Spend time talking to someone who considers themselves an anti-vaxxer—or more generously, a vaccine skeptic—and something becomes apparent pretty soon: The conspiracy well usually runs deep. There’s no shortage of anti-vaxxers who also believe in other iffy things, like “natural” cancer treatments and a government-ordered 9/11. A new study, published Thursday in Health Psychology, reaffirms that obvious connection while providing some insight on why it’s so hard to sway anti-vaxxers from demonstrably false beliefs.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia conducted an online survey of more than 5,000 adults living across 24 countries, including the U.S., India, and China. Among other things, they were asked about their attitude toward vaccines as well as whether they believed in conspiracies surrounding three major world events: JFK’s assassination, Princess Diana’s death, and the 9/11 attacks. They were also asked if they believed in the existence of a New World Order (e.g. the Illuminati).
Almost half the respondents said they were at least moderately distrustful of vaccines. And sure enough, the most consistent pattern seen across every country was that the people who distrusted vaccines were also more likely to endorse conspiracy theories. While anti-vaxxers were actually more common in Eastern Asian countries, the link between vaccine wariness and belief in other conspiracy theories was strongest in Western countries. In Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, U.K. and the U.S., the researchers found, people’s level of belief in conspiracies helped explain anywhere from 17 percent to 27 percent of the variance in their anti-vaccination attitudes, by the study’s calculations.
Previous research has shown the same relationship between conspiracy beliefs and an anti-vaccination stance. But most of these studies have only focused on a single country; the authors say theirs is the first to take a global look-around.
It wasn’t just a belief in conspiracy theories that connected anti-vaxxers, though. They were also more likely to be disgusted by blood and needles, and more likely to feel offended by perceived attempts to limit their freedom, an attitude known as reactance. Contrary to what you might expect, though, a person’s level of education had little bearing on whether or not they distrusted vaccines.
It’s easy enough to see why being grossed out by bodily fluids could make someone wary of vaccines. And people high in reactance, the researchers said, might reject the conventional wisdom of vaccines being a necessary good as “a short-hand way of communicating a nonconformist identity to the self and others.”
Taken as a whole, the findings suggest—not for the first time—that it’s pointless to argue with diehard anti-vaxxers through facts and logic alone. Other research has even shown that highlighting myths in order to debunk them might actually make things worse and reinforce the myths in people’s minds.
Instead, the researchers suggest, public health experts (and internet debaters) “should work with people’s underlying worldviews: to acknowledge the possibility of conspiracies, but to show how vested interests can conspire to obscure the benefits of vaccination and to exaggerate the dangers.”
In other words, it might be worth agreeing with your anti-vaxxer cousin next time that Big Pharma really is out to bilk us. But maybe also chime in that Gwyneth Paltrow and Alex Jones are scamming us, too.