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The stimulus–response model is associated with the assumption that the mass media has powerful effects. Also referred to as the ‘hypodermic needle’ or ‘transmission belt theory,’ it can be considered one of the first general conceptions describing mass media effects. The basic assumption is that because people’s actions in anonymous mass societies are not so much influenced by social ties but are still evolutionarily guided by a uniform set of instincts, individuals attend to media messages similarly and interpret them in a uniform way. In this model, media messages are seen as ‘magic bullets,’ striking every eye and ear, resulting in effects on thought and behavior that are direct, immediate, uniform, and, therefore, powerful. According to the generally accepted history of media effects research, the stimulus– response model was the guiding perspective in the media effects field during the early days of communication study.
Today, however, this received view is disputed. Most probably the stimulus–response model was never explicitly endorsed by any early mass communication scholar but instead invented by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955) as a straw man against which their own limited effects model could be contrasted and presented as an impressive paradigm shift. Other scholars later dismissed the standard history and provided evidence demonstrating how advocates of an early stimulus– response era were patently relying on a mistaken interpretation of the early effects literature. Bineham (1988) explains the differing interpretations of these early studies with the idea that advocates and critics of the received view had a very different understanding of what the hypodermic needle model meant. Advocates see the recognition of intervening variables as mere elaborations upon the hypodermic model if the studies still assume that mass communication is a one-directional and linear process; critics of the received view see the recognition of differences among media audiences and the inclusion of mediating variables as a break from the established tradition.
- Bineham, J. (1988). A historical account of the hypodermic model in mass communication. Communication Monographs, 55, 230–246.
- Katz, E. & Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1955). Personal influence. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Lang, G. E. & Lang, K. (1981). Mass communication and public opinion. In M. Rosenberg & R. H. Turner (eds.), Social psychology: Sociological perspectives. New York: Basic Books, pp. 653–682.
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