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Anti-Vaxxers "Can't Help" Hating Vaccinations: Their Brains Work Differently

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If you're overly suspicious of vaccinations, then there may be a deeply rooted psychological reason for it.

A recent study published by Texas Tech University in the Vaccine medical journal indicates that anti-vaxxers all share a common trait: An over-arching fear of negative events, specifically rare ones.

Which means that vaccine skepticism isn't tied into just a dubious approach to inoculations, but a wide array of different events.

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Researchers Mark LaCour and Tyler Davis "suggest some people find vaccines risky because they overestimate the likelihood of negative events, particularly those that are rare."

Tyler, who is an associate professor of experimental psychology and director of the Caprock FMRI Laboratory, says that the "overestimation" of unlikely negative outcomes is the basis for anti-vaxxers' vaccine skepticism.

"We might have assumed that people who are high in vaccine skepticism would have overestimated the likelihood of negative vaccine-related events, but it is more surprising that this is true for negative, mortality-related events as a broader category. Here we saw an overestimation of rare events for things that don't have anything to do with vaccination. This suggests that there are basic cognitive or affective variables that influence vaccine skepticism."

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Mark and Tyler analyzed 158 participants in a study in an attempt to quantify their feelings of "powerlessness, disillusionment, and trust in authorities regarding vaccines." When they were presented with different causes of death and life-threatening situations, anti-vaxxers were overwhelmingly way off when it came to judging the rate of mortality associated with each specific situation.

Tyler explained his findings, "...we saw an overestimation of rare events for things that don't have anything to do with vaccination. This suggests that there are basic cognitive or affective variables that influence vaccine skepticism."

Specifically, there was an overestimation regarding the deadliness of rare causes of death: They thought that uncommon scenarios were way more fatal than they actually were.

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The same test was also applied to positive or neutral events, and the perception from individuals who were skeptical of vaccines, again, intensely focused on negative "worst case scenario" outcomes, despite there being little-to-no evidence to suggest these events were as deadly as they perceived.

Mark believes the findings indicate that vaccine skeptics are more "easily swayed by anecdotal horror stories."

"My takeaway is that vaccine skeptics probably don't have the best understanding of how likely or probable different events are. They might be more easily swayed by anecdotal horror stories. For example, your child can have a seizure from getting vaccinated. It's extremely rare, but it is within the realm of possibility."

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Mark went on to say that the reinforcement of horrifying, albeit unlikely, events could contribute to a further, doubled-down belief in vaccine skepticism: "If you were so inclined, you could follow Facebook groups that publicize extremely rare events. These cognitive distortions of anecdotes into trends are probably exacerbated by decisions to subscribe to statistically non-representative information sources."

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The researchers followed up by saying that in cases in which  anti-vaxxers are joining groups to further their statistically improbable beliefs, simply presenting factual data is unlikely to help: "It may be the case that they are specifically seeking out biased information, for example, to confirm their skeptical beliefs. It could be that they have more of an attentional bias to negative, mortality-related events, which makes them remember this information better."

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"Strategies to get the right information to people through public service announcements or formal education may work, but it doesn't seem to be an issue that people with higher vaccine skepticism are less educated in any fundamental way in terms of basic science or math education. Thus, simple increases in these alone — without targeted informational interventions — would seem unlikely to help."

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In short, arguing with someone who displays these "cognitive factors" that Mark and Tyler discovered, by presenting facts probably won't do much. (h/t | Eureka Alert)

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