Health & Environment

How Psychological Factors Play Into Vaccine Misinformation

A research team that included a Texas A&M assistant professor found that people high on the moral purity or needle sensitivity scale are more susceptible to vaccine misinformation.
By Rae Lynn Mitchell, Texas A&M University School of Public Health March 26, 2020

closeup of gloved hands holding vaccine bottle with syringe and needle
Researchers examined vaccine misinformation and tailored messaging for individuals with certain psychological dispositions.

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In a new studyTimothy Callaghan, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, analyzed whether messaging tailored to individuals with certain psychological dispositions can help counteract vaccine misinformation.

The research, which was conducted with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, Oklahoma State University and Utah Valley University, was published in the journal Political Research Quarterly. It relied on a national survey of American adults weighted to population benchmarks. Callaghan and the researchers developed messages aimed at individuals with high levels of three psychological dispositions: needle/blood sensitivity, the need for cognitive closure, and a desire for moral purity. Each of these have been associated with vaccine misinformation endorsement.

The first psychological disposition centers on anxiety related to needles, blood and hospitals. The second focuses on a lack of tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty, and a need for answers. The last is driven by feelings of disgust, which has underpinnings in evolutionary drives to avoid disease and contamination.

For their analysis, the researchers asked survey respondents a series of questions about their views on vaccination as well as a series of questions designed to capture each psychological disposition. Participants were also asked whether they thought vaccinating children could lead to autism and measured levels of needle/blood sensitivity, moral purity and need for cognitive closure using well-established psychological scales.

Each respondent was given an experimental news article to read that was targeted toward the psychological underpinnings of vaccine misinformation endorsement. Participants were randomly assigned a news story that either emphasized needle-free methods of vaccination delivery like sprays and patches (to target needle sensitivity), a story describing the measles in a way to induce disgust (to target moral purity), or articles on the safety of vaccines and the causes of autism (to target need for cognitive closure). Some respondents were also given a news story about language development in babies to serve as a control condition unrelated to vaccination.

The analysis found that people high on the needle/blood sensitivity and moral purity scales were more susceptible to vaccine misinformation; however, those who had a high need for cognitive closure were less likely to be swayed by misinformation. Critically, the researchers found that the targeted articles were able to reduce misinformation endorsement in the needle/blood sensitive and moral purity groups. In other words, individuals with high levels of needle/blood sensitivity or moral purity were less likely to endorse vaccine misinformation after reading a news story designed to target their psychological disposition.

The researchers noted that their study carried a few limitations. The first was a lack of consideration of previous exposure to correct or incorrect vaccination information or efforts to correct misinformation. It may be possible that the effectiveness of misinformation and attempts to correct it vary depending on previous experiences. Additionally, the study relied on data from U.S. adults and may have missed certain nuances in vaccine misinformation present in other countries.

Despite these limitations, Callaghan notes that “this study builds on previous research on vaccine misinformation and provides significant insight into ways to combat misinformation.”

“A one-size-fits-all approach has been shown not to work when combating misinformation, so having a better understanding of how different psychological factors play in misinformation is key to ensuring the public holds accurate information on vaccination and other areas of science and medicine,” he said.

This article by Rae Lynn Mitchell originally appeared on Vital Record.

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