Un-bustable myths and stubborn minds: Pro-vaccine efforts backfire

An example of a frightening image, in this case a child with measles, which may convince some that vaccines have frightening side effects.

Striking at a myth with facts may only shore it up, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that three main intervention strategies for combating anti-vaccine lies and falsehoods were ineffective at changing minds. But perhaps more concerning, they found that over-time exposure to the interventions strengthened participants’ belief in those lies and falsehoods, researchers recently reported in PLOS One. The researchers speculate that the mere repetition of a myth during the process of debunking may be enough to entrench the myth in a believer’s mind.

“People tend to mistake repetition for truth, a phenomenon known as the ‘illusory truth’ effect,” the authors, led by Sara Pluviano at the University of Edinburgh, note. And when those myths are built into a framework of beliefs and world views—a cognitive consistency perspective—it becomes even harder to knock them out.

The study is not the first to find that pro-vaccine strategies can backfire, but it picks apart how seemingly corrective information can be twisted in stubborn minds to support rather than refute misinformation.

“More importantly,” the authors conclude, “our work can help public health authorities and practitioners to understand why it is necessary to adopt an appropriate strategy to influence people’s beliefs and behaviors toward vaccination, which can result in better health outcomes for the individuals themselves and for society as a whole.”

For the study, the researchers tested three common strategies on 120 participants to try to beat back vaccine misinformation: text that puts myths side by side with corrective facts; visuals and diagrams that convey the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases and the real risks of those vaccines; and frightening images of children sick with the vaccine-preventable diseases.

  • An example of myth-vs-fact information.
  • An example of visual pro-vaccine information.