Baby gets vaccinated

Vaccination against certain diseases is a crucial element of preventing many childhood infectious diseases. In recent years, a small but vocal number of parents ("anti-vaxxers") have chosen to not vaccinate their children. 

Many efforts to change the minds of anti-vaxxers (parents who shun vaccination) focus on the safety of vaccination. This approach isn’t very effective and often encourages parents to become even more adamantly opposed to vaccination. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have explored a new approach and find it is considerably more effective than the direct confrontation of parental fear.

The Good News is the Bad News, Too

The good news about the measles vaccine is that it is so effective most young parents today have never seen anyone with the disease. The bad news about it is that most young parents have never seen anyone with the disease. This lack of direct experience minimizes the severity of the disease for many people.

Who Were the Study Participants

The research team used this lack of personal awareness of measles to educate adults about the cause, spread, history, and complications of the measles rather than try to convince them vaccination is safe. They enlisted 315 adults from across the United States to take part in the study. Some were parents but some were not.

Approximately one-third of the study participants identified as in favor of vaccination at the beginning of the study. The remaining two-thirds were skeptics, with roughly 10% being highly opposed to vaccination.

Three Groups, Three Messages

The study participants were randomly divided into three groups, each of which consisted of one-third vaxxers and two-thirds anti-vaxxers:

  • The control group read literature discussing bird feeding.
  • One group was given literature published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that encouraged vaccination, described the safety and effectiveness of vaccination and referenced scientific studies that found no ill effects from vaccination.
  • The third group got literature describing measles, mumps, and rubella (diseases which are often bundled in the MMR vaccine). The literature described the symptoms and dangers of disease, including the risk of death, permanent brain damage, and other complications. Photos of children infected with these diseases and parent testimonies were also included in this group’s reading materials.

Revisiting Vaccination

After reading the assigned material, each participant was asked again about their opinion of vaccination:

  • There was no change in the control group reading about bird feeding.
  • There was no change in the group reading about the safety of vaccination.
  • There was a substantial change of opinion in the group reading about the dangers of measles, mumps, and rubella. Many anti-vaxxers in this group reconsidered their opinions and expressed interest in vaccination now that they had a better understanding of the very real dangers of these diseases.

Education versus Attack

Derek Powell, a graduate student in psychology at UCLA who was a co-author for the study, says concern for children’s safety is the source of both acceptance and skepticism of vaccination. Everybody wants healthy kids but confrontational approaches lead to more deeply entrenched objections.

The research team suggests the positive approach (education on the dangers of disease rather than trying to conquer the fear of vaccination) may be the more effective approach. Finding common ground — the safety of one’s children — to build on seems to be more effective than “head-on attack.”


  1. Horne, Zachary, Derek Powell, John E. Hummel, and Keith J. Holyoak. "Countering antivaccination attitudes." PNAS (2015). Web. 14 Aug. 2015.
  2. "Measles (Rubeola)." CDC / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. US Department of Health and Human Services, 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Aug. 2015.
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