Let’s Scare the Shit out of Vaccine Deniers!

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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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I might even go as far as saying that the stakes are so high in anti-vax that who cares if you hurt someone’s feelings a bit. Let’s just stop people dying

  2. I once made a vaccine-wary guy cry by showing him a video of a baby with whooping cough. He got his TDaP shortly afterwards.

    1. I was going to say something like this is the way to go.

      The big problem we have is that people can see the things that anti-vaxxers claim are caused by vaccines all around them. Autism is kinda scary; allergic fits are scary. But they don’t see how absolutely ruinous things like polio actually were.

      Diseases don’t play nice, any peoples’ perception of them is calibrated to chicken pox or flu. Show them a baby gasping for air, and they get a better perception of what they’re stopping.

  3. SEEING a direct demonstration of the factors you don’t want to think about, seems to carry substantial emotional weight. And emotion tends to trump thought.

    M. Milos, the anti-circumcision activist, was ‘converted’ the first time she saw one performed while working as a nurse. When counseling parents before births, she took to showing them a plain video of the procedure being done.

    Her hospital employer fired her when they found that 100% of the parents she interviewed refused to circumcise.

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