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Coinbase and The Inoculation Theory

A brief look at the Inoculation Theory and how Coinbase tried using it to turn the tables.

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Two days back, Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange platform, posted an article on their blog, titled, "An upcoming story about Coinbase". It is essentially an internal mail sent to employees, made public. It gives a "heads up" to its employees and their families and friends that The New York Times is planning to circulate a negative piece about the ill-treatment of black employees at Coinbase. It assures employees that the allegations made are baseless without evidence and had already been investigated internally and through an external agency.

The article at first seems like the generic public statement made to address allegations about discrimination at the workplace but the timing of the article was quite unusual. It has never happened before that someone tackles bad PR this way. It's almost as if they were trying to desensitize people to the NYT piece when it finally does come. If you ask William McGuire, he will tell you this is a classic example of creating resistance to persuasion.

Persuasion is the process of changing someone's feelings, attitude or behavior, based on logic (systematic persuasion) or emotion (heuristic persuasion). McGuire's work focused on producing ways of resisting persuasion and how pre-treatment could lessen the effects of persuasion later on. His paper, "inducing resistance to persuasion" talks about contemporary approaches to inducing resistance to persuasion based on various experiments. Some ways illustrated in the book through which one can build resistance against persuasion are

  1. Publicly announcing one's belief - this induces resistance due to peer conformity pressures
  2. Active participation based on belief - Taking some action like writing an essay or speaking about it in public improves the efficacy of the resistance
  3. External commitment - If the person is told by an external party that people think they hold a belief, they are likely to adhere to that belief. This is the weakest form of resistance of all, yet something that has proven to show results.

Another approach to building resistance is linking the belief to an existing set of beliefs and cognitions. In such a case, deviating becomes difficult, which requires all the links to existing beliefs to be broken, creating cognitive inconsistency.

A final approach would be to build resistance through prior training. A Commonly known method is general education.

McGuire's experiments stem from the biological tendency of the body to build resistance against disease by introducing a foreign entity in mild quantities, also called Inoculation or Vaccination. This exposure is strong enough for the body to create resistance that can withhold a massive attack in the future, but mild enough to not overthrow a body and infect it. The theory states that exposure to weak counter-arguments to a belief can build resistance in the recipient that can help them hold onto their beliefs and not be persuaded when attacked later. This helps tackle two issues when someone is persuaded,

  1. The recipient is not adept enough to defend his beliefs when suddenly attacked.
  2. The recipient is not motivated to practice his defense.

The experiments relied on beliefs that were nurtured in an ideological conflict-free environment where the beliefs being under an attack or scrutiny is never heard of. Cultural truisms are such beliefs, which are claims that are so obvious and evident that even mildly bringing up an argument about it isn't worth it. Medical truisms are quite common, like "you should brush your teeth thrice a day" and "flossing is healthy".

The key variables which decide the efficacy of Inoculation are,

  1. Amount of threat - giving supportive statements that reinforce the truism is a non-threatening approach. On the contrary, a refutational approach would be a more aggressive option. The person is threatened with arguments against the truism, which forces the person to develop defensive measures from future persuasion.
  2. Delay - The interval between defense building and attack is also a variable to be considered. McGuire explains that it (typically ranging from a couple of hours to several months) gives time to people to strengthen their beliefs, and researchers have found this to be a factor of relevance.
  3. Participation - The active participation of the subject in the topic is crucial. If the person is inherently not interested, he won't feel threatened when bombarded with the counter-arguments, and the Inoculation would be ineffective.

Inoculation Theory is used in combating science denialism, in defensive marketing, and also politics. There are various examples of how the inoculation theory is put to practice. Looking back at the Coinbase blog post, it seems clear that they attempted to change people's opinions and beliefs about the company three days before the actual attack occurred. The internet was split on the intention behind the blogpost. But something I observed was that most of those who weren't overthrown by the blog post are those who already have a relatively positive opinion about Coinbase and they will probably stay the same when the article comes out. I might be wrong but these were my observations from the various threads I read on Twitter. Although the move was probably not very effective, it is evident how the variables for Inoculation were cleverly leveraged.

My stance in regards to discrimination at a workplace is firm. Everyone should have equal opportunities to speak up about problems, to share their opinions, and rank up the ladder irrespective of their race, religion, or gender. This article is oblivious to the actual allegations against Coinbase and focuses on the methodology used and the psychological theory. This article was my paper submission for "The Web and The Mind" graduate course at IIIT Bangalore.