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Vaccine Hesitancy Often Tied to Moral Foundations of Liberty and Purity

December 5, 2017 Leave a comment

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We often try to overcome vaccine hesitancy with education, hoping that the scientific evidence will be enough to change people’s minds.  The hope is that if we can just provide people with the facts about the dangers of diseases, and the benefits of vaccines, than they will be encouraged to vaccinate.  But research shows that it’s not that easy, and this may not even be the right approach.

Today, Washington Post reporter, Lena Sun, published an article that explains that vaccine hesitancy is not just an issue of education.  Recent behavioral research suggests that there is often a moral difference between people who accept vaccines and people who refuse them.  The point is that people don’t make decisions based solely on fact.  Rather, parents who are most reluctant to vaccinate appear to be strongly concerned with two powerful moral values that influence their attitudes and judgments: individual liberty and purity.

In this framework, liberty is associated with belief in personal responsibility, freedom, property rights and resistance to state involvement in citizens’ lives, while concerns about purity focus on boundaries and protection from contamination.

One new study out of Emory University, published recently in Nature Human Behaviour, used a social psychology theory known as Moral Foundations Theory to determine the underlying moral values most strongly associated with vaccine-hesitant parents. They assessed the parents’ level of vaccination hesitancy and explored how important different moral values were to them when deciding if something was right or wrong. Their findings correspond with the reasons many vaccine-hesitant parents give for delaying or refusing some vaccines.

Another group of researchers out of Loyola University in Chicago were able to validate these finding, but then went one step further.  They found that purity and liberty values also seem to influence the belief in false or misleading statements that often appear on websites that adamantly oppose vaccines.

In another study recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers at the University of Amsterdam and University of Kent explored science skepticism as it relates to various issues such as climate change, vaccination and genetic modification in food.  They determined that “religiosity”, as well as concerns about moral purity, were also a common predictor of vaccine skepticism.

The insight that we get from this type of behavioral research can certainly help us better understand those who are vaccine hesitant.  If we can take the moral foundation concerns and incorporate them into our messaging, we may be able to persuade parents that vaccines do fulfill their desire to maintain both liberty and purity.

As an example, to address the purity concerns, one suggested intervention may be to explain that vaccinating is a way of  boosting a child’s natural defenses against disease and keeping the child “pure of infections”.  Whereas a liberty-oriented message might suggest that vaccines can help parents to take personal control of a child’s health so that they are free to live a happy and healthy life.

While such messaging has yet to be tested, these studies, and others like this, are critical to helping us develop more effective communication, and should be a consideration for all of us who engage with vaccine hesitant parents in the doctor’s office, on the internet or at the playground.