When people believe in conspiracy theories — that Princess Diana was murdered, for example, or that the American government had prior knowledge of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — they are also more likely to think that vaccines are unsafe, according to a study published recently in the journal Health Psychology.
The study’s findings underscore the challenges facing health professionals who are struggling to find ways to help people overcome myths and unfounded fears about vaccines.
“Vaccinations are one of society’s greatest achievements and one of the main reasons that people live about 30 years longer than a century ago,” says Matthew Hornsey, the study’s lead author and a social psychologist at the University of Queensland, in a released statement. “Therefore, it is fascinating to learn about why some people are so fearful of them.”
Participants from around the world
For the study, Hornsey and his co-authors surveyed 5,323 people in 24 countries, including the United States, Argentina, India, China, Japan and Germany. The survey, which was conducted online during the spring of 2016, asked people about their attitudes toward vaccines. Participants rated (on a scale of one to five) whether they agreed with such statements as “children get more vaccinations than are good for them,” as well as how concerned they were “that any one of the childhood vaccines might not be safe.”
The participants were also asked about their beliefs in four conspiracy theories: that Princess Diana was murdered, that the American government knew in advance about the 9/11 attacks and chose to do nothing to stop them, that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was part of an elaborate plot rather than the work of a sole gunman, and that a shadowy group of international elites are plotting a new world order.
About 15 percent of the participants expressed strong anti-vaccination attitudes, and another 39 percent said they were moderately distrustful. These beliefs tended to be most common in Asian countries and least common in Western ones.
The researchers then compared anti-vaccination attitudes with beliefs in conspiracy theories. They found that individuals who strongly embraced conspiracies were most likely to express anti-vaccination attitudes — no matter which country they called home. Individuals who believed in a JFK murder conspiracy, for example, tended to also harbor highly negative attitudes about vaccines.
The level of the participants’ education, however, had little bearing on their attitudes toward vaccines.
In addition to a greater willingness to believe in conspiracies, two other factors were identified in the study as being associated with anti-vaccination attitudes. One was a high level of disgust toward blood and needles. The other was something psychologists call reactance — a strong skepticism of consensus views and a high level of intolerance to perceived efforts to limit opinions or actions.
Individuals high in reactance, the researchers explain in their paper, may reject the medical consensus that vaccines are safe and a necessary good because its gets in the way of their self-image as a nonconformist.
The findings come as activists in Minnesota are pushing for an “informed consent” bill in the Legislature that would require medical professionals to discuss risks with parents before vaccinating their babies.
Limitations and implications
This study comes with its share of caveats. Most notably, all the participants were recruited online and had a relatively high level of education. The study might have had different findings if the participants had included more people from less-educated populations. Also, the study measured attitudes toward vaccines, but not behaviors regarding them. The people who expressed skepticism about vaccines might — or might not — act on those beliefs by refusing to vaccinate their children.
Still, the findings support plenty of other research that has shown it’s ineffective — and even counter-productive — to present facts and evidence to people with hardcore anti-vaccine views.
“For most people, official health messages asserting a scientific consensus about vaccination are reassuring and imply an underlying reality,” the current study’s authors point out. “… But for those who have a conspiratorial worldview, these same ingredients — official pronouncements that imply a lack of dissent or that the ‘science is in’ — can be inverted to be proof of a conspiracy.”
What can be done, then, to lift the fears of parents and others who have been swayed by myths and misinformation that vaccines are unsafe?
“Trying to reduce people’s conspiracy beliefs is notoriously difficult,” Hornsey says. “An alternative possibility is to acknowledge the possibility of conspiracies, but to highlight how there are vested interests on the other side too; vested interests that are motivated to obscure the benefits of vaccination and to exaggerate their dangers.”
FMI: You can download and read the article in full on the Healthy Psychology website.