The Reinforcement Theory

In this episode, we’re talking about Joseph Klapper’s Reinforcement Theory. In the early days of communication, people thought that the media had a powerful and direct influence on audiences. In the 1960s, communication theorist Joseph Klapper released a landmark book called The Effect of Mass Communication in which he argued that the media has little power to influence people and, most of the time, it just reinforces our preexisting attitudes and beliefs. He thought it was important to move away from the notion that the media has a direct and powerful influence on audiences, focusing instead on how the media works amid other influences in a total situation. Klapper argued that people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviour was more likely to be influenced by their family, schools, communities and religious institutions. According to Klapper, the only time the media can influence people is when the media introduces a new idea or concept. He pointed out that there are particular attitudes and beliefs that the mass media is particularly unlikely to change, such as racial or religious views.

In ‘The Effects of Mass Communication’, Klapper cites hundreds of studies that support his theory, including a 1948 study which revealed that voters were predisposed to opinions and beliefs held by their families. Including one young man who said he was going to vote Democratic because his grandfather would skin him if he didn’t. Anecdotally, I can kind of relate to this. I can’t think of any instances where the mass media has changed my opinion on an issue but I can think of quite a few when my friends, family and colleagues have. The Reinforcement Theory definitely suggests that texts are open. A 1970s study that examined at the sitcom All in the Family found that people who were like the character Archie Bunker – who parodied for his racist, blue collar attitude – didn’t see the satirical nature of the program and perceived the character as an ordinary guy. As Klapper argued, the media is more likely to reinforce than change.

According to Professor Robert Wicks, The Effects of Mass Communication had a pretty profound effect on research into media and communication, creating a framework that allowed researchers from different disciplines to build an understanding of how we interact with media texts.

The advantage of The Reinforcement Theory is that it turns our attention away from the simplistic idea that the media has a direct and powerful effect on audiences and encourages us to think about the whole picture. Next time you find yourself nodding in agreement when you watch a news or current affairs program, it’s probably the Reinforcement Theory in action.