Exploring how psychological factors play into vaccine misinformation

Researchers test methods for correcting misinformed beliefs about vaccines by tailoring messaging to different psychological dispositions
March 26, 2020

Vaccination is one of most significant public health advances of all time. However, recent years have seen an increase in misinformation regarding the safety and efficacy of vaccines, including linking vaccines to autism. Such vaccine misinformation has led people to seek alternative vaccination schedules and, in some cases, avoid vaccinating themselves and their children. Reduced vaccination rates have been associated with the resurgence of preventable diseases like the measles in some areas. This raises the question of how to best correct misinformed beliefs about vaccines.

In a new study, Timothy Callaghan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, joined colleagues from the University of Minnesota, Oklahoma State University and Utah Valley University in analyzing vaccine misinformation and testing methods to counteract vaccine misinformation. The study, published in the journal Political Research Quarterly, relied on a national survey of American adults weighted to population benchmarks and aimed to see whether developing tailored messages for individuals with certain psychological dispositions would increase their likelihood of vaccinating.

Specifically, the researchers developed messages aimed at individuals with high levels of three psychological dispositions: needle/blood sensitivity, the need for cognitive closure and a desire for moral purity. Each of these are distinct psychological dispositions that have all been associated with vaccine misinformation endorsement. The first of these centers on anxiety related to needles, blood and hospitals. The second focuses on a lack of tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty, and a need for answers. The last is driven by feelings of disgust, which has underpinnings in evolutionary drives to avoid disease and contamination.

For their analysis, the researchers asked survey respondents a series of questions about their views on vaccination as well as a series of questions designed to capture each psychological disposition. Participants were also asked whether they thought vaccinating children could lead to autism and measured levels of needle/blood sensitivity, moral purity and need for cognitive closure using well-established psychological scales.

Each respondent was given an experimental news article to read that was targeted toward the psychological underpinnings of vaccine misinformation endorsement. Participants were randomly assigned a news story that either emphasized needle-free methods of vaccination delivery like sprays and patches (to target needle sensitivity), a story describing the measles in a way to induce disgust (to target moral purity), or articles on the safety of vaccines, and the causes of autism (to target need for cognitive closure). Some respondents were also given a news story about language development in babies to serve as a control condition unrelated to vaccination.

The analysis found that people high on the needle/blood sensitivity and moral purity scales were more susceptible to vaccine misinformation; however, those who had a high need for cognitive closure were less likely to be swayed by misinformation. One possibility the researchers cite is that those people had already accepted correct information on vaccine safety before misinformation became prominent. Critically, the researchers found that the targeted articles were able to reduce misinformation endorsement in the needle/blood sensitive and moral purity groups. In other words, individuals with high levels of needle/blood sensitivity or moral purity were less likely to endorse vaccine misinformation after reading a news story designed to target their psychological disposition.

The researchers noted that their study carried a few limitations. The first was a lack of consideration of previous exposure to correct or incorrect vaccination information or efforts to correct misinformation. It may be possible that the effectiveness of misinformation and attempts to correct it vary depending on previous experiences. Additionally, the study relied on data from U.S. adults and may have missed certain nuances in vaccine misinformation present in other countries.

Despite these limitations, Callaghan notes that “this study builds on previous research on vaccine misinformation and provides significant insight into ways to combat misinformation. A one-size-fits-all approach has been shown not to work when combating misinformation, so having a better understanding of how different psychological factors play in misinformation is key to ensuring the public holds accurate information on vaccination and other areas of science and medicine.”

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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