New research published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that individuals harboring a conspiracy mindset tend to demonstrate higher hesitancy towards vaccinating children against COVID-19 and measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). The study also highlighted these individuals’ frequent reliance on politically conservative media sources, which further affirms their beliefs, contributing to a significant challenge in overcoming vaccine resistance among adults responsible for child vaccinations.
The researchers conducted this study to understand the role of a conspiracy mindset in shaping people’s attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccination, particularly concerning vaccinating children ages 5 to 11. They wanted to investigate whether individuals who hold a conspiratorial mindset, characterized by the tendency to believe in secretive and harmful actions by powerful agents, were more likely to distrust government health authorities, accept misinformation about vaccines, and be hesitant towards vaccination.
“We have been studying the role of conspiracy beliefs about the US government and health authorities since the pandemic. This has led us to look at the tendency to engage in conspiratorial thinking as a disposition to accept conspiracy theories, especially regarding the medical system and vaccines for COVID-19,” said study author Dan Romer, the research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and lead author of the study.
To conduct the study, the researchers used a national probability sample of nearly 2,000 U.S. adults. They measured the participants’ conspiratorial mindset by assessing their agreement with statements related to generic conspiracy beliefs about the workings of government (e.g., “Much of our lives is controlled by plots hatched in secret places”). They also evaluated their beliefs in misinformation about COVID vaccines and specific conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s origin and impact. Additionally, they examined participants’ trust in health authorities, perceived risk of COVID to children, and support for vaccinating children for COVID-19 and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The study found that individuals with a conspiratorial mindset were more skeptical of government authority and agencies like the CDC and FDA. They were more likely to believe misinformation about vaccination and COVID-19, including conspiracy theories about how vaccines are created and how the pandemic was managed (e.g., “Health officials at the Food and Drug Administration, also known as the FDA, who opposed Donald Trump’s re-election, delayed the approval of COVID-19 treatments until after the election”). They were also less likely to view COVID-19 infection as harmful to children. These beliefs were associated with reluctance to recommend vaccinating children for COVID-19 and for the MMR vaccine.
“Our findings indicate that those who believe various forms of unsubstantiated allegations about COVID vaccines are also likely to mistrust the government and its health agencies, which is called a conspiracy mindset,” Romer told PsyPost. “As a result, a large factor in resistance to vaccination of both adults and children appears to derive from this mindset. This will pose a challenge to the government’s efforts to provide protection not only from COVID but also other infections that are common, such as the flu and MMR in children.”
The researchers also found that individuals with a conspiratorial mindset tended to rely on politically conservative media outlets (such as Fox News and Newsmax) and avoid mainstream news sources. This suggests that they engage with media that affirm their beliefs rather than media that provide recommendations supported by health authorities.
The study’s findings indicate that a conspiratorial mindset plays a significant role in adult reluctance to vaccinate children against COVID-19. Overcoming this resistance will be challenging and may require messaging from individuals already trusted by those with the conspiratorial mindset, as they are unlikely to trust mainstream news outlets or representatives of major health agencies.
“Some of the sources of the conspiracy mindset are the result of long-standing doubts about the government’s action toward particular groups, such as Black Americans,” Romer said. “It will take concerted efforts to gain the trust of such groups for the medical system. Other sources of resistance are more political, such as those who believe in a deep state or who think the government tries to suppress dissent. Others are particularly skeptical of the pharmaceutical industry. In any case, responding to conspiracy mindsets will be a challenge.”
One limitation of the study is that the panel members may not be entirely representative of the general population, as they tend to be more educated. Additionally, self-reported behavior and intentions may be influenced by social desirability biases. However, the researchers addressed these biases and found that individuals with a conspiratorial mindset were willing to report their lack of support for vaccination, suggesting that biases did not strongly affect the results.
“The major challenge for public health is to overcome this source of resistance to vaccination,” Romer said. “Future research will need to identify strategies for this purpose.”
The study, “The role of conspiracy mindset in reducing support for child vaccination for COVID-19 in the United States“, was authored by Daniel Romer and Kathleen H. Jamieson.