Earlier this year, I wrote about a preponderance of psychological research that shows us that trying to use logic and reason to convince a person that vaccines are safe and effective may have counterintuitive effects, leading many people to be even more fervently entrenched in their opinion that vaccines are dangerous. So much of this research is depressing that I feel the need to give the spotlight to one recent study that offers evidence that there may be a way to persuade vaccine deniers: scare the shit out of them.
In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS as I will always call it, University of Illinois researcher Zachary Horne found that subjects who saw photos of children with vaccine-preventable diseases and heard a mother’s story of her child getting measles were more likely to come away with positive feelings about vaccines, compared to subjects who just heard all the facts about how vaccines don’t cause autism.
This jibes with other research showing that younger people tended to be more anti-vaccine than older people who lived through the terror of polio and measles and the subsequent relief of the vaccines. If you think of these diseases as something inconsequential and “natural,” you’re not likely to truly understand how important vaccines are.
Of course, this study isn’t a slam dunk for science communicators. It’s just one study, and it goes against some previous research that indicates even scare-tactics don’t work. But that said, it is a pretty well done study in that it wasn’t just done on college students -- participants were recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and the researchers found no difference in the attitude change of parents versus non-parents.
Plus, because the researchers gave the participants a pre-test to gauge their baseline beliefs in vaccines, they were able to look at the vaccine deniers specifically and how they were changed. If the drastic change only occurred in people who already were warm to vaccines, it doesn’t mean much, but the researchers actually found that the greatest positive influence occurred in the people with the lowest initial opinion of vaccines.
This paper also found, contrary to previous studies, that just presenting people with the facts about autism didn’t entrench them even more in their anti-vaccine beliefs. It didn’t convince them that vaccines were safe, either, but at least it didn’t actively cause harm.
So, this isn’t concrete proof that scaring people will convince them to vaccinate their kids, but it’s at least a bit of positive news, which frankly, we need right now.