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New Study Finds That Anti-Vaxxers Are Way Into ‘Purity’ and ‘Liberty’

A look at the moral foundations of an anti-science movement.

Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne

A study published this week in Nature Human Behavior offers support to an idea that already seems to be intuitively obvious: People that are anti-vaccination place a high moral value on notions of “purity” and “liberty.” We should have a choice in whether our children are vaccinated, and we may choose to not vaccinate our children because we don’t want them to be contaminated by toxins. Arguably, these two notions guide much of the “wellness” ideasphere, but the anti-vax movement has always seemed to be a supernova of those ideas.

The study in question was conducted by Avnika Amin and colleagues at Emory University. Amin was interested in exploring anti-vaccination attitudes at the deepest possible level of innate values. Typically, the study notes, the anti-vaccination movement is countered by education and awareness campaigns. Many of those campaigns have proven to be not just ineffective, but counterproductive, in some cases leading to “long-term dissatisfaction and decreased intention to vaccinate” among parents. A backlash, in other words. The question is then, if education doesn’t work, what will?

With this in mind, Amin and colleagues set about trying to understand the anti-vaccination movement via what’s known as moral foundations theory. This is a still fairly new approach developed by social psychologists to understand human values in terms of innate internal modules of morality. Like, we all build up our own personal senses of morality in terms of sort of moral Legos. It’s often used by researchers trying to understand political ideology, particularly with respect to the What’s the matter with Kansas ? problem, in which conservatives, in particular, can often be found voting against often obvious rational self-interest in favor of, well, other things.

A key observation in early moral foundations theory was that people often seem to make quick decisions instinctively based on their own set of moral foundations while coming up with post hoc reasons and justifications later. “Subjects in past studies were unable to provide justifications for their decisions regarding moral dilemmas that elicited strong intuitive reactions, but stripped away rational bases for decisions guided by such reactions,” Amin and co. write. “Attitudes towards vaccines may be similarly based in such intuitive processes.”

To better understand the moral foundations of the anti-vaccination movement, the researchers conducted an online survey of 1,100 US parents of children aged under 13. Participants were asked about their levels of vaccine hesitancy as well as the importance of particular moral values in their decision-making. Vaccine-hesitant parents were about twice as likely to emphasize purity and liberty as low-hesitancy parents. These things are about what they sound like. Liberty has a lot to do with resisting state interference in individual lives, while purity has a lot to do with freedom from “contamination” and insistence on “naturalness.”

This isn’t a great study, which the authors themselves acknowledge. Online surveys are near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to this sort of thing and this makes it difficult to say how generalizable the results may be. Still, Amin and colleagues were able to reinforce their initial findings by directing a separate, second study with a completely independent crew of investigators who recruited participants using Amazon Mechanical Turk.

The study concludes with a lot of kind of obvious suggests as to how these findings might be exploited in pro-vaccine advocacy. To wit: “Boost your child’s natural defences against diseases! Keep your child pure of infections—Vaccinate!” Which seems solid to me, but I worry that we’re missing the larger cultural context, which has a lot to do with information bubbles, fake news, celebrities, and aggressive targeted marketing. Getting out from under that will take more than a clever slogan.