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Dispelling myths about vaccination may not decrease vaccine hesitancy

Posted December 9, 2014

There is a lot of of research suggesting that countering people’s deeply held but positively false beliefs with factual information doesn’t necessarily help to change them. We are a species prone to falling prey to a very large number of various thinking errors and biases that often make us misperceive reality and cling to our delusions even in the face of massive amounts of contrary evidence.

In some cases, engaging vaccination myths with corrective information may be counterproductive. Image source:, License: CC0 Public Domain.

In some cases, engaging vaccination myths with corrective information may be counterproductive. Image source:, License: CC0 Public Domain.

A new study conducted by a pair of researchers from Dartmouth College in Hanover and the University of Exeter, just published in the journal Vaccine, lends some additional support to this emerging theory. The team analyzed the data collected from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey in the US, which assigned respondents into three distinct conditions and asked them several flu-related questions.

The conditions were as follows: a control scenario with no attached additional information about flu or flu vaccines; a danger scenario that presented information about the health risks posed by flu; and a correction scenario that informed respondents that they cannot contract the flu from flu shots or live virus nasal sprays. Participants who ended up in the latter two conditions were also supplied with information about vaccination based on materials from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As much as 43% of respondents said they found the idea that flu shots can give you the flu to be “somewhat accurate” or “very accurate”. However, after reading the information packet correcting this myth, they reported to be less likely to keep believing it or to shun vaccination in the future.

So far, so good. But what about those, who are the most concerned about vaccination safety? Data analysis shows that despite the vaccination myth-busting information being persuasive enough to correct their views on the safety of vaccination, they were actually less likely to vaccinate.

Respondents who are the least concerned about vaccination safety were virtually unaffected by the information either way.

“Our findings suggest that corrective information can successfully reduce false beliefs about vaccines. However, that corrective information may unfortunately cause people with fears about side effects to bring those other concerns to mind and thereby reduce their intention to vaccinate,” claims Brendan Nyhan. “We need to learn how to most effectively promote immunization. Directly correcting vaccine myths may not be the most effective approach.”

Findings of the present study support the previous work done by the researchers, which indicates that corrective information not only fails to change the minds of some people, but actually makes the false beliefs even stronger and more difficult to dispel.

Original research article: Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, 2014, Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information. DOI: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2014.11.017

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