A study of parents of children aged 5-11 in Italy showed that black-and-white thinking was associated with the tendency to believe in conspiracies. This was in turn associated with a negative attitude towards vaccinating children against COVID-19. The study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
Three years ago, in early 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic started. As there was no vaccination or cure for it, many countries around the world tried to slow down its rapid spread by adopting strict lockdown measures. Vaccines became available less than a year later, but as vaccine production was ramping up, governments had to decide on priority groups who would be vaccinated first.
Children infected with COVID-19 overwhelmingly had only mild symptoms of the disease and were therefore not considered a priority for vaccination. However, health authorities soon realized that the only way to stop the COVID-19 infection was to make everyone immune to the disease. The most efficient way to do that was through vaccination.
Even in children, the share of cases with severe symptoms was still between 1% and 8%, making COVID-19 a significant health risk in this population. Additionally, some children belong to high-risk populations for COVID-19 due to other diseases and they can still transmit the disease to adults for whom risks of severe consequences of the disease are much higher.
Yet, substantial numbers of parents decided not to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 when the vaccine became available. Such behavior, that apparently runs counter to the interests of both children and public health, but also counter to the interests of preserving health of parents themselves, attracted lots of research attention.
Paola Iannello and her colleagues wanted to investigate the role of conspiracy theory beliefs and absolutistic thinking in negative attitudes of parents towards COVID-19 vaccination of their children. Absolutistic thinking is proneness to thinking in terms of absolute opposites – black-and-white, dividing the world into good and bad, yes and no, without any nuances. Such thinking is typically communicated using absolute words like “never”, “always”, “completely”. It is found to be common in individuals diagnosed with eating disorders, affective disorders, and certain other mental disorders — but is not exclusive to them.
For this purpose, the researchers surveyed 415 parents of children between 5 and 11 years of age. Children were required to be eligible for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine i.e., they were required to not have any medical conditions due to which vaccination against COVID-19 would be inadvisable. All participants were from Italy, although recruited from different regions of the country.
Data was collected between December 3 and 10 of 2021, when the vaccination of children was in its early phases in Italy. The researchers collected sociodemographic information on participants, their children, and asked them to specify sources they usually employ to gather information about vaccines. They were also asked whether their children will get vaccinated.
In addition, the participants completed assessments of negative attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines, worry about the spread of COVID-19 (the COVID-19 Worry Scale), attitude towards ambiguity (the Moral absolutism/Splitting scale from the Multidimensional Attitude toward Ambiguity Scale), and conspiracy beliefs (the Generic Conspiracist Beliefs Scale).
Of the whole sample, 35.9% of parents responded that they will vaccinate their children against COVID-19. Roughly 20% said that they will not, while 43.4% stated that they do not know. Fathers more often decided to vaccinate their children compared to mothers – 60.4% of parents who stated that they will vaccinate their children were fathers, whereas 60.5% of parents who stated that they are against vaccination were mothers.
Parents of younger children were more hesitant to vaccinate them. Vaccinated parents were more likely to vaccinate their children as well, while the vast majority (92.1%) of unvaccinated parents stated that they will not vaccinate their children. More educated participants were less likely to be against vaccinating their children.
The researchers tested a statistical model that assumes that the association between absolutist thinking and negative attitudes towards COVD-19 vaccines is achieved through conspiracy beliefs. Results confirmed that such a link between these factors is indeed possible.
The study contributes to the scientific knowledge about psychological processes behind attitudes towards vaccines. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study design does not allow any cause-and-effect conclusions. Additionally, the study was conducted at a single time point when vaccines against COVID-19 were still a novelty. It is possible that results at a later time, after vaccines have been in use for some time and people have become more familiar with them might have been different.
The study, “Black-and-white thinking and conspiracy beliefs prevent parents from vaccinating their children against COVID-19”, was authored by Paola Iannello, Laura Colautti, Sara Magenes, Alessandro Antonietti, and Alice Cancer.