Study: Anti-vaxxers more likely to believe in conspiracy theories

BRISBANE, Australia — Despite a mountain of scientific evidence and the vast majority of doctors standing behind the research, many parents are still skeptical of vaccinations for their children. But traditional medicine might not be the only thing they’re suspicious of. A new study now shows that “anti-vaxxers” are prone to supporting other common conspiracy theories too.

Researchers from the University of Queensland say that individuals who believe that Princess Diana was murdered or that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was an elaborate inside job are more likely to believe that standard vaccinations carry with them sinister government plots or are the primary cause of autism.

Child receiving a vaccination
A new study finds that anti-vaxxers, or people who don’t believe in vaccinations, are prone to supporting other common conspiracy theories too.

Those who rally against immunizations often point to “big pharma,” or major pharmaceutical companies who stand to turn lucrative profits by pushing the need for vaccines, antibiotics, and other medicines. “For many conspiracy theorists, profits gained are a sign that the system is broken and the truth is being covered up by vested interests,” says study lead researcher Matthew Hornsey  in an American Psychological Association news release. “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. Therefore, it is fascinating to learn about why some people are so fearful of them.”

Hornsey and his team studied more than 5,300 people from 24 countries across five continents. Using online questionnaires administered between March and May of 2016, the research team measured anti-vaccination sentiment and compared it with belief in four popular conspiracy theories: that Princess Diana’s death was a homicide; that the U.S. government knew about the 9/11 attacks and deliberately chose to let it happen or aid the terrorists; that a secret society of elites actually rules the world and is establishing a so-called “New World Order”; and that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was an inside job.

The authors found that those with the strongest beliefs in one or more of the four conspiracy theories above were also the most likely to be suspicious of vaccinations. Interestingly, belief in conspiracy theories, and the degree to which the theories are believed, had a much stronger correlation to vaccination attitudes than education level.

Hornsey says if you know someone who is an anti-vaxxer or believes in other conspiracy theories, trying to talk some sense into them can be a tiresome and typically unsuccessful debate. He suggests instead to consider their viewpoint as being possible, but also pointing out the flaws in such arguments too.

“Trying to reduce people’s conspiracy beliefs is notoriously difficult. People often develop attitudes through emotional and gut responses. Simply repeating evidence makes little difference to those who have anti-vaccination attitudes.” he says. “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.”

The full study was published Feb. 1, 2018  in the journal Health Psychology.

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