How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers: Advice From the Experts

Person getting vaccinated

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Key Takeaways

  • The anti-vaccination movement has grown in recent years based on unsubstantiated, fabricated claims that vaccines cause autism and other illnesses. Research shows no link between vaccines and autism.
  • If you have a loved one who is refusing the vaccine, experts suggest validating their concerns without judgment before offering facts may be a helpful way to reach them.

Whoever said “No politics or religion at the dinner table” should add the vaccination to that list. Vaccinations, in general, and the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, can elicit a strong response, regardless of whether someone is for or against them.

Jessica Steier, DrPH, PMP has had these conversations and points out that they can be excruciating. "While communicating with anti-vaxxers is difficult, it is a necessary component of the job of a public health scientist.” For most people who are against vaccines, they are resolute in their decision. It takes strategic communication to engage, let alone change anyone’s mind.

Steier, who is the co-host of the Unbiased Science Podcast, has spent quite a bit of 2020 explaining COVID-19 and the vaccine to skeptics. She explains her strategy: “To start, it's helpful to understand on what basis they oppose vaccination; is it a misunderstanding of the ingredients? A moral objection to compulsory vaccination? Conspiratorial theories stemming from distrust of pharma and government?”

Instead of bombarding anyone with statistics, Steier suggests lending a non-judgmental ear. “Listen first. Remind yourself that not everyone has received scientific training and that social media has given people a false sense of authority and confidence. Try to address their specific concerns while being aware of these cognitive biases and distortions of science."

Science Is Battling Social Media 

The anti-vax movement has been gaining momentum, which is evident in a Gallup study that finds that 84% of parents support vaccines. In 2001, 94% of parents supported vaccines for their children. The decline is seen mostly in less-educated groups, and the only group that most consistently vaccinates are those with postgraduate degrees.

This survey, conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, found that 11% of people feel that getting a vaccine is more dangerous than the disease it's meant to prevent.

A 2020 Pew Research study explored just that and found that only 60% of Americans intended to get the COVID-19 vaccine. This is an increase from the dismal numbers earlier in that year. One major culprit is social media, which has led to more skepticism about vaccinations generally as wells as the COVID-19 vaccines specifically.

This is evident in a study conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). According to their research, since June 2020, 425 anti-vax social media accounts gained almost 877,000 new followers. The study indicates that anti-vax groups are able to take advantage of collective hesitance, promoting the notion that COVID-19 is not dangerous, but the vaccine is.

Jessica Steier, DrPH, PMP

Listen first. Remind yourself that not everyone has received scientific training and that social media has given people a false sense of authority and confidence.

— Jessica Steier, DrPH, PMP

Some commonly shared ideas include that the vaccines are toxic and harm the environment, contain cells from aborted fetuses, or can change your DNA. Building off of an existing fear can be a catalyst for beliefs that defy science and logic. 

The anti-vax space has been sowing distrust in professionals that believe in vaccinations, and are encouraging homeopathic remedies, like inhaling hydrogen peroxide and calling it “H2O2 nebulization.” The CCDH reports that anti-vax pages hold space for those concerns in ways that pro-vaccine spaces do not, and that word choice can alter the trajectory of a productive conversation.

People often visit these YouTube pages and websites looking for alternatives, something they don’t get from individuals who are pro-vaccination.

What Would a Psychologist Do? 

Steier’s strategy for discussing vaccinations is one that psychologist Xialou Jiang, Ph.D stands by. She explains that these methods are rooted in the psychology of persuasion and that the two-sided appeal works well when you’re facing off with those who disagree with you.

“It can be useful right from the start to address the opposing side and then present your argument. You want to be cognizant of what their argument is and validate whatever truth is in those arguments," says Jiang. 

Xiaolou Jiang, PhD

It can be useful right from the start to address the opposing side and then present your argument. You want to be cognizant of what their argument is and validate whatever truth is in those arguments.

— Xiaolou Jiang, PhD

"I think there's a lot of well founded concerns and understandable reluctance about the COVID-19 vaccine, especially from the Hispanic and Black population," says Jiang. "I think if I were speaking to someone with those concerns, I would one hundred percent validate that. For instance, you can say ‘yes, we are all concerned about what we inject into our bodies.'”

Jiang also says that the message and how it is presented will change depending on the person that you are speaking to. “I would say the first thing is to know your audience, meaning, is the person you're talking to tend to be more emotional or logical about vaccines?” She points out that knowing someone who's had adverse reactions can very easily influence someone’s opinion, or even the general belief of “personal autonomy.” 

“I've also found that using the word ‘but’ can immediately put someone on the defensive when they know you are trying to convince them of something.” She recommends, “Try to use a lot of connecting phrases such as ‘at the same time…’ or ‘Can we look at it from this angle…?’”

What This Means for You

Part of having a conversation with an anti-vaxxer friend is knowing at what point to have one. Jiang explains that, with vaccines, unfortunately most people’s minds are made up—whether for or against—and if someone has been opposed to vaccines for years, they may be unreachable. For the sake of your own sanity, assess when you're not being heard and move on.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

5 Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Myths and facts about COVID-19 vaccines.

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  5. Center for Countering Digital Hate. The anti-vaxx playbook.