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This post is from longtime debater and speaker Catherine Alles. Catherine competed in TP with NCFCA for 5 years, and qualified to Nationals all 4 years of high school. Look for more posts from her over the next few months!

When a doctor injects a patient with a vaccine, they are literally giving them a disease. Thankfully, there is a method to their madness. By giving a person a diluted, or weakened version of a virus, the doctor is giving the patient’s immune system a chance to develop an immunity to the virus. We may be mildly sick for a few days as our body adjusts to and deals with the intruder, but we’ll be thankful later when the real, sometimes deadly disease comes around and our body already has a response. Regardless of whether or not you agree with everything doctors recommend (I have never had a vaccine in my life), you can still appreciate the concept.

Did you know that, as a debater, you can inject your judge with a rhetorical vaccine? Persuasive Inoculation does just that. In a nutshell, persuasive inoculation is when you ‘warn’ the judge what the other team might say and give a quick response.

In the Real World

During the Korean War, many captured American soldiers were being tortured and brainwashed to think that America was evil and that the cause they were fighting for was flawed. Psychologists here in America knew there had to be some way to solve this problem, and so they experimented with building up resistance to certain ideas. It became a part of the soldiers’ training before they went into battle to be exposed to things the Koreans might say and do, so that they would be prepared and know how to respond.

Another example involves the anti-smoking campaign. Schools wanted to inoculate kids against the pro-smoking argument that it was “cool,” and so they had students do a role playing exercise. A role-playing peer would call a student “chicken” for not smoking, and the student practiced responding with a scripted reply: “I’d be a real chicken if I smoked just to impress you.” By saying these words and being in the fake situation, the kids were more prepared to respond to a similar situation in real life. Studies showed that the kids who participated in these role playing exercises were half as likely to smoke than their peers at similar schools.

Persuasive inoculation is real, and real people use it all the time. If you watch carefully, you may notice your parents, siblings, friends, or coworkers using this strategy–whether it’s intentional or not. Just turn on the TV: many commercials use this tactic to strike back at competitors.

In a Debate Round

First, using this strategy helps you manage your time more efficiently. It’s important to note that you’re not giving your full response to the argument, but only a quick, surface-level response. Since they haven’t brought up their argument/response yet, you don’t want to get too ahead of yourself and confuse the judge. Instead, you maybe just respond with points 1 and 2 of four point refutation. You can just tell your judge what they might say and what your response is, and then you can bring up the evidence and impact in a later speech. If you consistently bring up this kind of responses, you’ll have more time in your rebuttals to expand upon the arguments because you won’t be introducing them from scratch.  

Second, this tool gets in your judge’s head to make them more inclined to believe your arguments. If you’ve already warned the judge what the other team might bring up, when they do bring it up they’ll be less inclined to believe it. You want the judge to be subconsciously biased towards your arguments and against your opponent’s. Plant the seeds so that when they hear arguments that confirm what you say, they are more inclined to agree. Set them up so that when they hear opposing ideas, they’re more suspicious.

For Example

When my older sister and I were debating together and running the case “Abolish the Exclusionary Rule,” we came across the same argument EVERY round! The negative team kept trying to frame the debate and say that we would be violating the fourth amendment, when our whole point as the affirmative team was to strengthen and protect the fourth amendment. It was extremely frustrating, and we wanted a way to inoculate our judge against it early on. So we experimented with adding this paragraph to our 1AC:

“The original thought of the Supreme Court in 1914 was that the court system had no punishments for police officers who conduct illegal searches and seizures, and that excluding evidence that was illegally obtained would be a good way to punish them. They thought it would protect the American people’s fourth amendment rights by discouraging police officers to break the law in this way. Cora and I agree that the fourth amendment is important to protect. But the exclusionary rule is an outdated remedy.”

We gave a more in-depth response in future speeches, but this helped us get our foot in the door of that argument. This way, when the negative team brought up the fourth amendment, we could point back to the 1AC and tell the judge we already explained the flawed reasoning the Supreme Court used. Using this paragraph helped us frame the debate more favorably towards our case, and helped us control the round.

Just like a vaccine, using persuasive inoculation can be very effective! I encourage you to experiment with this tool in debate rounds, as well as in your personal life! The end goal is not to manipulate or trick people, but to use psychology to strengthen your arguments.

For more on this subject, check out my Youtube video on persuasive inoculation.


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