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3 Things to Say to Your Loved One Who Won’t Vaccinate

Guiding your loved ones to better health

Since the release of our book Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us, which explores some of the psychological reasons for science denialism, we’ve received many questions about anti-vaccine attitudes. Most strikingly, we don’t just receive generic questions about the psychological phenomena around vaccine hesitancy and refusal but more pointed questions about specific experiences with people who don’t want to vaccinate. What we’ve come to notice is that not only has nearly everyone encountered someone with anti-vaccine attitudes, but a large proportion of people also share that someone very close to them, often a relative, has expressed doubt about the benefits and safety of vaccines. These issues are quite real and very urgent for many people. One of our friends even told us that she was very concerned that her own daughter would not vaccinate her children. She feared for the safety of her grandchildren.

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In most of these cases, people are really at a loss. They have tried over and over to persuade their loved ones using first-class scientific evidence, but to no avail. The more they rehearse the data, the more and more they seem to lose their loved one’s attention. So what are we to do when someone very close to us refuses to get vaccinated or hesitates to vaccinate his or her children against a handful of extremely serious, often fatal, illnesses? Here are a few strategies you can try with your loved one who won’t vaccinate:

Start by asking them about their goals and values

Our tendency is to start with the facts. When we hear something that denies accepted scientific consensus, we feel an immediate need to correct it. But this strategy achieves very little and, in a somewhat perverse twist, can actually backfire. Researchers have indeed shown that in many cases providing someone with data to correct unscientific views simply strengthens their original beliefs.[i] This “backfire effect” most likely has its roots in confirmation bias, whereby people search for information to confirm their preexisting beliefs. Present the data to someone who believes vaccines are unsafe and he or she will filter what you say through a lens of preexisting notions, ultimately causing a strengthening of those notions. On the other hand, if you lead by trying to find common ground and showing empathy, you will engage, rather than antagonize, the person. While it may take longer to get to an actual discussion of the data, try to start your next conversation with your loved one by saying “By not vaccinating your child, what objective are you trying to achieve?” As you delve deeper, you will find that your loved one simply wants what’s best for his or her child. And you want the same. Everyone does. Once you find that common ground, you can start to shake things up by asking “Is there anything about not vaccinating that concerns you?” Research shows that when people reflect on their values and feel understood, they are less likely to fall for persuasive arguments from anti-science charismatic leaders and more likely to begin to engage the reasoning parts of their brain.[ii] This approach is akin to the evidence-based technique called Motivational Interviewing (MI) that has been used to encourage people to change several kinds of adverse health habits, including addictive behaviors.

Ask them to reflect about how they formed their opinion in the first place

This tactic is somewhat similar to the first one in that it encourages a form of self-

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reflection and introspection that goes a long way in slowing people down and allowing them to engage their rational brains. Psychological research has shown that when we are extremely stressed, tired, or just simply distracted, we have a much harder time independently evaluating information we ingest from a valid source. The anti-vaccine movement has several strong charismatic leaders and an Internet presence that use emotional tactics to persuade people that vaccines are not safe and that the government and the pharmaceutical industry are involved in a massive conspiracy to cover this up. Once we form an opinion, it can be difficult to change it. Our brains are actually wired to hold on to the first opinion we form.[iii] If your loved one was particularly stressed or exhausted when he or she first heard an emotional argument about the dangers of vaccines, then his or her ability to second-guess that argument is impaired. Subsequently, it is difficult to change this opinion. But all hope is not lost. There is evidence to suggest that calmly reflecting on how we’ve formed our opinions and writing down any potential biases that could be affecting us engages our rational brains and allows us to re-evaluate the issue, even when the opinion we’ve already formed seems strong. A little self-reflection can go a long way.

If all else fails, suggest your loved one take a break

Sometimes, we are simply too distracted and too stressed to make what can be life-or-death decisions. As we’ve already stated, distraction and stress take a great toll on us and significantly diminish the energy reserves we need to utilize the complex, rational portions of our brains. As a result, when we’re tired and stressed, we revert to our instinctual selves, relying strongly on our emotions to guide us and struggling to engage our reason. If your loved one is simply too emotional or too stressed to evaluate things rationally, suggest taking a break and coming back to the issue later. If time is not of the essence, this simple strategy can be extremely effective at mitigating the undue influences of the more primitive, automatic portions of the brain.

It’s essential to note that these strategies will not work on everyone. There is a small but highly vocal portion of the population that believes without a doubt that vaccines are unsafe and that there is a conspiracy motivated by profit to endanger our children. Then there is a portion of the population that is completely unswayed by emotional appeals about supposed vaccine-related injuries and sticks to the science no matter what. But most people are somewhere in between. Chances are your loved one is simply struggling with a complex matter that can be extremely confusing and emotional. While your instincts may be to come at them with the data, this approach may actually push them more toward believing wholeheartedly that vaccines are unsafe. If, however, you listen with empathy and try to understand where your loved one is coming from, you have a much better chance at ensuring that you and your loved ones stay healthy and safe. That is, after all, a goal for which all of us strive.

[i] Nyhan B et al. Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics 2014; 133:4.

[ii] E. S. Knowles & J. A. Linn (Eds.), Resistance and persuasion, Yahweh: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004, 29

[iii] J. G. Edelson, Y. Dudai, R. J. Dolan, & T. Sharot, “Brain sub­strates of recovery from misleading influence,” Journal of Neuroscience, 2014, 34, 7744– 7753.