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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The typical antivaxxer is someone with limited higher education, low sense of control and low social standing.[/pullquote]

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.