In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be COVID-19.
Social scientists have identified at least three key factors governing how people absorb information, form beliefs, and modify behaviors—none of them having much to do with objective truth.
The first factor is social contagion, a formal name for people’s tendency to think and act like their friends and family
Another key factor is how messages are framed to evoke deeper narratives that already exist in the listeners’ minds. These cause-and-effect storylines can be especially powerful when they evoke negative emotions such as fear, anger, or disgust—even when the story is false. Take for example the following specious statement: “A medical expert working for the government found a causal link between vaccines and autism, but federal lawmakers influenced by the powerful pharmaceutical lobby helped bury the info.” Such messages are said to be “structurally coherent”: they are easy to grasp and recall. A coherent story works because our minds don’t just encode facts and events into memory, says Valerie Reyna, a psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and director of the university’s Human Neuroscience Institute. We also store the bottom-line meaning, or “gist”—and it is the stored gist, not the facts, that typically guides our beliefs and behaviors.
To demonstrate the importance of coherence, Reyna and David Broniatowski, director of the Decision Making and Systems Architecture Laboratory at George Washington University in Washington, DC, collected 10,000 tweets about vaccines from 2014 to 2017 (3). Then they looked for commonalities among the 46% that were retweeted. Quite consistently, they found that the retweeted posts had a strong (but false) bottom-line message about vaccines causing autism. Tweets that contained facts and statistics did not spread far.
But which gists resonate with us and which do we encode? Some scientists say that depends on the third factor: our “worldview”—what Reyna describes as preexisting internal stories based on our mental tapestry of culture, knowledge, beliefs, and life experiences.