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Why Are Anti-Vaxxers Willing to Harm Themselves and Others?

Arrogance? Selfishness? Both qualities undermine our collective resilience.

A new poll suggests that there has been a small increase in the number of people who are willing to get vaccinated for Covid-19, signalling a decrease in vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy, according to the WHO, describes anyone who avoids vaccines for any reason. This includes a long list of factors that can influence one’s decision to get a vaccination or give one to one’s child. These include a lack of confidence in your health care provider, complacency (not believing you need a vaccine), and the inconvenience of getting a vaccine when you need one. Those who hesitate to vaccinate can range from someone who simply “didn’t get around to it” to the fervent anti-vaxxer who believes that vaccines are toxic poisons we shouldn’t put into our bodies, or shares conspiracy theories that Big Pharma is manipulating us for their own profit. The WHO advises dialogue over coercion, helping people to make good decisions for themselves while making it easier to get vaccinated when they choose to do so.

As a resilience researcher, I’m not very tolerant of those who refuse a vaccine when the science is clearly on the side of public health. When one sees the damage done around the world by communicable diseases like polio and measles (and now the pandemic), and then sees those with ready access to a vaccine declining service, one has to wonder what possible justification there could be for imperilling not just one’s self, but everyone else in one’s community as well.

Here are three reasons why I think anti-vaxxers are just plain wrong and their stance immoral.

First, let’s deal with trust in science. Studies of vaccination hesitancy have shown that when parents trust their health care provider, and that provider is able to give parents digestible information about vaccines, parents who express doubts about vaccines still get their children vaccinated twice as often as vaccine skeptics who don’t trust their health care providers.

Clearly, people need to trust those who have devoted their careers to science. I’ve yet to meet, for example, an anti-vaxxer who won’t fly even though planes do on rare occasions fall out of the sky (vaccines have a far lower mortality rate). I’m assuming that these individuals trust mechanical engineers and physicists to keep their plane aloft. Even when a mechanical failure like the one plaguing Boeing’s 737 Max jets grounds the fleet, anti-vaxxers defer to science, and to federal regulatory bodies, to look after them and keep planes in the air. It’s the same with meat inspectors and those we trust to keep our water supply safe. In each case, we trust science to do what it does best. For some reason, though, when it comes to vaccinations, there are those who think they know more than the microbiologists who have spent lifetimes studying the minutiae of viral and bacterial infections. I can only attribute this mistrust to arrogance, and the fabrication of medical misinformation on the internet to the unwillingness of some to admit that they can’t know everything about every subject. It takes humility to acknowledge that our expertise is limited in a world as complex as ours is today. The hubris displayed by those who are hesitant to vaccinate should be a clue to their insecurity. People who constantly say they know everything about anything make me suspect they know very little but are afraid to admit their limitations.

Second, anti-vaxxers have broken the social contract. Our individual resilience is always dependent on the resilience of the support systems we depend on. During the recession caused by the pandemic, we have asked governments to be strong and cushion us from economic collapse. We have relied on social services and not-for-profits to feed and house the most vulnerable. And we’ve seen corporation do what they can to keep society functioning. Any one individual’s resilience depends on how well their surrounding systems do their jobs effectively.

The only reason anti-vaxxers can get away with not coming down with polio, measles or any number of other nasty diseases is because there are enough people who have been vaccinated to create herd immunity. When the majority of people fulfill their social obligations and vaccinate, we are all more resilient in the face of a potential outbreak. As we’ve seen recently (with spikes in cases of the measles), as vaccination rates for children drop to 50%, herd immunity fails and children start becoming infected and dying from diseases that are preventable. This failure to contribute to herd immunity is an act of selfishness by the anti-vaxxer.

According to a paper in the Lancet, this selfishness and lack of social conscience is especially worrisome for those who interact with the anti-vaxxer as vaccine skeptics tend to think globally but influence most those in their immediate social circles. Their refusal to accept vaccines as safe should be seen for what it is: disregard for the safety of others, akin to driving under the influence of alcohol or leaving a firearm loaded and unlocked in one’s home.

Third, anti-vaxxers are manipulating others to make themselves feel omnipotent. As self-serving as the yoga guru who owns a fleet of Rolls Royces, or politicians who abuse their influence for personal gain, the anti-vaxxer is not necessarily opting out of a vaccination regime, but is instead opting in to an identity they perceive as powerful.

I witnessed this firsthand at the end of a talk I gave to 300 parents a few months ago. I had been explaining resilience as a social contract and mentioned in passing why I felt anti-vaxxers were putting our communities’ health at risk. I also mentioned that they were particularly vulnerable if they ever travelled to low- and middle-income countries. Afterwards, a woman in her early 50s came up to me and said that I was spreading misinformation. Her children, she said, had travelled all over the world and that they had never had any health problems even though they had never been immunized. I’m sure my face gave me away even as I tried to politely suggest that her children could in fact be in danger if they went to places with very low vaccination rates, but she insisted they were perfectly safe and that I should stop discouraging parents from letting unvaccinated children travel. At that point I suggested we agree to disagree.

The woman’s behavior is common to many anti-vaxxers. Naïve and dangerous. For a deeper insight into people’s motivations to create the “symbolic capital” of being certain they are right and others are wrong, I recommend a paper by Katie Attwell at the University of Western Australia published in Environmental Research and Public Health in 2018. Attwell examined the social interactions of those who resist vaccinating their children as part of an ideology of healthy living. Her findings suggest that agreeing with others we perceive as powerful brings with it psychological feelings of belonging that outweigh other risks to our health.

None of this should come as a surprise. As children we are programmed to misperceive our own power as limitless. Most of us, however, reach school age and come to understand that people who seem powerful are really just bullies, and that our power to decide our own lives is better when it is kept in check. Expose people to enough conspiracy theories, or brash politicians who refuse to admit they know little about the topic they are addressing, and people will be persuaded to act against their own best interests. Our resilience, though, depends on us being willing to trust science, support the social contract, and avoid the trap of arrogance.


Attwell, K., Meyer, S. B., & Ward, P. R. (2018). The social bias of vaccine questioning and refusal: A qualitative study employing Boudieu’s concepts of ‘capitals’ and ‘habitus’. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15, 1044. Doi: 10.3390/ijerph15051044

Jolley, D. & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theoryes on vaccination intentions. PLOS ONE, 9(2), e89177.

Larson, H. J. (2013). Negotiating vaccine acceptance in an era of reluctance. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 9(8), 1779-1781.

Shetty, P. (2010). Experts concerned about vaccination backlash. The Lancet, 375, 970-971.

Smith, P. J., Kennedy, A. M., Wooten, K., Gust, D. A., & Pickering, L. K. (2006). Association between health care providers’ influence on parents who have concerns about vaccine safety and vaccination coverage. Pediatrics, 118(5), e1287-e1292. Doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-0923