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People who harbor conspiracy theories are willing to get the vaccine — as long as their friends do, too

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Well before the pandemic swept the world, scientists established a strong association between having a conspirative mentality that rejects mainstream ideas and vaccine hesitancy. The more entrenched the conspiratory thinking, the more likely that person is to reject vaccines. However, even people who harbor such viewpoints can be convinced to get a COVID vaccine just as readily as those without a conspiracy mindset as long as their close circle of friends and family are pro-vaccine.

Such was the conclusion of a new study led by Kevin Winter, a senior researcher at the Social Processes Lab at the University of Tübingen, Germany. These findings suggest that friends and perhaps even the community at large can play a major role in reducing vaccine hesitancy.

Winter and colleagues were motivated to embark on this study due to the now sizable body of evidence linking conspiracy theories with anti-vax sentiment and even COVID denial. Some believe that COVID-19 is a business for health care workers and doctors are diagnosing every fever as COVID-19 for their own financial benefit.

However, there are many social, cultural, and political factors that can play a vital role in the decision-making regarding vaccine acceptance and refusal. For their own part, the researchers in Germany wondered if the influence of a conspiracy mentality can be counterbalanced by social norms.

To test this hypothesis, they conducted five studies involving over 1,200 adults from Germany, who were questioned about their attitudes towards vaccines and were assessed regarding their general conspiracy mentality.

Each study was very similar in scope and design but involved a different type of vaccine, including a hypothetical vaccine needed for traveling abroad, a hepatitis B vaccine for one’s real or imaginary child, a seasonal flu vaccine, a vaccine against the tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV), and a COVID-19 vaccine when available (when the study was conducted COVID vaccines were yet to be available).

In each instance, the participants had to report how inclined they were to take the vaccine in question but also estimate the extent to which their friends and families would support the vaccine.

Remarkably, the results showed that nearly for every vaccine, having loved ones that supported vaccination canceled out the relationship between conspiracy mentality and vaccine hesitancy. The only exception was the study with the flu vaccine.

“The central point of our paper is that being susceptible to conspiracy theories is not unconditionally related to lower vaccination intentions. The crucial factor is what close others think about the vaccination,” Winter told PsyPost.

“Our findings suggest that when friends and families approve of a vaccination, conspiracy beliefs no longer play a role in predicting vaccination intentions. Thus, signaling a favorable attitude towards vaccinations to close others who are prone to conspiracy theories might do the trick in reducing their vaccine hesitancy.”

“Our findings generalize across a row of different vaccinations,” Winter added. “The expectations of close others do not only play a role with regard to the COVID-19 vaccination, but also, for instance, for the willingness to get a travel vaccination.”

These findings may prove important when devising communication and outreach strategies meant to increase vaccine compliance. This is especially relevant today when in the US and most of Europe the vast majority of people who wanted a vaccine have received one, the remaining population being hesitant. Scaling this wall is rife with many challenges, though. For instance, this study is careful to note that those with deeply entrenched conspiracy worldviews rejected vaccination out of principle. These individuals may also tend to surround themselves with people who share the same values. As such, these findings only apply to people who are somewhat susceptible to conspiracies and are hesitant towards vaccination but nevertheless have friends who can steer them in the right direction.

The study appeared in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

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