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Want to Change Parents' Views on Vaccines? Here's How

The Short of It

New research published in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" looks at effective and ineffective ways to convince anti-vaxxers that immunizations help, not hurt.

The Lowdown

"It's more effective to accentuate the positive reasons to vaccinate and take a nonconfrontational approach—'Here are reasons to get vaccinated'—than directly trying to counter the negative arguments against vaccines," Keith Holyoak, UCLA distinguished professor of psychology and a senior author of the study, said in a press release. "There was a reason we all got vaccinated: Measles makes you very sick. That gets forgotten in the polarizing debate on whether the vaccine has side effects."

Researchers looked at 315 adults from across the country, dividing them into three groups. One-third had favorable attitudes toward vaccines at the study's outset. The remaining participants expressed some degree of skepticism. Ten percent said they felt very negative about vaccines. Then people with differing views were evenly divided among the groups.

To see what might change skeptics' minds, researchers gave one group CDC materials advocating for the safety and effectiveness of the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella, and dispelling the notion that vaccines cause autism. Another group received information about feeding birds, and the final group read a testimonial from a mom whose baby almost died from measles. They also read materials about the dangers of diseases and prevention through vaccinations.

The group that read the CDC materials did not have a change of mind at the end of the study, nor did the participants in the control group who were educated about birds. But the group who learned more about the dangers of diseases, like measles, said they were not as against vaccinations.

The Upshot

Researchers concluded that a confrontational approach that accuses parents of being uniformed about vaccinations is not the way to change their minds. Rather, reminding them about the potentially deadly dangers of measles is effective for increasing their support for vaccines.

"People who are skeptical about vaccines are concerned about the safety of their children. They want their kids to be healthy. That's also what doctors want. Instead of fighting their misconception, remind them why the vaccine is the best way to keep their kids safe," explains Derek Powell, a UCLA graduate student in psychology and co-lead author of the study.

Their findings have broader implications for finding common ground on any issue. I'll remember that the next time I'm trying to get my kids to eat their veggies!

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