As of May 2023, only 39% of children between the ages of 5 and 11 had received at least one dose of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)-recommended vaccine against Covid-19. In an article published this month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers Dan Romer and Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania draw on an empaneled national probability sample of nearly 2,000 U.S. adults to explain the role that having a conspiracy mindset in 2021 plays in adult reluctance to vaccinate children in 2022.
The study builds on earlier work showing that embrace of a conspiracy mindset predicts reluctance to take the adult Covid-19 vaccine. In the current study, the researchers examined the relation between conspiratorial thinking measured at baseline in 2021, and belief in misinformation and conspiracies about Covid vaccines, trust in various health authorities, perceived risk of Covid to children, and belief in conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s origin and impact.
The study found that the 17% of the sample that strongly held a conspiratorial mindset – defined as a disposition to accept conspiracy theories about the workings of government and other centers of power – tended to be skeptical of government authority and associated health agencies, such as the CDC or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Those respondents also were more likely to believe misinformation about vaccination, more likely to believe Covid-specific conspiracies about how vaccines are created and how the pandemic was managed, and less likely to view Covid-19 infection as harmful to children. Each of these beliefs was related to unwillingness to recommend vaccinating children ages 5 to 11 for Covid-19 and separately to recommend that children be given the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
The conspiracy mindset
Conspiracy mindset was defined as agreement with statements such as, “The people who really run the country are not known to the voters.” Specific misinformation was measured as agreement with statements such as, “Vaccines, in general, are full of toxins and harmful ingredients like antifreeze.” Persons holding conspiratorial beliefs were also likely to believe misinformation about Covid vaccines.
“Our findings forecast challenges for the future control of childhood infections,” said Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and lead author of the study. “Although the CDC continues to recommend vaccination for Covid-19 in children of school age, persons with a conspiratorial view are clearly not accepting the recommendation. The opposition to vaccinating for Covid also extends to other vaccines that are part of the normal childhood vaccine program, such as the MMR vaccine.”
Respondents holding a conspiracy mindset also tended to use politically conservative media such as Fox News and to avoid more mainstream news sources, such as major national newspapers and broadcast televised news, suggesting that those with a conspiracy mindset engage with media that affirm their beliefs rather than media that provide recommendations supported by health authorities.
Of the 17% of the overall sample with a conspiratorial mindset in April 2021, only about 12% said they were “very likely” to recommend that a child between the ages of 5 and 11 get a Covid-19 vaccine. By contrast, among those who strongly disagreed with the conspiracy-mindset items, about 82% were “very likely” to recommend the vaccine. In total, about half of panel members were “very likely” to recommend the vaccine.
The research followed from a prior APPC study showing that belief in misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccination was highly related to unwillingness to vaccinate children ages 5 to 11. Earlier work also suggested that persons with a conspiratorial mindset are more prone to accepting misinformation about vaccination.
The new findings integrate those two streams of research, showing that a conspiratorial mindset could underlie both the belief in vaccination misinformation and resistance to vaccination.
“Overcoming resistance to vaccination based on conspiratorial mindsets will prove difficult and responsive only to messaging from individuals already trusted by those with the mindset,” noted Jamieson, director of APPC. “Those with the mindset are unlikely to trust either mainstream news outlets or representatives of major health agencies.”
“The role of conspiracy mindset in reducing support for child vaccination for COVID-19 in the United States” was published as an open-access article in Frontiers in Psychology on June 13, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1175571