Bruce Maiman

Bruce Maiman: Scolding anti-vaxxers will only backfire

Pediatrician Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine last month at his practice in Northridge. Public health officials are trying to persuade parents to immunize their children.
Pediatrician Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine last month at his practice in Northridge. Public health officials are trying to persuade parents to immunize their children. The Associated Press

Many have commented on the measles outbreak and disparaged those refusing vaccinations. I’m not here for that. I’m here to say that all the browbeating, scolding and public shaming directed at anti-vaxxers won’t work.

Indeed, it is more likely to backfire.

Outside of rare medical exceptions, there is no excuse for not vaccinating. But this problem isn’t medical. It’s sociological, and, as growing research shows, it’s applicable in nearly every form of human interaction.

A Dartmouth College study last year found that parents who already believed in the importance of vaccines welcomed messages touting their health benefits, but showing those messages to ardently anti-vaccine parents actually made them less likely to vaccinate their kids.

Social scientists call this sort of behavior “information aversion,” or the ostrich effect, based on the old myth that ostriches bury their heads in the sand when frightened. We’re not tone deaf to evidence, we just filter it based on our preconceived notions and loyalties. Anything that doesn’t fit is dismissed, no matter how compelling or factually indisputable. A liberal and a conservative not only aren’t listening to each other, but in disagreeing with each other, their pre-existing beliefs become solidified.

“Which is why yelling at people and demonizing is completely the wrong approach,” study author Brendan Nyhan told me. “Language like that will more likely drive people away rather than persuade them.”

He isn’t a medical researcher but a political scientist who has been studying why it’s so difficult to debunk political myths and conspiracy theories – from water fluoridation and JFK’s assassination, to Obama “birthers” and 9/11 “truthers.”

“The vast majority of us aren’t scientists and we’re not reading the science,” Nyhan said. “We rely instead on institutions we trust to convey that information.”

Except we seem to trust only people or institutions with which we already agree, something perhaps reinforced by recent demographic patterns. In 1976, just 26 percent of the nation’s counties supported either presidential candidate by more than 20 percentage points. In the last election, nearly half the nation’s counties selected a candidate by more than 20 points. Nearly three-quarters of us live in – or more to the point, have moved to – counties where we interact mostly with like-minded people.

That’s why some conservatives in deep blue California talk of moving to red-state Texas, or forming a 51st state. We only want to be with people just like us.

But we’re retreating from the kind of enlightenment that comes with routine exposure to different values, ideas and opinions, even though information is more readily available than ever thanks to the Internet. We could live in a closer, more empathetic world. Instead, we’re choosing a more isolated one. The places we choose to live and the people we choose to associate with deepen the national divide over big issues.

Adding to this challenge is that instead of learning from our mistakes, we resist admitting we might be wrong.

“That’s deeply threatening for all of us,” Nyhan said, “because it touches on aspects of identity and value where being wrong can be especially sensitive.”

Nyhan’s study suggests that if we acknowledge the other person’s identity before offering discomforting information, it presents less of a threat, making it easier for them accept contrary perspectives.

That doesn’t mean complimenting their nice hair or saying, “Gee, you’ve lost weight!” Instead, we make headway by building trust, perhaps like the oft-cited example of the friendship between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill.

Undoubtedly, many critics of anti-vaxxers will think this approach absurd, but be honest: If 15 years of venom, ridicule and threats were truly effective, why does the problem still exist?

Bruce Maiman regularly fills in as a host on KFBK radio and lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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