Author: Magdalena Qenani
“I hear Bill Gates is trying to change our DNA with these new vaccines.”
“The Vaccine is a biological weapon designed to kill the Roma community in southern Greece.”
“Vaccination is a method of systematic control, wait for the revolution!”
“How do you even know Corona is real?”
These are examples of some statements I have personally encountered by strangers and the people around me throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. If you know me, you know I practically and embarrassingly honour vaccines at this point. So, hearing this left me pretty frustrated and disappointed for much of 2020, to say the least. I couldn’t exactly fathom how people could fall for anti-vaccine propaganda. Particularly, people who are privileged like me and have access to seeking their resources to make informed choices. Why would they deny empirical evidence given by credible scientists who have sacrificed many years of their life towards this research?
A rather recent experience, which fearfully sent a trickle of doubt to me about my own stern, pro-vaccine beliefs, came from a colleague at work who forwarded a video via Facebook which showed “medical professionals” worldwide giving a list of reasons to why they will not be taking the new COVID-19 vaccine. The entire time I was watching it, I was entranced by the rhetoric message which was (unfortunately) aided by the eerie music playing softly in the background. The overall tone programmed throughout the video was professional and trustworthy. However, I couldn’t make it to the end, because I cringed when my head started slowly streaming with questions I knew would not hold many sensible answers to.
I shared this video with a few friends to see how they felt about it. One friend mentioned they knew they were being exposed to propaganda, the moment they noticed the video cast a doubt to their knowledge. Anti-vaxxers may argue, this doubt we were experiencing may have simply been an epiphany for us which challenged our core beliefs about the efficacy of vaccines. But what if it wasn’t an epiphany? What if it was just our brains getting tricked?
An explanation to why we can be deceived sometimes, may lie in our deep-rooted and evolved cognitive biases. There is scientific research suggesting that some anti-vaccination beliefs may spread quicker as they are more in line with our intuition (Salali and Uysal, 2020). Given this intuitive bias, the information presented to us, affects the way we understand and remember information – in other words, our intuitive bias makes it damn easy to retain information. That’s not necessarily a convenient thing, considering we live in a digital age where misinformation can spread just as fast as the virus itself.
This widespread misinformation is facilitating another terrific thing we humans are great at creating — an us-versus-them scenario. In order for this vaccination to be effective, we know it relies on a large group of the population to be inoculated. You could say it’s almost like a silent social contract. According to one study by Korn et al. (2020), individuals who were pro-vaccinators (the in-group) did not exhibit generous behaviour towards people who were not vaccinated (the out-group). In order to be accepted by the in-group, the researchers found it would be beneficial for members of the out-group to adhere to this social contract. However, there is one problem with this. These social contracts may be considered to be part of a bureaucracy, something research has shown people increasingly show mistrust for (Lee and Van Ryzin, 2018). Furthermore, it probably doesn’t help that we as a society, myself included, throw labels like “anti-vaxxers” as this can further isolate an out-group’s position in society and can consequently emphasise their vaccine-hesitant beliefs.
So, what can we, who believe in the efficacy of vaccines, do to help end this pandemic and prevent any further future biological disasters? One obvious answer is to actively prevent misinformation from spreading. But not all of us are tech giants or academics with good credentials, if any. However, there is one step-forward solution that might lie in our vaccine-science-communication which can be practiced by you – empathy. Empathy is not simply feeling sorry for someone — it is the ability to deeply understand them. For example, empathy can be sharing and understanding the concerns people may have about the side-effects of vaccines. Whether it’s a vaccine-gone-wrong story which hits close to home, or systematic mistrust, or even a conspiracy theory which has ingrained widespread fear, people’s reasons for vaccine hesitancy are valid. Research has suggested, practising empathy may increase vaccine adherence (Maurici et al., 2019). In particular, one study found exhibiting affective empathy (the ability to understand the emotions of one’s experience) encouraged people to partake in physical distancing and mask wearing in the current COVID-19 pandemic (Pfattheicher et al., 2020).
A step to practising empathy would be to listen to people without judgement, and acknowledging their fears despite how irrational they may seem to us. This in turn, may open avenues where we can encourage individuals to challenge their vaccine-hesitant beliefs and current knowledge.
Yet, what if your empathy doesn’t reach the person? You can’t exactly force someone to change their beliefs — they have to be open and content for a healthy discussion in the first place. Nonetheless, it could be possible your approach will still have somewhat an effect. In the words of Joseph Joubert “the aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” With your empathy, you’ll have done just that hopefully, progress.
Korn, L., Böhm, R., Meier, N., & Betsch, C. (2020). Vaccination as a social contract. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 117(26), 14890-14899. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1919666117
Lee, D., & Van Ryzin, G. (2018). Bureaucratic reputation in the eyes of citizens: an analysis of US federal agencies. International Review Of Administrative Sciences, 86(1), 183-200. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020852318769127
Maurici, M., Arigliani, M., Dugo, V., Leo, C., Pettinicchio, V., Arigliani, R., & Franco, E. (2018). Empathy in vaccination counselling: a survey on the impact of a three-day residential course. Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 15(3), 631-636. https://doi.org/10.1080/21645515.2018.1536587
Pfattheicher, S., Nockur, L., Böhm, R., Sassenrath, C., & Petersen, M. (2020). The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Psychological Science, 31(11), 1363-1373. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620964422
Salali, G., & Uysal, M. (2020). COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is associated with beliefs on the origin of the novel coronavirus in the UK and Turkey. Psychological Medicine, 1-3. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291720004067