June 24, 2024

Conspiracy mindsets fuel reluctance to vaccinate children, a new study reveals

New research published i Frontiers in psychology found that conspiracy-minded individuals tend to show higher reluctance to vaccinate children against COVID-19 and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). The study also highlighted the frequent reliance of these people on politically conservative media sources, which further confirm their beliefs, adding to a significant challenge in overcoming vaccine resistance among adults responsible for childhood vaccinations.

The researchers conducted this study to understand the role of conspiracy thinking in shaping people’s attitudes towards the vaccination of COVID-19, particularly regarding the vaccination of children between the ages of 5 and 11 years. They wanted to investigate whether conspiracy-minded individuals, characterized by the tendency to believe in the secret and harmful actions of powerful agents, resorted to government health authorities, accepted vaccines, and became vaccinators.

“We have been studying the role of conspiracy beliefs about the US government and health authorities since the pandemic. As a result we looked at the tendency to engage in conspiracy thinking as a disposition to accept conspiracy theories, particularly regarding the medical system and vaccines for COVID-19,” said the author of the study And Romerresearch director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and lead author of the study.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a national probability sample of nearly 2,000 US adults. They measured participants’ conspiracy sentiment by assessing their agreement with statements related to generic conspiracy beliefs about the workings of government (eg, “Much of our lives are controlled by conspiracies hatched in secret places”). They also assessed their belief in misinformation about COVID vaccines and specific conspiracy theories about the origin and impact of the pandemic. In addition, they examined participants’ trust in health authorities, the perceived risk of COVID to children, and support for vaccinating children for COVID-19 and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The study found that conspiracy-minded individuals were more skeptical of government authority and agencies such as the CDC and FDA. They were more likely to believe misinformation about vaccination and COVID-19, including conspiracy theories about how vaccines are created and how the pandemic was managed (eg, “Health officials at the Food and Drug Administration, also known as the FDA, who opposed the re-election of Donald Trump, delayed approval of COVID-19 treatments until after the election”). They were also less likely to view COVID-19 infection as harmful to children. These beliefs were associated with reluctance to recommend vaccinating children for COVID-19 and the MMR vaccine.

“Our findings show that people who believe various types of unfounded allegations about COVID vaccines are likely to affect the government and its health agencies, known as a conspiracy mentality,” Romer told PsyPost. “As a result, this attitude appears to be a major factor against vaccination for both adults and children. This will challenge the government’s efforts to provide protection not only from COVID but also from other common infections, such as influenza and MMR in children.”

​​​​The researchers also found that conspiracy-minded individuals tended to rely on conservative media outlets (such as Fox News and Newsmax) and avoid mainstream news sources. This suggests that they engage with media that affirm their beliefs rather than media that provide recommendations supported by health authorities.

The results of the study show that conspiracy thinking plays a significant role in adults’ reluctance to vaccinate children against COVID-19. Overcoming this resistance will be challenging and conspiracists may need messages from individuals they already trust, as they are unlikely to trust mainstream news outlets or representatives of major health agencies.

“Some of the sources of conspiracy sentiment are the result of a long-standing skepticism about government action toward particular groups, such as Black Americans,” Romer said. “It will take concerted efforts to gain the trust of these groups in the medical system. Other sources of resistance are more political, such as those who believe in a deep state or think that the government tries to suppress dissent. Others are particularly skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry. In any case, it will be a challenge to respond to a conspiracy mentality.”

One limitation of the study is that the panel members may not be fully representative of the general population, as they tend to be more educated. In addition, social desirability biases may influence self-reported behavior and intentions. However, the researchers addressed these biases and found that conspiracy-minded individuals were willing to report their lack of support for vaccination, suggesting that biases did not strongly influence the results.

“Overcoming this source of vaccine resistance is the biggest public health challenge,” Romer said. “Future research needs to identify strategies for this purpose.”

The study, “The role of conspiracy theories in reducing support for childhood vaccination for COVID-19 in the United States“, written by Daniel Romer and Kathleen H. Jamieson.

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