Conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine sentiments go hand-in-hand

People with a propensity to believe conspiracy theories also generally think that vaccines are unsafe, new research reports.


The picture is appropriately entitled “haha3” on wikimedia.
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People who believe John F. Kennedy was assassinated following an elaborate plot, that chemtrails really are the gov’nment’s fingers wiping your brain clean and that sort of fluff, are more likely to also think vaccines are unsafe — despite any and all scientific evidence to the contrary, research from the American Psychological Association shows.

“Vaccinations are one of society’s greatest achievements and one of the main reasons that people live about 30 years longer than a century ago,” said lead researcher Matthew Hornsey, a PhD at the University of Queensland.

“Therefore, it is fascinating to learn about why some people are so fearful of them.”

The study is the first of its kind to analyze the link between beliefs in conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination attitudes across a global sample, Hornesy says. Between April and mid-May 2016, he and his co-authors surveyed 5,323 people from 24 countries on five continents using online questionnaires. These were designed to measure anti-vaccination attitudes and belief in four conspiracy theories: that Princess Diana was murdered, that the American government knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and let them happen, that a shadowy group of elites exists — plotting a new world order– or that John F. Kennedy was murdered as part of an elaborate plot.

The psychological roots of anti-vaxxing

Regardless of country, those with strong beliefs in conspiracy theories were more likely to also hold antivaccination attitudes. The correlation held for all the theories the team inquired over. This suggests that it’s not a particular belief but rather the general predisposition toward conspiracy theories that is linked with the conviction that vaccines are bad.

The relationship between the two is also direct and proportional: the more a person believed in any one of these theories, the more they viewed vaccines in a negative light. Education levels had a very small impact on anti-vaccine attitudes — the authors describe this find as ‘surprising’, however, as someone who constantly has to purge his social media feed of the (otherwise quite educated) anti-vaxxers which keep popping up there, I can attest it’s anything but.

“People often develop attitudes through emotional and gut responses,” Hornsey said. “Simply repeating evidence makes little difference to those who have antivaccination attitudes.”

He explains that large pharmaceutical companies, which derive profit from selling vaccines, are often targets for conspiracy theorists.

Many equate these companies making profits to veiled, vested interests which aim to force vaccines onto the public in order to make more money.

And honestly, I wholeheartedly agree that big pharma has a veiled interest in making money and that’s an ethics conflict — but the only way to make people buy those products, vaccines included, is to actually make sure they work.

“Trying to reduce people’s conspiracy beliefs is notoriously difficult,” Hornsey added. “An alternative possibility is to acknowledge the possibility of conspiracies, but to highlight how there are vested interests on the other side too. Vested interests that are motivated to obscure the benefits of vaccination and to exaggerate their dangers.”

[READ FURTHER] Here’s what’s inside a flu shot.

Other findings of the paper are that anti-vaccine attitudes were also linked to intolerance towards a perceived limiting of freedom by others, a disgust towards blood and needles, as well as an individualistic worldview.

If you’re thinking of skipping vaccines for your child, please don’t. Not only does it put your children at risk, but it does so too for everybody else’s, and everybody else too.

The paper “The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation” has been published in the journal Health Psychology.

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