inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


Why Are Some People Anti-Vaccine?

Don't seek a deliberately evil motivation in those who deny vaccines. Instead, listen to their moral foundations.

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Despite vaccines being the greatest single advancement in the history of medicine, vaccine denial was brought to the forefront of conversation during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no denying that anti-vaccine sentiment is rampant, but how much of it is justified?

Vaccine denial has been around for as long as vaccines have, going all the way back to when Edward Jenner developed the first safe and effective smallpox vaccine in 1796. Jenner used cowpox in his inoculations, and religious objections arose almost immediately. Because the vaccine was sourced from animals, it was considered "unclean" and "impure".

Smallpox was one of the most deadly diseases humans have ever encountered, and mandatory vaccination campaigns sprung up throughout Europe. Like we saw with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, many protested these acts on the grounds of personal liberty. This battle still rages in the current political climate.

So why are some people anti-vaccine? We can break this ideation down into four sections.

First, we see that many anti-vaxxers possess conspiracy ideation. This group believes that it is common for the world's elites to conduct sinister, elaborate scams and hoaxes on the public. A study by Portland Press revealed a high correlation—particularly in western countries—between being anti-vax and believing in conspiracy theories. If the government wants us to get the vaccine, then it must be bad.

Another common reason for people to mistrust vaccines is simple tribalism. If all of their friends don't believe that vaccines are safe and effective, then they are more likely to share that opinion. There is a common belief that having conservative political views makes someone more likely to be vaccine hesitant, and while this is true in large population samples, most in this group are only slightly vaccine hesitant. The largest contributor to vaccine hesitancy are the small pockets of extreme anti-vax groups on both sides of the political aisle.

Mistrust of conventional medicine is another driver of anti-vaccination views. People who are skeptical of or outright oppose modern medical advancements like anti-depressants and chemotherapy are much more likely to shun modern vaccines. A common belief among this group would be that vaccines and modern chemicals disrupt the body's own natural balance.

Some people are also hesitant to get the jab simply because of a fear of needles and a queasiness around blood, doctors, and hospitals.

If you want to reach someone who has anti-vaccination beliefs, try using a bit of moral foundations theory. Appeal to their sense of liberty from governance or the sentiment of natural purity. Discuss how vaccination is a way to protect one's health without relying upon a flawed or corrupt healthcare system. Or perhaps that vaccination protects a body by preparing it's own natural immune system, thus minimizing the potential need to be treated with pharmaceutical drugs.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Amin, A., Bednarczyk, R., Ray, C., Melchiori, K., Graham, J., Huntsinger, J., Omer, S. "Association of moral values with vaccine hesitancy." Human Behavior. 4 Dec. 2017, Volume 1: 873-880.

Belluz, J. "20 years ago, research fraud catalyzed the anti-vaccination movement. Let’s not repeat history." Vox. Vox Media, 2 Apr. 2018. Web. 6 Feb. 2019. <>

CDC. "Ten Great Public Health Achievements — United States, 1900-1999." Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2 Apr. 1999, Volume 48, Number 12: 241-243.

Editors. "History of Anti-vaccination Movements." The History of Vaccines. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, 3 Nov. 2010. Web. 5 Feb. 2019. <>

Motta, M., Callaghan, T., Sylvester, S. "Knowing less but presuming more: Dunning-Kruger effects and the endorsement of anti-vaccine policy attitudes." Social Science & Medicine. 1 Jun. 2018, Volume 211: 274-281.

Muacevic, A., Adler, J. "The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine." Cureus. 3 Jul. 2018, Volume 10, Number 7: e2919.

Stern, A. "The History Of Vaccines And Immunization: Familiar Patterns, New Challenges." Health Affairs. 1 May 2005, Volume 24, Number 3: 611-621.


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