Hypodermic Needle Theory Essays About Education

Communication theories are ways of conceptualising the relationship between the mass media and audiences. Since the early days of mass communication, media theorists have attempted to describe the process of communication in an attempt to understand the nature and extent of media influence.


The Hypodermic Needle Theory suggests that the media has a direct and powerful influence on audiences. It was developed in the 1920s and 1930s after researchers observed the effect of propaganda during World War I and incidents such as Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. It became the dominant way of thinking about media influence during the subsequent decades. The Hypodermic Needle theory is a linear communication theory which suggests that a media message is injected directly into the brain of a passive, homogenous audience. This theory suggests that media texts are closed and audiences are influenced in the same way. The Hypodermic Needle Theory is no longer accepted by media theorists as a valid explanation of communication and media influence. Indeed, some dispute whether early media theorists gave the idea serious attention. In their book An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research, Michael Salwen and Don Stacks write: “The hypodermic-needle model dominated until the 1940s. As discussed earlier, although there is some question whether such a model influenced scholarly research, anyone reading pre-World War II popular literature will see that it underlay much popular thinking about the mass media and their consequences.” Although the Hypodermic Needle Theory has been abandoned by most media theorists, it continues to influence mainstream discourse about the influence of the mass media. People believe that the mass media can have a powerful effect on people and parents continue to worry about the effect of television and violent video games.


Harold Lasswell’s book Propaganda Technique in the World War was one of the principal source for what would later become known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory. Writing about the effect of Allied propaganda, Lasswell wrote: “From a propaganda point of view it was a matchless performance, for Wilson brewed the subtle poison, which industrious men injected into the veins of a staggering people, until the smashing powers of the Allied armies knocked them into submission.”


The Payne Fund Studies were a series of studies into the effect of movies on children. Although the studies have been criticised for a lack of scientific rigor but were the first, most comprehensive study of media influence. These studies confirmed the belief that the media has a powerful and direct influence on audiences. When writing about the influence of motion pictures, WW Charters – the chairman of the project – wrote: “We see that as an instrument of education it has unusual power to impart information, to influence specific attitudes towards objects of social value, to affect emotions in either gross or microscopic proportions, to affect health in a minor degree through sleep disturbance, and to affect profoundly the patterns of conduct of children.”

Although some of the data gathered from the Payne Fund Studies seemed to prove the hypodermic needle theory, it is important to recognise that these studies also proved significant flaws in this communication theory. As noted in ‘Children and the movies: media influence and the Payne Fund controversy’: “It is also important to realize that the best researchers of the late 1920s were not all naive adherents of what has been caricatured as the “hypodermic” or “magic bullet” theory of mass communication in which media messages were assumed to have a direct and immediate effect on the viewer’s consciousness as if they were injected like a drug into the bloodstream. There are traces of that idea in the PFS, but to some degree it was tested and gone beyond.”


On October 30, 1938 the Mercury Theatre broadcast a dramatization of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. Directed by Orson Welles, the program was presented in the format of a news bulletin. Some viewers who tuned in late became convinced that Earth was actually being invaded by martians. As noted on the front page of The New York Times: “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners between 8:15 and 9:30 o’clock last night when a broadcast of a dramatization of H. G. Wells’s fantasy, “The War of the Worlds,” led thousands to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York. The broadcast, which disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems, was made by Orson Welles, who as the radio character, “The Shadow,” used to give “the creeps” to countless child listeners. This time at least a score of adults required medical treatment for shock and hysteria. In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than twenty families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York families left their homes, some to flee to near-by parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada seeking advice on protective measures against the raids. The program was produced by Mr. Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air over station WABC and the Columbia Broadcasting System’s coast-to-coast network, from 8 to 9 o’clock.” Social psychologist Hadley Cantril conducted research on the Orson Wells broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’. He published his work in a book titled ‘The Invasion From Mars – A Study In The Psychology Of Panic’. The research involved interviews with one hundred and thirty people who listened to the broadcast. One hundred of those interviewed were selected for the study because they were frightened by the program. The only authoritative research on this event was conducted by a social psychologist examining the psychology of mass panic, not the influence of the mass media. In his book, Cantril notes that thousands of people became “panic-stricken”. It is estimated that close to six million people listened to the broadcast.


University of Twente: Hypodermic Needle Theory
Wikipedia: The Hypodermic Needle Model
Audience Theory: An Introduction


In 1948, Paul F Lazarsfeld wrote ‘The People’s Choice’ which summarised his research into the November 1940 presidential election. In the course of his research, Lazarsfeld discovered that people were more likely to be influenced by their peers than the mass media.

Lazarsfeld called these people ‘opinion leaders’. The Two Step Flow Theory suggests that opinion leaders pay close attention to the mass media and pass on their interpretation of media messages to others. The Two Step Flow Theory maintains that audiences are active participants in the communication process.

As Joseph Klapper noted in The Effects of Mass Communication: “Research has been focused on the process by which people come to decisions regarding public issues, change their food purchasing habits and habits of dress, and select the movies they attend. Specialist studies have inquired into how farmers come to adopt new farming practices and how physicians come to adopt new drugs. In all of these matters, and presumably in others, many people appear to be more crucially influenced by specific other individuals than by pertinent mass communications.”


University of Twente: Two Step Flow Theory
Wikipedia: Two Step Flow Theory


The Agenda Setting Function Theory was developed by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw as a result of their 1968 study of North Carolina voters during a presidential election campaign. They found a correlation between issues that voters believed were important and issues that the media gave prominence to. They argued that the media can’t tell audiences what to think but they can tell them what to think about, that the media has the power to set agendas. As McCombs noted: “The power of the news media to set a nation’s agenda, to focus public attention on a few key public issues, is an immense and well-documented influence. Not only do people acquire factual information about public affairs from the news media, readers and viewers also learn how much importance to attach to a topic on the basis of the emphasis placed on it in the news. Newspapers provide a host of cues about the salience of the topics in the daily news – lead story on page one, other front page display, large headlines, etc. Television news also offers numerous cues about salience – the opening story on the newscast, length of time devoted to the story, etc. These cues repeated day after day effectively communicate the importance of each topic. In other words, the news media can set the agenda for the public’s attention to that small group of issues around which public opinion forms.”


Wikipedia: The Agenda Setting Function Theory
University of Twente: Agenda Setting Function Theory
The Medical Journal of Australia: The Kylie Effect
The Age: ‘Kylie effect’ helped raise breast screening


Early thinking about communication theories focused on what the media does to people. The Uses and Gratification Theory, which was explored by Elihu Katz and Jay Blumler in a 1974 collection of essays titled The Uses of Mass Communication, concerns itself with what people do with the media. This theory proposes that audiences are active participants in the communication process. They choose media texts to gratify their own needs – such as the need for information, personal identity, integration, social interaction or entertainment. Uses and Gratification researchers maintain that the best way to find out about media use is by asking the audience because they are “sufficiently self-aware” to explain their reasons for using media texts. According to this theory, texts are open and audiences are active. In fact, the Uses and Gratification theory suggests that audiences actually have power over the mass media. For example, if they choose not to watch a particular program it won’t rate and will be taken off the air.


Why do people watch television?
Uses and Gratification Theory


In 1960, theorist Joseph Klapper published ‘The Effects of Mass Communication’ in which he proposed the Reinforcement Theory. As Klapper noted: “Whatever it is to be called, it is in essence a shift away from from the tendency to regard mass communication as a necessary and sufficient cause of audience effects, towards a view of the media as influences, working amid other influences, in a total situation.” Klapper argued that the mass media does not have the ability to influence audiences. “Regardless of whether the effect in question be social or individual,” he wrote,”the media are more likely to reinforce than to change.” Klapper argued that people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviour was more likely to be influenced by their family, schools, communities and religious institutions. He argued that the only time the media could influence people was when the media introduced a new idea or concept. Klapper also pointed out that there are particular attitudes and beliefs that the mass media is particularly unlikely to change, such as racial and religious tolerance because attitudes on such topics are “crucial to their self-images and central to clusters of related attitudes, they have occasionally been called “ego-involved,” attitudes and it has become somehting of a dictum that ego-involved attitudes are peculiarly resistant to conversion by mass communication – or, for that matter, by other agencies.”

When writing about whether media violence encourages people to be more aggressive, Klapper wrote: “Communications research strongly indicates that media depictions of crime and violence are not prime moves towards such conduct. The content seems rather to reinforce or implement existing and otherwise induced behavioral tendencies. For the well adjusted, it appears to be innocuous or even to be selectively perceived as socially useful. For the maladjusted, particularly the aggressively inclined and the frustrated, it appears to serve, at the very least, as a stimulant to escapist and possibly aggressive fantasy, and probably to serve other functions as yet unidentified.”

In ‘The Effects of Mass Communication’, Klapper cites a number of studies that support his theory, including a 1948 study by Larzarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet which revealed that voters were predisposed to opinions and beliefs held by their families. As Klapper notes: “For persons such as the young man who reported his intention to “vote Democratic because my Grandfather will skin me if I don’t” – or for his opposite number who explained that “I will vote Republican because my family are all Republicans so therefore I would have to vote that way” – exposure to months of campaign propaganda was found particularly likely to be reinforcing, and particularly unlikely to effect conversion.”

Comparing Theories

Download and print out this table to help you revise the difference between theories for the SAC and the examination.

The hypodermic needle model (known as the hypodermic-syringe model, transmission-belt model, or magic bullet theory) is a model of communications suggesting that an intended message is directly received and wholly accepted by the receiver. The model was originally rooted in 1930s behaviorism and largely considered obsolete for a long time, but big data analytics-based mass customization has led to a modern revival of the basic idea.


The "magic bullet" or "hypodermic needle theory" of direct influence effects was based on early observations of the effect of mass media, as used by Nazi propaganda and the effects of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.[1] People were assumed to be "uniformly controlled by their biologically based 'instincts' and that they react more or less uniformly to whatever 'stimuli' came along".[2] The "Magic Bullet" theory graphically assumes that the media's message is a bullet fired from the "media gun" into the viewer's "head".[3] Similarly, the "Hypodermic Needle Model" uses the same idea of the "shooting" paradigm. It suggests that the media injects its messages straight into the passive audience.[4] This passive audience is immediately affected by these messages. The public essentially cannot escape from the media's influence, and is therefore considered a "sitting duck".[4] Both models suggest that the public is vulnerable to the messages shot at them because of the limited communication tools and the studies of the media's effects on the masses at the time.[5] It means the media explores information in such a way that it injects in the mind of audiences as bullets.

The "magic bullet" and "hypodermic needle" models originate from Harold Lasswell's 1927 book, Propaganda Technique in the World War[6]. Recent work in the history of communication studies have documented how the two models may have served as strawman theory or fallacy[7] or even a "myth".[8] Others have documented the possible medical origins of the metaphor of the magic bullet model.[9]

Two-step flow[edit]

Main article: Two-step flow of communication

The phrasing "hypodermic needle" is meant to give a mental image of the direct, strategic, and planned infusion of a message into an individual. But as research methodology became more highly developed, it became apparent that the media had selective influences on people.

The most famous incident often cited as an example for the hypodermic needle model was the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the subsequent reaction of widespread panic among its American mass audience. However, this incident actually sparked the research movement, led by Paul Lazarsfeld and Herta Herzog, that would disprove the magic bullet or hypodermic needle theory, as Hadley Cantril managed to show that reactions to the broadcast were, in fact, diverse, and were largely determined by situational and attitudinal attributes of the listeners.

In the 1940s, Lazarsfeld disproved the "magic bullet" theory and "hypodermic needle model theory" through elections studies in "The People's Choice".[10] Lazarsfeld and colleagues executed the study by gathering research during the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The study was conducted to determine voting patterns and the relationship between the media and political power. Lazarsfeld discovered that the majority of the public remained unfazed by propaganda surrounding Roosevelt's campaign. Instead, interpersonal outlets proved more influential than the media. Therefore, Lazarsfeld concluded that the effects of the campaign were not all powerful to the point where they completely persuaded "helpless audiences", a claim that the Magic Bullet, Hypodermic Needle Model, and Lasswell asserted. These new findings also suggested that the public can select which messages affect and don't affect them.

Lazarsfeld's debunking of these models of communication provided the way for new ideas regarding the media's effects on the public. Lazarsfeld introduced the idea of the two-step flow of communication[11] in 1944. Elihu Katz contributed to the model in 1955 through studies and publications.[12] The model of the two-step flow of communication assumes that ideas flow from the mass media to opinion leaders and then to the greater public. They believed the message of the media to be transferred to the masses via this opinion leadership. Opinion leaders are categorized as individuals with the best understanding of media content and the most accessibility to the media as well. These leaders essentially take in the media's information, and explain and spread the media's messages to others.[13]

Thus, the two step flow model and other communication theories suggest that the media does not directly have an influence on viewers anymore. Instead, interpersonal connections and even selective exposure play a larger role in influencing the public in the modern age.[14]

Contemporary one-step flow[edit]

More recently, the use of big data analytics to identify user preferences and to send tailor-made messages to individuals led back to the idea of a "one-step flow of communication", which is in principle similar to the hypodermic needle model.[15] The difference is that today's massive databases allow for the mass customization of messages. So it is not one generic mass media message, but many individualized messages, coordinated by a massive algorithm. For example, empirical studies have found that in Twitter networks, traditional mass media outlets receive 80–90% of their Twitter mentions directly through a direct one-step flow from average Twitter users.[16] However, these same studies also argue that there is a multitude of step-flow models at work in today's digital communication landscape.[16][17][18]

See also[edit]




  • Berger, A. A. (1995). Essentials of Mass Communication Theory. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (1997). "Industries and Audience". Media/Society. London: Pine Forge Press.
  • Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (1981). "A History of Our Understanding of Mass Communication". In: Davis, D.K. & Baron and S.J. (Eds.). Mass Communication and Everyday Life: A Perspective on Theory and Effects (19-52). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  • Katz, E., Lazarsfeld, P.F. (1955). Personal Influence: the Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication's. 309.
  • Katz, E (1957). "The Two-Step Flow of Communication: an Up-To-Date Report on a Hypothesis". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 21 (1): 61–78. 
  • Lubken, D. (2008). Remembering the Straw Man: The Travels and Adventures of Hypodermic. In D. W. Park & J. Pooley (Eds.), The history of media and communication research: contested memories: Peter Lang Publishing.
  • Severin, W. J. and Tankard, J.W. (1979). Communication Theories -- Origins, Methods and Uses. New York: Hastings House.
  • Sproule, J. M. (1989). Progressive Propaganda Critics and the Magic Bullet Myth. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 6(3), 225-246. doi:citeulike-article-id:9472331
  • Thibault, G. (2016). Needles and Bullets: Media Theory, Medicine, and Propaganda, 1910-1940. In K. Nixon & L. Servitje (Eds.), Endemic: Essays in Contagion Theory (pp. 67-91). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  1. ^Communication Theory; Mass Communication: MAGIC BULLET OR HYPODERMIC NEEDLE THEORY OF COMMUNICATION http://communicationtheory.org/magic-bullet-or-hypodermic-needle-theory-of-communication/
  2. ^Lowery, Shearon (1995). Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects (en inglés). USA: Longman Publishers. p. 400. ISBN 9780801314377.
  3. ^Arthur Asa (1995). Essentials of Mass Communication Theory. Londres: SAGE Publications.
  4. ^ abD. Croteau, W. Hoynes (1197). Media/society: industries, images, and audiences. Pine Forge Press. ISBN 9780803990654.
  5. ^Davis, D.K. & Baron, S.J. (1981). A History of Our Understanding of Mass Communication. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.
  6. ^Lasswell, H. (1927) "Propaganda Technique in the World War"
  7. ^Lubken, Deborah. (2008). Remembering the Straw Man: The Travels and Adventures of Hypodermic. In D. W. Park & J. Pooley (Eds.), The history of media and communication research: contested memories: Peter Lang Publishing.
  8. ^Sproule, J. M. (1989). Progressive Propaganda Critics and the Magic Bullet Myth. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 6(3), 225-246. doi:citeulike-article-id:9472331
  9. ^Thibault, Ghislain. (2016). Needles and Bullets: Media Theory, Medicine, and Propaganda, 1910-1940. In K. Nixon & L. Servitje (Eds.), Endemic: Essays in Contagion Theory (pp. 67-91). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  10. ^Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, Hazel Gaudet (1948). The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. Columbia University Press.
  11. ^cf.Two-step flow model
  12. ^Katz, E., Lazarsfeld, P.F. (1955) ‘Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications‘, The Free Press, New York.
  13. ^"The Two-Step Flow of Communication: An Up-To-Date Report on an Hypothesis". Public Opinion Quarterly. 21 (1): 61–78. 1957. doi:10.1086/266687. 
  14. ^Werner Joseph Severin, James W. Tankard (1979). Communication Theories: Origins, Methods, Uses. Hastings House. ISBN 9780803812741.
  15. ^Bennett, W. L., & Manheim, J. B. (2006). The One-Step Flow of Communication. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 608(1), 213–232. http://doi.org/10.1177/0002716206292266
  16. ^ abHilbert, M., Vasquez, J., Halpern, D., Valenzuela, S., & Arriagada, E. (2016). One Step, Two Step, Network Step? Complementary Perspectives on Communication Flows in Twittered Citizen Protests. Social Science Computer Review. Freely available at http://escholarship.org/uc/item/0nn4p7mv
  17. ^Choi, S. (2014). The Two-Step Flow of Communication in Twitter-Based Public Forums. Social Science Computer Review, 0894439314556599.
  18. ^Stansberry, K. (2012). One-step, two-step, or multi-step flow: the role of influencers in information processing and dissemination in online, interest-based publics. PhD Dissertation presented to the School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon.

One thought on “Hypodermic Needle Theory Essays About Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *