A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology sheds light on a promising avenue for reducing vaccine hesitancy. The researchers found that when people with a conspiracy mindset perceived their social circle as being supportive of vaccines (including a COVID-19 vaccine), their intention to get vaccinated was just as high as those without a conspiracy mindset. The findings suggest that the views of pro-vaccine friends can be leveraged to reduce the negative impact of conspiracy mentality on vaccination intentions.
Numerous studies have documented a robust link between conspiracy belief and anti-vaccine attitudes. Since vaccine hesitancy poses a public health concern, scholars have been researching possible ways to increase support for vaccines. This brought researchers to the topic of subjective norms — a person’s perception of the views and beliefs of friends and family around them.
“Vaccine hesitancy has already been an important topic before the current pandemic as a statement of the World Health Organization in 2019 reveals, calling vaccine hesitancy a global health threat,” said study author Kevin Winter, a senior researcher at the Social Processes Lab at the University of Tübingen.
“Also, the connection of the belief in conspiracy theories and low vaccination intentions has been established for quite a while. So there was the clear need to conduct more research on this topic and also to find potential starting points for interventions against vaccine hesitancy that roots in conspiracy beliefs. Of course, the topic became even more relevant with the spread of COVID-19 and we hope that our research contributes – at least to some degree – to the containment of the pandemic.”
Winter and his fellow researchers wondered whether subjective norms might influence the link between conspiracy belief and vaccination intentions, proposing two possible hypotheses. On the one hand, people with a conspiracy mentality tend to reject the mainstream, preferring to stand out from others by supporting alternative explanations of events. This might suggest that these types of people should be unaffected by subjective norms.
On the other hand, the norms accepted by close others do not necessarily reflect the norms embraced by society as a whole. In that case, people with a conspiracy mindset may not necessarily reject subjective norms, and instead, these norms might weaken the effect of conspiracy mentality on vaccination intentions.
Winter and his team conducted five similar studies to explore these two predictions. Altogether, the studies included over 1,200 German adults who were questioned regarding their attitudes toward one or more vaccines.
Each study followed a similar design but questioned participants about different vaccines. These included a hypothetical vaccine needed for traveling to a foreign country, a hepatitis B vaccine for one’s imagined child, a seasonal influenza vaccine, a vaccine to protect from the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV), and a COVID-19 vaccine once available (at the time of the study, a vaccine against COVID-19 was not yet available). For each vaccine, respondents reported their vaccination intentions and additionally indicated the extent that they believe their loved ones support the vaccine, (e.g., ‘People I care about probably think I should get vaccinated against [name of the disease].’). The participants also completed a measure of general conspiracy mentality.
A merged analysis of the results showed that people with a lower conspiracy mentality were more willing to get vaccinated. However, when subjective norms for vaccines were high, the relationship between conspiracy mentality and vaccination intentions was no longer significant.
When looking at attitudes toward individual vaccines, the pattern was similar. For nearly every vaccine, high subjective norms weakened the relationship between conspiracy mentality and vaccination intentions. The only exception was the flu vaccine.
“The central point of our paper is that being susceptible to conspiracy theories is not unconditionally related to lower vaccination intentions. The crucial factor is what close others think about the vaccination,” Winter told PsyPost.
“Our findings suggest that when friends and families approve of a vaccination, conspiracy beliefs no longer play a role in predicting vaccination intentions. Thus, signaling a favorable attitude towards vaccinations to close others who are prone to conspiracy theories might do the trick in reducing their vaccine hesitancy.”
“Our findings generalize across a row of different vaccinations,” Winter added. “The expectations of close others do not only play a role with regard to the COVID-19 vaccination, but also, for instance, for the willingness to get a travel vaccination.”
These findings are important because they point to a possible way to boost vaccination intentions among those with a conspiracy mindset. The study authors propose that those who wish to encourage their conspiracy-thinking friends to support vaccines should share with them their own intentions to get vaccinated rather than shutting these friends out. “When talking, for instance, about the COVID-19 vaccination, it could be a first step to reveal one’s own positive vaccination intentions to close others who endorse conspiracy beliefs,” Winter and his colleagues say in their study.
Notably, the study focused on people who were vaccine-hesitant but who did not necessarily reject all vaccines outright. The researchers say it is unclear whether those with deep-rooted conspiracy beliefs would be swayed by subjective norms.
“We are aware that our findings might not hold true for people who are deeply entrenched in conspiracy worldviews and reject any vaccination in principle,” Winter said. “These people might even have a social environment that supports anti-vaccine beliefs. The findings rather apply to people who are susceptible to conspiracy beliefs and hesitant towards vaccinations, but are still surrounded by close others who do not adhere to conspiracy beliefs.”
“Another limiting factor that needs to be considered is that our study design was only correlational. This means that it is not clear yet whether changing the communication among friends and families would actually increase vaccination intentions.”
The study, “Pro-vaccination subjective norms moderate the relationship between conspiracy mentality and vaccination intentions”, was authored by Kevin Winter, Lotte Pummerer, Matthew J. Hornsey, and Kai Sassenberg.