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Vaccine Hesitancy: What Is Behind the Stance?

Though previous literature shows vaccine hesitancy mostly related to personal experience with vaccination, such as side effects, ineffectiveness, a new opinion profile indicates that vaccine deniers may also have a generalized negative stance towards vaccines.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes essential to understand why people have vaccine hesitancy, refuse or indefinitely delay vaccination. A new Polish study, conducted at the Jagiellonian University (Krakow, Poland) and the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Wroclaw, Poland) and published in the peer-reviewed scholarly journal Social Psychological Bulletin, brings up the impact of the active spread of attention-grabbing anti-vaccine arguments, as well as the overall distrust in the Big Pharma, science and health providers (Stasiuk et al., 2021).

A pre-existing negative attitude toward vaccines may cause individuals to interpret negative symptoms as consequences of vaccines.

In their study, using data from a total of 492 participants, who have vaccine hesitancy, are self-identified as either ambiguous towards vaccines, or opposing vaccination, the research team, led by Dr Katarzyna Stasiuk, conclude that a generalized negative attitude towards vaccines mostly leads to vaccine denials.

The arguments were collected during a conference, where people opposing the vaccination presented their stand on the subject. Curiously, even though they often reported their stance to be founded in their own or observed negative experience with vaccines, they were rather vague in their explanations when asked about their reasoning. Many reported that they didn’t remember the source of information, while others attributed autism, allergies, or children being sick to vaccines, despite the missing evidence of correlation.

Such instances can be explained by people’s tendency to remember adverse reports, even if those have simply been read online.

“Confirmation bias consists of an individual actively seeking information consistent with their pre-existing hypothesis and avoiding information indicative of alternative explanations,” said the researchers. “Therefore, a pre-existing negative attitude toward vaccines may cause individuals to interpret negative symptoms as consequences of vaccines, further reinforcing the negative attitude.”

The research team also reminds us that people tend to forget how they have learned it when given similar information from multiple sources, often confusing it with their own experience or those of their close ones. As a result, they could turn into yet another source of misinformation.

All in all, people with vaccine hesitancy believe that vaccines lead to serious negative side effects, don’t protect the individual and the society against infectious diseases, and are not sufficiently tested before introduction. Further, they are convinced that anti-vaccination leaders are better informed about vaccines than physicians and that it is instead the former that acts in the public interest.

Interestingly, compared to the group who self-reported as vaccine-hesitant, opponents of vaccines were more inclined to believe that modern medicine can handle an epidemic.

vaccine hesitancy vaccination
Photo: CDC on Unsplash

Meanwhile, the vaccine-ambiguous participants in the survey were primarily confident in the efficacy of vaccines and being properly researched. However, they were still susceptible to the anti-vaccine movement’s statements about side effects and the “Big Pharma conspiracy”. Moreover, if presented with well-prepared arguments, they are likely to become vaccine deniers.

In conclusion, the scientists note that existing evidence is quite pessimistic about the possibility of changing the attitudes of vaccine opponents and thus recommend that efforts need to be focused on persuading the vaccine-ambiguous group so that their concerns about adverse effects are reduced.

They also suggest that they need to be presented with prosocial arguments about why medical professionals recommend vaccines to strengthen the positive points of their attitude.

Related Publication

Stasiuk, K., J. Maciuszek, et al. (2021). “Profiles of Vaccine Hesitancy: The Relation Between Personal Experience With Vaccines, Attitude Towards Mandatory Vaccination, and Support for Anti-Vaccine Arguments Among Vaccine Hesitant Individuals.” Social Psychological Bulletin 16(2): 1-20. 10.32872/spb.6525.

(Note: The content may have been edited for style and setting.)

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