Anti-vaxxers: A Lost Cause?

Have you ever encountered an anti-vaxxer? Perhaps a family member, a friend or even online? Encounters with an anti-vaxxer, whether it is in person or online, tend to leave people frustrated, however, exploring the psychology behind the anti-vaxxer mentality may be the key in learning what you can do to influence vaccine-hesitant people.


Have you ever encountered an anti-vaxxer? Perhaps a family member, a friend or even online? Encounters with an anti-vaxxer, whether it is in person or online, tend to leave people frustrated, however, exploring the psychology behind the anti-vaxxer mentality may be the key in learning what you can do to influence vaccine-hesitant people.

Anti-vaxxers have existed as long as vaccinations have. From protests to anti-vaccination leagues, these critics have long promoted their wayward views that often counteract science with personal emotions and beliefs. Perhaps in the early 1800s, when the first widespread smallpox vaccination began and science was not held in the same regard it is today, these fears seemed justifiable. However, in the 21st century, they seem foolish. Vaccinations have been hailed as one of the greatest achievements in scientific history, so why does anti-vaxxer mentality persist?

Vaccine hesitancy, a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite the availability of vaccination services, can stem from a variety of influential factors, such as one’s politics and attitude towards science. To understand the anti-vaxxer mentality, first, we must understand the psychological barriers behind people’s hesitancy. It is essential to remember that an individual’s decision-making process is complex. There is a lot of information out there, including a plethora of misinformation surrounding vaccines, and when people are faced with inconsistent views and inaccessible information, their confusion and uncertainty can trump their acceptance of scientific advice. 

For many, this uncertainty can manifest as a mistrust of unknown vaccine ingredients or perception of the vaccine as an intrusion to their body. Similarly, a fear of possible side-effects of the vaccine and concerns of its safety and effectiveness, is significantly associated with vaccine hesitancy, particularly for those who have had negative experiences with needles or vaccinations.

Another psychological barrier is a sense of rejection and exclusion. Humans are social beings and as such are sensitive to rejection, however, many people may find themselves unwillingly controlled by public health measures. Those who feel excluded due to their resistance to being controlled are often less likely to follow recommendations and they instead may seek acceptance from alternative voices.

But what is the anti-vax mentality itself? Primarily fuelled by suspicion and fear of vaccines and their adverse side effects, those in the anti-vax movement are known for their repeated rejection of credible evidence that promotes the use of vaccines. For many, the anti-vaxxer mindset may be a result of a pre-existing cognitive bias. 

Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that occur when the brain uses mental shortcuts for processing and interpreting information in the surrounding environment. These biases occur naturally in humans as a result of social pressures and emotions, such as fear and anxiety, but ultimately, they affect the judgements and decisions made. Psychologists believe that the cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect is why people ignore scientific evidence supporting vaccines. The Dunning-Kruger effect is observed when people believe they are more knowledgeable about a subject, in this case, vaccines than they actually are. This effect is damaging as people are unaware of its impact on their thinking. Studies have found that people who believe they know more about medical illnesses than medical specialists are more prone to accept non-expert sources, such as celebrities.

Another common thread between anti-vaxxers is a belief in conspiracy theories which is indicative of a conspiracy based worldview. A study published in The Biochemist, for example, details the correlation between the two, further suggesting that vaccine-hesitant people are more likely to have a conspiracy mentality. Similarly, a large association was also found between anti-vaxxers and the distrust of conventional medicinal therapies, such as the use of antidepressants. This mistrust for the government and pharmaceutical companies can further exacerbate one's belief in conspiracy theories, particularly as people believe that those in a position of power are sinisterly motivated against the general public.

Additionally, a cognitive bias named the conjunction fallacy has been linked to conspiracy thinking. Conjunction fallacy is an error in decision-making where it is believed that a specific condition, such as, it will rain tomorrow, has a higher chance of happening than the general condition, for example, the weather will be bad tomorrow. Researchers at the University of London found that those who believed in conspiracy theories were more likely to fall victim to the conjunction fallacy.

Consequently, one of the reasons anti-vaxxers reject credible evidence in favour of vaccines is based on a variety of cognitive biases. A better understanding of the psychology behind anti-vaxxers will enable you to better understand their reactions. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to influencing vaccine-hesitant people, however, in identifying the source of their hesitancy, your approach can be specifically tailored.

Firstly, by having a conversation using active listening where the person’s concerns are acknowledged rather than dismissed, there is a higher chance that the vaccine-hesitant person will be open to being persuaded. Effective communication is key to having a constructive conversation, however, it also is valuable to describe the methods behind misinformation. If someone is motivated to not get the vaccine due to fear of needles, for example, then you could explain how getting the vaccine may prevent the need for further use of injections when they get sick and perhaps suggest that someone goes with them. The mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry is another popular reason for people to decide not to get vaccinated. The way to potentially defuse the mistrust could be to explain how there are multiple layers of testing and regulation that all companies must abide by to ensure the vaccine produced is safe.

Above all, remember it is not your responsibility to change someone else’s mind. If you feel confident and open to having a conversation with a vaccine-hesitant person go ahead. However, its important to rememeber there are young children and immunocompromised individuals who cannot innoculate themselves. Though difficult, encouraging an anti-vaxxer to think critically about their decision can have a large, positive impact on someone else’s life. Otherwise, suggest that they talk to a medical professional such as their family doctor. Even though anti-vaxxers exist and have always existed, currently, 93.3% of people aged 16 and over are double dosed and the rollout of the booster shot has only just begun. Armed with this knowledge, we should be hopeful for the future.

You may be interested in...
There are no current news articles.