How to Convince Anti-Vaxxers They're Wrong? Scare Them With Gory Details

How to Convince Anti-Vaxxers They're Wrong? Scare Them With Gory Details
Illustration by Patrick Faricy/L.A. Weekly

Local anti-vaxxers are often educated white women from comparatively well-off parts of Los Angeles' Westside and West Valley.

And they're notoriously resistant to the science behind vaccinations, namely that either all of us (95 percent, anyway) get our shots or they'll start to become ineffective at protecting us from polio, measles, whooping cough, tetanus, rubella and diphtheria.

Some anti-vaxxers believe in debunked research tying vaccination to autism. Others are afraid mercury or even just needles could hurt their precious babies.

Telling these folks they're wrong or, worse, stupid doesn't change their behavior: In fact, it can reinforce it, as we reported in a recent cover story. The state legislature took a hard line when it recently passed a law requiring vaccination for public school admittance, but it might not be effective with the crucial constituency.

It turns out there is a way to convince them that vaccination is beneficial for them, however. And it gets to the heart of their self-interest.

New research from psychologists at UCLA and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that vaccine skeptics who received descriptions and graphic information on the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella were "substantially" more likely to change their minds than those who were given Centers for Disease Control info on the safety of vaccines.

The study, "Countering Antivaccination Attitudes," was published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers divided 315 people — pro- and anti-vaxxers alike — into three random groups, and then fed each group information, including random text about birds (so the "control group" wouldn't be swayed), CDC info about the safety of vaccines (which had little effect), and "materials that described the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella, and explained how a vaccine can prevent these diseases," according to a UCLA summary.

Vaccine skeptics exposed to that latter information saw substantial attitudinal changes, the academics found.

But the clincher might have been these factors: Photographs of children with some of the diseases in question were shown. And subjects were treated to a written account of a mom's experience dealing with her 10-month-old boy's life-threatening bout with measles.

"We spent three days in the hospital fearing we might lose our baby boy," Megan Campbell wrote. "He couldn't drink or eat, so he was on an IV, and for a while he seemed to be wasting away."

Hearing about mortal dangers other children face doesn't seem to sway anti-vaxxers. But internalizing what Campbell went through seemed to help do the trick.

Of course, the cool thing about this research is that it can be applied to other aspects of illogical resistance. 

"Try not to be directly confrontational,” says Keith Holyoak, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Psychology and a senior author of the study. "Try to find common ground, where possible, and build on that."

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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