. The transactional model of communication is best exemplified by two models. Barnlund’s model describes communication as a complex, multi-layered process where the feedback from the sender becomes the message for the receiver. Dance’s helical model is another example, which suggests communication is continuous, dynamic, evolutionary, and non-linear.

Where is Hypodermic Needle Theory applied?

Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War explained how the hypodermic needle theory of communication suggests media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences. This theory was developed especially to explain mass media communication. Thus, this linear model of communication might have worked with mass media like TV, and Radio, when they could be centrally controlled for channeling mass communication and developing propaganda.

Is the Hypodermic Needle Theory still relevant?

While the hypodermic needle theory is still relevant today, it’s more relevant with centralized mass media like TV and radio, which message can be manufactured, controlled, and broadcasted to millions of people. This linear model of communication is harder to apply in a digital communication world that follows more non-linear communication logic.

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