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We Need More Research and Less Shaming When Talking to Anti-Vaxxers

02/12/2015 12:57 EST | Updated 04/14/2015 05:59 EDT

At present, there is a wave of angry sentiment toward parents who choose not to vaccinate their children -- especially given the recent outbreak of measles in North America. One only has to glance quickly at posts on Twitter to see the wrath of social media toward "antivaxxers", who are labelled "stupid" believers of pseudoscience, and a host of many other unflattering labels.

Now, I am going to write some things that may be interpreted as a defense of anti-vaccination parents and their beliefs. If such interpretations are made, they have been made incorrectly. I very much support the role of vaccines in our society. I have been vaccinated many times -- as a child and as an adult. I also have taken care to have my own children vaccinated.

Indeed, I have not been presented with, nor have I found, any compelling scientific data or arguments against the use of our commonly used vaccines.

Having established my support for vaccinations, I must now move on to address two things. First, I have doubts that attacking people online and using public shaming is generally effective. Often in debates, whether it be a private argument between friends or more public debates in the media, being attacked by another tends only to promote a defensive response.

This is why psychologists often coach people to use certain language during conflicts -- pointing a finger at your spouse and saying "you are wrong" tends to be ineffective. It usually serves to further motivate that person to dig their heels in and prove they are right. So when we say to someone in a public forum "you're an idiot" and "you are a terrible parent," do we honestly expect the person to respond with "you know what, you are totally right"? They are more likely to retreat to, and defend even more staunchly, their own reasons and evidence.

Now, I don't have the answer for how best to move forward. In fact, this entire issue has only made it clearer that psychologists and other researchers need to further examine how best to handle this public health problem.

Part of moving forward means identifying, via the scientific method, the underlying roots of the anti-vaccination mindset. Specifically, we need to examine how people develop and maintain anti-vaccination beliefs and attitudes. To simply say they are "ignorant" and move forward is itself an anti-science and impractical way of handling the issue. This problem will not get solved by shouting on Twitter.

If we can figure out how people are developing their beliefs and attitudes, then we can better understand the cause. This is very much what psychologists do in therapy -- we try and connect a particularly troublesome thought, emotion or behaviour with underlying beliefs.

For example, someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (a condition where the person worries uncontrollably) might hold positive beliefs about worry that maintain the disorder. For instance, I have treated many women who believe it is the mark of a good mother to worry a lot about their children. In other words, spending many hours worrying about their children's well-being makes them a good person (or so they believe). Therapy will only be helpful if we can assist such a person in altering this belief to something more healthy and workable.

Similarly, people don't develop beliefs about science and medicine in a vacuum. What is making these people hold such a distrusting attitude? Is there something about their general worldview that promotes the likelihood of believing in conspiracies, generally speaking? There has been some basic correlational research linking anti-vaccination beliefs with the tendency to generally believe in conspiracies, so this might be telling us a bit about their worldview or even their personality.

Perhaps there is a social psychological phenomenon at play. For example, there do exist medical conspiracies - we all read about them in the news. Pharmaceutical companies have been found guilty on numerous occasions of hiding data, misrepresenting data, and so forth -- which have resulted in harm and even death for millions of people. Of course, this doesn't mean that we can never trust pharmaceutical companies and their drugs (they also save millions of lives), but I can imagine that such facts affect people. Given what we've learned over the years about Vioxx, SSRIs and other drugs, is it even surprising that people have grown to be more sceptical and wary of such companies and their motivation for profit?

Have anti-vaccination parents been more influenced than the rest of us by the misdeeds of pharmaceutical companies? How have negative experiences with other corporate entities and even government impacted their beliefs about trust and personal vulnerability?

My suspicion is that those who choose not to vaccinate overgeneralize the consequences of actual conspiracies and bad behaviour from large entities (ex: pharmaceutical companies and government), which get coupled with faulty reasoning and exposure to bad data. Yet, we need to test this type of model and identify the details of how it operates. For example, what types of mental biases are at play with their decision-making (ex: confirmation biases; heuristic thinking; overgeneralization, etc.).

Research that seeks to answer such questions will be important for formulating and improving upon public health policies that might help us mitigate these problems. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, that is what science is for -- identifying the determinants of a social problem, and through research, identifying the best practices for minimizing harm.

I understand people's anger toward anti-vaccination and other "non-scientific" belief systems. But let's use science to help solve the problem, and not let our emotions get the better of us. Rather than type insults on Twitter, our time might be best spent advocating for more research grant money to help better understand this important issue.

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