Who believes in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories?


Antivax conspiracy thinking has become a serious public health problem. Vaccine preventable diseases, along with the illness, injury and death that they cause, are making a comeback.

Antivaxxers like to portray themselves as possessors of secret knowledge about vaccines. In truth, they don’t have secret knowledge; they have deficient knowledge. In addition, conspiracy theories are less popular among those with higher levels of education. Yet efforts to fight antivax sentiment with accurate information have been notoriously ineffective. That’s because antivax, like most conspiracy theories, isn’t about the subject of the conspiracy; it’s about the psychology of conspiracy believers.

The typical antivaxxer is someone with limited higher education, low sense of control and low social standing.

Antivaccine conspiracies meet certain specific needs of believers. Inaccurate information can be swept away by accurate information, but unmet psychological needs are, not surprisingly, impervious to accurate information. Hence those charged with keeping the public healthy have an urgent obligation to understand the psychological needs that drive antivax conspiracies.

A new paper in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology by Jan-Willem van Prooijen attempts to describe those needs. The title is Why Education Predicts Decreased Belief in Conspiracy Theories. It is about conspiracy theories in general, not antivax conspiracies in particular, but antivax conspiracies are in many ways paradigmatic.

Van Prooijen writes:

One demographic predictor of belief in conspiracy theories is education level. Various studies revealed that high education levels predict a decreased likelihood that people believe in conspiracy theories. What is unclear, however, is why this relationship emerges. Education is associated with a range of cognitive, emotional, and social outcomes, and hence, there may be multiple underlying processes that explain this relationship. Establishing these underlying processes provides novel insights that may form the basis for future interventions designed to systematically decrease conspiracy beliefs among the population.

He identifies three underlying processes that lead to belief in conspiracy theories: “belief in simple solutions for complex problems, feelings of powerlessness, and subjective social class.”

1. Cognitive complexity:

Education is associated with cognitive complexity, defined here as people’s ability to detect nuances and subtle differences across judgment domains, along with a tendency to consciously reflect on these nuances. People with high cognitive complexity are better equipped to attain high education levels; moreover, education nurtures and develops such complexity.

As H. L. Mencken explained:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

Van Prooijen notes:

The seemingly articulate nature of some conspiracy theories notwithstanding, these findings are consistent with the assertion that conspiracy beliefs are grounded in a general tendency to embrace relatively simplistic ideas… [C]onspiracy beliefs are strongly associated with a belief in simple solutions for complex societal problems.

Though antivaxxers are not children, their thinking is very childlike: A happened, then B happened; therefore A must have caused B.

2. Control:

People are particularly receptive to conspiracy theories when they lack control, and hence feel powerless. Lacking a sense of control leads to mental sense-making in the form of illusory pattern perception, that is, connecting dots that is not necessarily connected in reality. These sense-making activities are central in belief in conspiracy theories, which are designed to increase understanding of a distressing situation… [P]eople are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories in response to distressing societal events that they cannot control …

In other words, belief in conspiracy theories gives a sense of control to people who otherwise view themselves as powerless. That sense of powerlessness is exacerbated by lack of education:

Throughout an educational trajectory, people learn how to independently solve problems, and they acquire the social skills that are necessary to influence their social environment. It has been noted that, as a consequence, education makes people feel more strongly in control of their life and their social world, thus decreasing feelings of powerlessness …

3. Social standing:

Education influences people’s social standing relative to others, both in objective as well as subjective terms. Education is intimately related with people’s objective social standing in terms of socio-economic status (SES): People with high education are more likely to occupy the relatively privileged positions in society in terms of desirable jobs and high income…

…[F]eelings of societal marginalization are relevant for people’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Research indicates that communitarian but marginalized groups within society tend to make sense of the realistic problems that their group faces through assumptions of conspiracy formation (Crocker et al., 1999). In a similar vein, subjective low social class may lead people to blame the psychological or realistic problems that they face (e.g., alienation from the societal elite, unemployment, and relative deprivation) to the existence of malevolent conspiracies.

With these factors we can define the typical antivax conspiracist as someone with limited higher education, low sense of control and low social standing. Those factors cannot be addressed by merely offering accurate information. How can we address them?

Van Prooijen has recommendations for improving children’s critical thinking skills:

… [B]y teaching children analytic thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating a sense of control, and by promoting a sense that one is a valued member of society, education is likely to install the mental tools that are needed to approach far-fetched conspiracy theories with a healthy dose of skepticism.

But what about adults? That’s much more difficult because antivax functions for antivaxxers to enhance their sense of control and social standing. That’s why they are constantly parachuting into science websites and Facebook pages and — without any sense of irony — announce that they are going to educate the other readers who are generally far more educated than they.

Since the primary function of antivax for antivaxxers is to bolster their ego, it seems to me that the most effective strategy would be directed against their egos.

It’s been done before, most notably in the cases tobacco smoking and of drinking and driving. Smoking was once seen as sophisticated; now it is viewed as dirty and unhealthy. Smoking used to enhance the egos of those who smoked; it no longer does. Drinking and driving used to be viewed as inevitable and worth boasting about. Spurred in large part by campaigns mounted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and similar organizations, drunk driving went from being viewed as benign to utterly socially unacceptable. Driving while drunk used to have a positive or no impact on ego. Now it is a source of guilt and social opprobrium.

We should embark on a similar “makeover” for anti vaccine advocacy. When refusing to vaccinate is widely viewed as selfish, irresponsible, and the hallmark of being UNeducated, anti-vax advocacy will lose its appeal.

  • doula123

    My youngest is due to have his MMR in the UK…I want him vaccinated, but am confused by all the varying info floating around…if anyone knows of any studies on whether the single vaccines are actually safer than the combined, I’d be grateful! (and yes I am aware the autism thing has been debunked, though you’d be amazed – or maybe you wouldn’t – at how many people still actually believe it.)

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone



      “Single vaccines are less safe than MMR because they leave children vulnerable to dangerous diseases for longer. Giving 3 separate doses at spaced out intervals would mean that, after the first injection, the child still has no immunity to the other 2 diseases.”

      “With the combined MMR most children are given good protection by a single dose given at about 12-15 months and protection is virtually complete by dose 2, a pre-school booster to catch children whose first dose didn’t stimulate a full immune response.

      Delaying immunisations by splitting them has a similar effect to reducing the proportion of children immunised. More children are unprotected, increasing the risk to themselves and to other children.

      In the past, when measles and rubella vaccines were used separately, children continued to get measles and babies were born with congenital rubella. When MMR was introduced, measles and congenital rubella were virtually eliminated”

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      Single doses would mean 6 separate jabs as well. (Since I believe, 2 doses of MMR are recommended for ensuring full immunity.)

  • Christopher Hickie

    I will agree I’ve seen parents refuse vaccines who meet subscribe to these conspiracy theories. However, I’ve come across a lot of parents in my 15+ years of practice who’ve been tricked into not vaccinating by the likes of anti-vaccine doctors like Bob Sears, Jay Gordon and most recently Paul Thomas–all licensed FAAP pediatricians who’ve all profited handsomely openly selling (and speaking on) their anti-vaccine materials (books and DVDs) that are very difficult for individual physicians to refute. State medical boards refuse to discipline these bozos and the AAP refuses to expel them. I’ve honestly given up trying to convince these parents to vaccinate in the exam room and feel deeply for their children. I don’t think vaccine rates will improve (they started dropping again where I live in Arizona this year) until there are more vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks with resultant morbidity and mortality, which is sad, because the state medical board and groups like the AAP could have prevented this early on.

    • Steph858

      I might be inferring incorrectly, but I think the gist of your post was, “If only the AAP would just strike these charlatans off already, we could avert an epidemic tragedy.” I would like to see anti-vax paediatricians disciplined properly too, but I can see the spin the anti-vax crowd would put on such an event already:

      “Hero Doctor Censored!”
      “Struck off for exposing the TRUTH!”
      “This Doctor Knew Too Much … ”

      Etc …

      • Christopher Hickie

        A lot of parents have been gulled into not vaccinating by these quack charlatans who should not be FAAPs and should not have a medical license either. These AV pediatricians are already faux heroes/martyrs/whatever to AVers, and I don’t really care what hard-core AVers think because there is nothing that will ever change their minds. But being able to say to a vaccine-hesitant parent coming in to see me touting “Dr. Bob’s” anti-vaccine book that Sears was expelled from a group of 60,000 pediatricians because he’s a quack could go a long way towards convincing that parent to vaccinate.

  • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

    “When refusing to vaccinate is widely viewed as selfish, irresponsible, and the hallmark of being UNeducated, anti-vax advocacy will lose its appeal.”

    A sign of voting Republican is associated with “low information”, and yet they still keep getting elected. There are always going to be those who want to “stick it to edumacated librul commie elites” by latching onto and venerating dumbness.

    • Sheven

      True, but there are fewer and fewer who associate sticking it to the educated liberals with things like racial segregation or persecution of gay people. Things are only liberal until they become normal.

  • shay simmons

    The most recent one I read (on another Disqus forum) was that Brian Hooker lost his VICP case because Big Pharma forged entries in his child’s medical record.


    • MI Dawn

      Those darn Big Pharma Ninjas will get you every time…

  • Cody

    “We should embark on a similar “makeover” for anti vaccine advocacy. When refusing to vaccinate is widely viewed as selfish, irresponsible, and the hallmark of being UNeducated, anti-vax advocacy will lose its appeal.”

    How do you accomplish this when many of the anti-vaxxers are affluent white women?

  • Sullivan ThePoop

    Since most antivaxxers are white and at least middle class I am not sure why they would feel marginalized.

  • MI Dawn

    The problem is that you can’t argue with someone who *wants* to believe they have special knowledge. No matter how you try, you fail. I have friends who sincerely believe a vaccine caused their baby to die of SIDS (nearly 2 weeks after the vaccine, by the way). So they refused to vaccinate any of their other children, and treat everything with essential oils, crystals, etc. (They offered to align my chakra which was apparently out of place or something. I declined, since I don’t believe in chakras…which is a symptom of the chakra being misaligned supposedly. I love endless loops.)

    • Zornorph

      I believe in Chakra Kahn.

      • Roadstergal

        I feel for you.

        • Kq

          I think I love you.

    • isfturtle

      The other problem is the way they view information. Any information that contradicts their beliefs is proof that there’s a conspiracy.

  • namaste863

    The problem with conspiracies, any conspiracy, is that they usually involve large numbers of people. And every single one of them has a mouth. For that reason alone, they almost can’t happen, because sooner or later someone is gonna blab.

    • Mel

      The first school I worked at as a teacher had a principal who was misreporting the number of students attending to the state for funding. Essentially, the school was receiving funding for ~400 full-time high school students when enrollment was ~150 full-time students.

      The principal managed to keep that up for about 18 months before it all fell apart when he asked a recent graduate of the school employed as a secretary to forge certain teachers’ signatures. She told her dad about the request who took her to a police station to report that.

      That’s the problem. In spite of a pretty slick set-up – we had ~35 teachers who were working in 6 different programs/funding streams in 5 buildings from 7am-9pm that allowed any questions by staff like “My classes don’t seem to be large enough to support my salary” to be answered with “Well, the Job Corp/Adult ESL/Adult GED program runs a surplus” – the whole thing fell apart because a teenage secretary realized she was being asked to commit forgery/perjury.

      It didn’t help that the staff was more than willing to work with the police to identify falsified attendance records. My lefty-CP letters are quite unique looking and someone was filling in “P” for kids who were absent that were well-formed, rounded and right-slanted.

      I was ready and willing to testify because my students who I had carefully rebuilt trusting relationships with were now being fucked over since the school was going to be closed the next year.

      If kids were dying……yeah. That would fall apart in less than 2 years.

      • Kerlyssa

        they’ll accuse someone of being a shill when said person’s own mother died of x disease. like, millions of people are going to watch their family members die for some conspiracy?

        • Sarah

          That’s because their family members didn’t really die, obv.

    • Young CC Prof

      Real conspiracies have happened, but yeah, if you want to know whether a proposed conspiracy is at all plausible, think about how many people would have to be knowingly involved, and whether there’s enough money involved to possibly pay off all of them. Even if there is a ton of money, the more people who know, the less plausible it is that it could possibly be kept quiet for any length of time.

      If we’re talking about a conspiracy of maybe 5 people, all of whom are getting very rich, I’d be willing to consider it. If it’d take thousands of people, no way.

      • Roadstergal

        That’s one of the primary messages of Voodoo Histories – explaining in a clear way how so many conspiracy theories go completely against how we know people act, how we know the world works.

        The rest of it is about trying to plumb the depths of why people believe in them anyway.

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    It’s a common sense thing. There is no sensible reason why governments, doctors, and the pharmaceutical industry would want to kill or maim a large percentage of the population, especially the part that dominates their fields. But as the cliche goes, common sense isn’t that common.

    • Zornorph

      Well, in the 1980’s, a significant number of people believe that Heavy Metal bands were encouraging their fans to commit suicide. As one of them said, it they were putting hidden commands recorded backwards in their songs it would have been ‘Please buy more of our records.’ My favorite was the one who sued Ozzy for singing ‘I tell you to end your life’ when it was simply a misheard lyric and Ozzy was really singing ‘I tell you to enjoy life’.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        oy. I have a vague memory of this, but I was a kid and I didn’t listen to heavy metal

      • FallsAngel

        There were conspiracy theories about the lyrics of Beatles songs played backwards as well back in the 60s, e.g. “I buried Paul”, meaning Paul McCartney was dead.

      • Charybdis

        Wasn’t a Judas Priest song the thing that kicked that whole thing off?

      • Roadstergal

        I remember listening to an Infinite Monkey Cage episode where they played a bit of Another One Bites The Dust backwards. It was just gibberish. Then he gave us the ‘prime’ of “It’s fun to smoke marijuana,” and now I can’t hear anything else when it’s played backwards.

        Our pattern-seeking brains are something to behold.