Anyone who has a child and has spent any time on the Internet lately has almost certainly butted heads with someone who thinks vaccines cause autism. Even though we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and the study that made people think that they did was retracted and debunked and condemned by the journal that published it, no number of facts (or snarky Facebook memes) seem to change anybody’s minds.
Now, however, some researchers seem to have finally figured out a more effective way to communicate with people who oppose vaccines, and the answer is not changing opinions with facts or logic or gentle explanations or even legislation. The key is horror. Just horrifying the pants off of them with personal stories and photos of sick children is much more effective than facts at changing minds about vaccines.
According to The Washington Post, in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 315 people were divided into three groups and given different information about vaccines and vaccine-preventable disease. The first group was given a parent’s account of a child’s suffering from a disease, a warning about how vaccines were useful for preventing disease, and photos of children suffering from diseases–children with swollen faces from mumps, for example. The second group was given scientific literature about how there is no link between vaccines and autism, and the third group was given unrelated scientific literature.
The researchers say the people who read scientific information about vaccines did not change their minds any more than did the group who just read about random, unrelated science. The people who read the stories and saw the photos were reportedly much more likely to change their minds.
“[The study] was grounded in an old idea from economics, ‘expected utility,’ in which you weigh the positive and the negative,” said Zach Horne, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “What’s going on with anti-vaccination parents, we think, is because they haven’t seen kids with measles and mumps, those consequences aren’t that real to them. And the other consequence, the purported link between vaccination and autism, is.”
Of course that was a very small study, and I think we all know that no number of personal essays and sad photos will change some people’s minds. Still, for those of us who exist on the Internet it gives us a push in a more effective direction than just shouting, “VACCINES DON’T CAUSE AUTISM” in all caps on Facebook. We might not change the minds of the people we’re arguing with, but as a very clever person once pointed out to me, the purpose of a debate is not to convince your opponent, it’s to convince the people in the audience.