Edinburgh Impact

A blunt approach is no antidote to vaccine hesitancy

Facts are somewhat ineffective in fighting the spread of misinformation. Building trust, rather than flashing credentials, is key.

Refusing a vaccine

By Professor Sergio Della Sala, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences

As vaccination programmes work their way down through the age groups, no demographic, it seems, is immune to vaccine hesitancy.

Conspiracy theories abound, aided by unchecked social media amplification, but it would be unwise to simply shout them down.

Research I have carried out with colleagues shows that trusted methods of correcting vaccine misinformation – such as contrasting the myths with facts, clever use of infographics, or showing images of non-vaccinated sick children – are ineffective.

Risk register  

Countering myths or fake news is not as simple as packing more facts into people’s heads, because we don’t process things in the same way a hard drive downloads data. Our fears are informed by evolutionary impulses. When our ancestors saw grass waving in the jungle, they would run, fearing a tiger but, 999 times out of 1000, it was the wind.

They were wrong most of the time, but they were safe the one time the tiger was there. A computer, calculating the risk, would stay put regardless with disastrous results.

So, we have a mind attuned to our best chances of survival, which makes it rather poor at understanding probabilities, and appallingly bad at handling uncertainties. With time, we can confuse the information we receive and even convince ourselves it is the WHO advising on the link between autism and vaccines, rather than an adversarial web page.

Once discredited information has entered our knowledge system, it is difficult to modify it, even in the light of compelling evidence. If you read that a restaurant is guilty of hygiene breaches, you make a mental note not to go there; if you later learn that wasn’t the case, there’s every chance images of cockroaches will linger as they serve your soup.

Trusted sources 

Existing campaigns often fail because they are based on what people think, rather than how people think. In another study, we have shown that trustworthiness is the main driver for people to engage with a concept – much more than expertise.

Hence, we tend to believe people we trust over people who know, and the internet has exaggerated this. If people are able to feel good about their world views, rather than being branded idiots, they may become more agreeable to corrections because these appear less threatening. Transparency and total openness are key to success.

We should fight against money-making scoundrels who mislead the public and ignore hardline no-vaxxers who scaremonger. We should instead target the larger group of people who are vaccine hesitant but still open to persuasion and, in turn, we should listen to their doubts and fears, and carefully tailor our responses.

The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.

Picture credit: Imran Kadir/Getty