in one ear and out the other: are views on vaccination really immune to influence?

Researchers tried to test whether debates about vaccination lead to more extreme polarization and found a complete shutdown of all debate. But is their study critically flawed?
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It’s long been commonly held that debates about the safety and necessity of vaccinations take place in echo chambers which can become more and more polarized. Lately, there’s actually been some anecdotal evidence that the most rabid anti-vaccination groups are gearing up to physically harass doctors and their patients, fueling these fears even further. But as it turns out, attitudes around vaccines don’t necessarily follow this logic. Rather, like the anti-vaxxers who invaded the wrong government meeting in New Jersey and refused to leave after learning they were in the wrong room, they seem immune from any sort of influence or new information whatsoever, even if you set up absolutely perfect conditions for echo chambers and increased polarization predicted and feared by health officials.

This was the conclusion of an experiment by psychologists at the University of Konstanz, who recruited subjects with pre-existing opinions about vaccines and tried to get them to sort into groups in which polarization could take place, increase, then go on to affect others. The idea was that all information would be filtered or skewed to a group’s particular view, then mutated further into something more akin to dogma than mere ideas. But what actually happened was far more extreme. New information never even made it past the first person to be introduced to it. All that was delivered was a confirmation of the subject’s existing viewpoint after those subjects were given some bit of information about vaccines and sent to pass it on.

Without any new information, there was no increased polarization since there was a lack of any new triggers for debates, outrage, only affirmation. People don’t tend to get worked up over something they already know without some sort of emotional trigger, which was absent from this experimental setup. All they had were group members returning from huddles to repeat a set of views and opinions they already held. And even when subjects were exposed to opposite views on vaccines, they simply held their ground and refused to pass on dissenting opinions, so anti-vaccine views weren’t picked up. But there was another oversight in the study’s design preventing it from truly understanding how views on vaccination can spread and affect others.

It’s at this point that we should note that vaccines work, and even studies designed by those who believe that vaccines are poison show no evidence of the kind of damage and adverse effects conspiracy theorists and chemophobes say vaccines have. It’s great news that people can’t be easily talked into leaving their kids unprotected against childhood diseases, and we know from real world experience that kids of anti-vaxxers and those who have doubts about vaccines will absolutely use them when they’re in danger of contracting something nasty. And it’s also worth noting that many anti-vaxxers are conspiracy theorists who need an enemy to blame for their own or their kids’ medical problems, and Big Pharma makes for a good villain so their polarization isn’t just based on information about vaccines, it’s something much deeper and far more ominous than that.

So, with all that in mind, instead of having a pro-vaccine group and an anti-vaccine group, the researchers should’ve had a third group with no strong opinions. Disinformation about vaccines doesn’t target the scientifically literate, it targets those who never questioned or learned the science of vaccination and basic immunology, can be easily scared by chemical names and out of context factoids from Wikipedia, and feel overwhelmed with the amount of information on health and parenting on social media. Introducing people who aren’t committed to a stance because they never really had to be would introduce a vector for different views to spread as the filter the experiment found wouldn’t exist for them yet. Without this third group, all the study found was proof that confirmation bias is still a thing that exists.

See: Giese, H., et al., (2019) The echo in flu-vaccination echo chambers: Selective attention trumps social influence, Vaccine, DOI: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.11.038

# health // psychology / vaccination / vaccines


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