Hypodermic needle model

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The hypodermic needle model (also 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, while big data analytics based mass customization has led it 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.For instance, on October 30, 1938 (thenight before Halloween),Orson Welles, through his Mercury Theater of the Air, produced and narrated a radio adaptation of the science fiction story “War of the Worlds” and created with it a mass hysteria in the country, as people thought the nation was really under attack by creatures from Mars.

Two-step flow[edit]

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 [6] ". 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[7] in 1944. Elihu Katz contributed to the model in 1955 through studies and publications.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11] 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 individualed 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.[12] However, these same studies also argue that there is a multitude of step-flow models at work in today's digital communication landscape.[12][13][14]

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b D. 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. ^ 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.
  7. ^ cf. Two-step flow model
  8. ^ Katz, E. & Lazarsfeld, P.F. (1955) ‘Personal influence: The part played by people in the flow of mass communications‘, The Free Press, New York.
  9. ^ "The Two-Step Flow of Communication: An Up-To-Date Report on an Hypothesis". Political Opinion Quarterly. 21 (1): 61–78. doi:10.1086/266687. 
  10. ^ Werner Joseph Severin, James W. Tankard (1979). Communication Theories: Origins, Methods, Uses. Hastings House. ISBN 9780803812741.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ a b Hilbert, 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
  13. ^ Choi, S. (2014). The Two-Step Flow of Communication in Twitter-Based Public Forums. Social Science Computer Review, 0894439314556599.
  14. ^ 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.
  • 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. 
  • Severin, W. J. and Tankard, J.W. (1979). Communication Theories -- Origins, Methods and Uses. New York: Hastings House.