The Anti-Vaccination Movement: Personality Traits as Contributors

Our inability to convince anti-vaccination individuals that immunization is prudent has resulted in increased incidences of some vaccine preventable diseases.

Healthcare professionals who are faced with patients who do not believe in vaccination have tried numerous ways of approaching the topic. Unfortunately, approaches that include debunking myths and presenting scientific evidence have not made substantial inroads. Our inability to convince individuals that vaccination is prudent has resulted in increased incidences of some vaccine preventable diseases (measles, mumps, and pertussis especially). How can we convince skeptics that vaccination is a science-based, effective, socially responsible action?

Researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, have published a paper in the journal Health Psychology (a journal associated with the American Psychological Association) that discusses the psychological roots of anti-vaccination attitudes. These researchers looked at data from 24 nations. They identified 3 tendencies among individuals who do not believe in vaccination.

These researchers present a highly engaging and informative introduction that stresses the fact that defending facts and correcting misinformation tends to work only in individuals who are new to an issue. Among people who do not believe in vaccination, education is not necessarily persuasive. They also point out that repeating the evidence rarely makes a demonstrable difference among these individuals.

These researchers conducted a large study, enrolling 5,323 participants, to ask about anti-vaccination attitudes. Concurrently, they asked about conspiracy theories, reactance (or the tendency to have a low tolerance for freedom encroachments), opinion about blood and needles, and hierarchal theories. From participant responses, they assessed risk and myth endorsement.

The researchers found that people who held anti-vaccination attitudes were significantly more likely to also hold conspiratorial beliefs, and this was especially true in Western industrialized nations. These individuals often look at consensus and see conspiracy. The authors suggest that acknowledging the possibility of conspiracies and pointing out that vested interests, including anti-vaccination groups, can also conspire to obscure immunization benefits and exaggerate dangers.

Those who were anti-vaccinators also had high levels of reactance. Here the authors suggest that presenting anti-vaccination movements as high pressure, highly conformist organizations that discourage individual freedom might sway some individuals.

Fewer than 10% of participants had high levels of disgust with blood and needles. For them, short-term anxiety reduction strategies may help. The authors also indicate that individuals who find blood and needles disgusting might be swayed if they are reminded that if they are not immunized, they may have to be hospitalized and exposed to surgery, blood, and needles in that way.

Reference

Hornsey MJ, Harris EA, Fielding KS. The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation. Health Psychol. 2018 Feb 1. doi: 10.1037/hea0000586. [Epub ahead of print]