Older people may be more susceptible to COVID, but in the UK it is now the young who are fueling the pandemic. Last month there were school age children in the UK 15 times more likely than people over 80 who have the coronavirus.
The fact that young people remain unvaccinated partly explains why cases were so high in this group. That is why many countries are offer now COVID jabs for kids. In Great Britain everyone 12 to 15 year olds a first dose of vaccine is offered. Some countries – like that US and Israel – offer COVID vaccines for children aged five and over.
With younger children, of course, parents decide whether to get the vaccine – and hesitation to get the vaccine can be a problem. In one recently US survey, three out of ten parents said that they would definitely not have their child vaccinated against COVID. Concerns about side effects or the perceived lower risk of COVID for children could explain this. However, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories could also play a role.
We know anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs can be a barrier to vaccine uptake. A Study 2014 showed that British parents exposed to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories were less likely to vaccinate that child if they imagined they had a fictional eight month old child. Also a recent study in 24 countries showed that attitudes against the vaccine were highest among those who also had high levels of conspiratorial thinking.
It didn’t take long when COVID vaccine development began special conspiracy theories that they appear – for example that they Microchips included or Making people sterile. research has shown that belief in such theories is tied to lesser intentions to get a COVID vaccine. It is therefore very plausible that belief in COVID conspiracies could deter parents from having their children vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Our research has looked at how to dissuade parents from believing in conspiracy theories that could prevent them from vaccinating their children – which is particularly relevant now that many countries are making COVID vaccines available to those under the age of 16.
Past research has shown that people are influenced by the perceived beliefs and behaviors of other people – what is called ” social norms “. However, these perceptions are often imprecise, which can lead people to adjust their behavior accordingly wrongly perceived norm.
However, we didn’t know if this was specifically true of conspiracy theories. So as a first step we explored whether there is a connection between perceived social norms and conspiracy beliefs of British parents.
Our result confirmed previous research. Parents in the UK overestimated the extent to which other British parents advocated conspiracy theories against the vaccine. And the more people believed that others believed these conspiracy theories, the more likely they were to believe themselves.
Knowing this, we then tried to lower parents ‘belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories by correcting their overestimation of other parents’ opinions. We did this with the Approach of social norms, a simple technique that works by correcting misperceptions – for example, by giving people feedback on how they misjudged the real beliefs and behaviors of others. The aim is to recalibrate people’s perception and change their behavior so that it is in line with what others are actually thinking and doing.
we have tested this approach on a sample of British parents of young children. Parents first took measurements of their personal beliefs in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and their intentions to vaccinate a fictional child. They next estimated the extent to which “other British parents” would endorse the same conspiracy theories and what vaccination intentions they would have.
Parents were then assigned to receive either feedback on their beliefs, which would correct any misjudgments in other parents’ conspiracy beliefs, or no feedback. Immediately afterwards, participants were asked again about their beliefs and intentions about the anti-vaccine conspiracy.
We found that correcting misunderstandings decreased parents’ belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. It also increased the perception that other parents were vaccinating their children, which, as a consequence, increased the parents’ own intentions to have a child vaccinated.
One easy step to improve uptake
Our results are the first to suggest that correcting inaccurate perceptions of what others are thinking could be used to combat the anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, thereby improving vaccine uptake – both in adults themselves and in doing so in children for whom they make decisions.
In speaking to people who believe in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, a practical step might be to emphasize that conspiracy beliefs are not as commonplace as people might think. Showing that it is far more common to vaccinate than not to vaccinate could also be compelling.
With vaccination rates among children in the UK still quite low while COVID cases remain high, this simple psychological technique could be an important tool to combat hesitant vaccination and many people could easily try it out.
Darel Cookson, Lecturer in psychology, Nottingham Trent University ; Daniel Jolley, Lecturer in psychology, Northumbria University, Newcastle ; Rachel Povey, Associate Professor of Health Psychology, University of Staffordshire , and Robert Dempsey, Lecturer in psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University