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Friday, August 30, 2019

Correcting Vaccine Misinformation

In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have helped spread this dangerous myth.

Many Americans endorse misinformation about vaccine safety. This is problematic because those who do are more likely to resist evidence-based policies, such as mandatory vaccination for school attendance. Given that misinformation acceptance jeopardizes public health, many scholars have attempted to correct misinformation about vaccines. But, few have been successful. In this study, we explore several understudied psychological correlates of vaccine misinformation endorsement, and use this information to develop a novel misinformation correction strategy. Our simple, yet surprisingly under-utilized, approach posits that misinformation correction attempts are most likely to be successful when they recognize why people endorse vaccine misinformation. For example, people who are driven to accept vaccine misinformation because they see vaccines as a violation of moral sanctity, due to the disgust that injections induce, may be responsive to communication attempts that portray the consequences of under-vaccination (e.g., disease spread) as even more violating of moral purity. We put this strategy to the test in a large survey experiment of American adults (N = 7,019). First, we demonstrate that two under-studied psychological dispositions, moral purity and needle sensitivity, are strongly correlated with the endorsement of vaccine misinformation. Critically, we then show that interventions designed to appeal to people high in moral purity and needle sensitivity are effective at reducing misinformation. In addition to providing a better understanding of the psychological origins of misinformed vaccine attitudes, we suggest a novel science communication strategy for combating misinformation about vaccines, ultimately boosting support for evidence-based policy.
Uncertainty about causation is a major theme of the book. The paper reinforces the point by addressing the need for cognitive closure (NCC):
Finally, although the link has not been tested previously, there is reason to think that the belief that vaccines cause autism could be related to individual-level degree of NCC. NCC is the desire for an answer to an unanswered question, and an intolerance toward ambiguity and confusion (Webster and Kruglanski, 1994). For those high in NCC, the answer need not be specific - any answer is preferable to no answer. For phenomena that have a large degree of uncertainty involved, those higher in NCC will want to latch onto an explanation and strive to uphold this explanation, even if the veracity of that explanation has yet to be proven or has been questioned. Autism is one of these uncertain phenomena, as its exact causes are not fully understood (Ratajczak, 2011). Vaccines as the cause of autism presents a seemingly simple answer to a complex question. Consequently, people high in NCC may be more likely to adopt this misinformation, as it provides a clear and definite answer.