How To Argue With Anti-Vaxxers, According To Science

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Thanks to a reduction in parental willingness to immunize children, vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. Last year, the U.S. witnessed three times as many measles cases as the previous year. Scientists are therefore trying to raise awareness of the importance of vaccinations, but this often seems a fruitless endeavor.

Now, scientists believe they could have come up with an effective intervention to help positively change people’s attitudes. Rather than focusing on reiterating scientific evidence, a group from the University of Illinois found they could moderate beliefs by reminding people of the harms that vaccine refusal can have. The findings have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Predominantly sparked by a now-retracted and scientifically flawed study claiming tenuous links between the MMR and autism, fears over the potential negative impacts of vaccines have been difficult to shake, and the web continues to be loaded with scaremongering pages spouting inaccuracies and misinformation about life-saving jabs. But if you’ve ever tried to argue in defense of immunization, you’ll probably be well aware that reminding anti-vaxxers of the evidence supporting their use is usually a redundant activity.

In fact, not only has this approach shown to be ineffective, but studies have also demonstrated that providing information that attempts to undermine misbeliefs about the supposed dangers of vaccination can actually backfire and strengthen negative attitudes.

“Perhaps we need to direct people’s attention to the other aspect of the decision,” lead author Zachary Horne said in a statement. “You may be focused on the risk of getting the shot. But there’s also the risk of not getting the shot. You or your child could get measles.”

With this in mind, researchers conducted a new study designed to test out the effectiveness of one potential intervention aimed at changing people’s anti-vaccination attitudes: highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases. After recruiting 315 volunteers, the researchers used questionnaires to probe their views on a variety of divisive subjects, including vaccination.

Participants were then randomly split into three groups that received different study conditions. One group was provided with scientific literature that refuted common vaccination myths. The second, a so-called “disease risk group,” was given various materials highlighting the risks associated with three vaccine-preventable diseases: measles, mumps and rubella. These included stories from parents whose children had suffered such diseases, images of infants with the infections and information regarding the potential consequences of failing to vaccinate. The final group was a control that was given unrelated reading material.

At the end of the study, participants’ attitudes were reassessed to see whether the intention to vaccinate their children had changed. Encouragingly, the researchers report, they found that the second intervention successfully changed people’s vaccination attitudes in a positive manner; even those with the strongest anti-vaccination beliefs could be countered with this technique.

“Of course, the skeptics are the people with the greatest amount of room to move, so in a sense that finding is unsurprising,” study author John Hummel said in a statement. “But it’s also extremely important, because those are precisely the people you want to move.”

Whether or not this intervention will be successful with the general population remains to be seen, but it would be interesting to see whether implementation in target areas could yield similarly positive outcomes. 

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