Research & Insights

Frighteningly Effective: Scare Parents to Increase Vaccination Intentions

New research suggests that if campaigners are to succeed at fighting against the anti-vaccine movement, they should take a page out of their opponent’s playbook and start using scare tactics. Specifically, they should remind parents about the frightening consequences of not getting their kids vaccinated.

According to findings, this approach works better than trying to dispel the myths being spread by anti-vaxxers about links between vaccines and autism.

The study, conducted by researchers Zachary Horne, John E. Hummel, Derek Powell, and Keith J. Holyoak and published in the 2015  journal PNAS, involved over three hundred participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website.

Participants were first asked about their opinions on vaccinations and the connection between vaccines and autism. For instance, participants were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the statements, “The risk of side effects outweighs any potential benefits of vaccines,” and “I plant to vaccinate my children.”

Then, they were presented with one of three reading assignments. The first group of participants read a narrative about a mother whose child has measles and short warnings about the importance of vaccinations. This group also saw photos of children suffering from measles, mumps, and rubella. The second group of participants saw information from the CDC disproving the link between vaccines and autism. The third group of participants was a control, and read a scientific article unrelated to vaccinations.

Afterward, participants were again asked about “their past vaccine behaviors and their intention to vaccinate their children in the future.”  The researchers found that presenting participants with the information and photos about vaccine-preventable illnesses “yielded a positive shift in participants’ attitudes toward vaccines, even among those participants who were initially most skeptical.”

“[T]his intervention was significantly more effective than corrective information aimed at dispelling myths about vaccines and autism,” suggest the researchers. “Our results suggest that parents are likely to be responsive to warnings (in the form of graphic pictures and anecdotes) of the severity of these diseases, and that heightened awareness of the risks associated with failure to take preventative action will improve attitudes toward vaccinations.”

“Rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations,” the researchers explain, “we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases, like measles, mumps, and rubella, be emphasized. This approach would allow media reports and health professionals to improve vaccine attitudes by communicating accurate information about disease risks without repeating inaccurate information that may further fuel anti-vaccination attitudes.”


Zachary Horne and John E. Hummel, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Derek Powell and Keith J. Holyoak, University of California, Los Angeles

Posted: August 26, 2015
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