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Belief in conspiracy theories linked to anti-vaccine skepticism

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
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.

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.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/08/2018 - 11:39 am.

    Plausible but probably as one of many factors.

    Simple minded thinking craves single explanations. Yes, those who reject vaccines are non conformist. But the reality is that their non conformity puts others at risk. There are other things.

    Immunizations cost money, are not very profitable to providers, involve travel and can be painful and have complications. They are like preventive maintenance and have risks, which those who don’t trust science, tend to be overestimated.

    Medical systems in the US are not designed to provide them and they do not provide absolutely protection. Also legislators make them too easy to provide and few doctors want to push them. And of course, there are medically valid reasons for not having them.

    The point is that not everyone needs them to greatly reduce the risks of epidemics and most of these issues can be overcome. Let’s get too it and stop making excuses. Too many people did from influenza, pneumonia and other complications. They are cheap and effective compared to dealing with illness. Let’s get going. It is past time.

  2. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 02/08/2018 - 12:08 pm.

    This Title is Misguided

    “They found that individuals who strongly embraced conspiracies were most likely to express anti-vaccination attitudes.”
    There is nothing that states that those most likely to express anti-vaccination attitudes also strongly embraced conspiracy theories.
    If the thought is that those who are skeptical about vaccination also are strong conspiracy theorists is nowhere close to being proven from this study.
    Hope our tax dollars did not pay for this shoddy study.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/08/2018 - 07:34 pm.

      Uh, no

      That’s exactly what it showed. Ans if shoulsn’t be a surprise. Vaccine “skeptics” necessarily ignore facts and evidence. Just like conspiracy theorists do. Its the same kind of thought process.

  3. Submitted by Kathryn Wilson on 02/08/2018 - 10:42 pm.

    What’s the name for not believing everything you’re told?

    This study sounds pretty positive to me. So, there is a percentage of people who question information they are given, research popular positions, and come to their own conclusions. That’s not a conspiracy theorist. That’s a logical non-sheep person.

    If the CDC site says vaccines work maybe 50%-70% of the time, they contain ingredients we are supposed to avoid in other things we eat and drink, babies and teens have had seizures and/or died after getting vaccines, and doctors get huge kickbacks from the pharmaceutical companies for vaccinating X% of their patients, it seems pretty smart to me to question getting them, and certainly question the huge push by the government and public schools (same thing) for a mandate to force them on citizens.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 02/12/2018 - 08:41 pm.

      Nope

      Because the “research” – like a number of things you have listed – are pure nonsense, it is completely illogical.

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