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Why People Believe False Information About Vaccines

LAUREN GILGER: So Steve, did you know that French horn players get cash bonuses to stay in the U.S. Army?

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Lauren, I didn't. And I'm wondering did that come from some weird internet place or something?

GILGER: And by weird internet place, I'm assuming you mean is that not true? Which is true, it is not true. So in the 1970s though researchers convinced their study participants that it was true. They were looking at why people fall for an "illusory truth effect" something we could consider the precursor to today's fake news in a way. And back then like today scientists have found that if you repeat the same statement enough times people will start to believe it. And that could shed some light on the  current crisis we're seeing in vaccinations in this country.  The Washington Post reports the percentage of kids under two who haven't been vaccinated has quadrupled in the past 17 years and now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 200 cases of measles exist in the country. Gordon Pennycook is a psychologist at the University of Regina in Canada and he studies the spread of misinformation. So in light of the growing belief that it's unsafe to vaccinate your kids I asked him, why do people believe it?

GORDON PENNYCOOK: Well the larger issue is that people aren't rational. The specific problem with vaccines of course is that to get a vaccine you have to put a needle in a kid's arm and that's like viscerally kind of like not something that we like to do. And so this is an easy kind of area in which people will naturally kind of feel unease. And there's like a natural tendency to just like be skeptical of that thing. And so it's a kind of perfect storm in that sense where in the context of our present information environment it's easy to find some amount of information to basically argue any side of anything. And the fact that the information in this case on the one side that is the pro-vaccination side is so much more high quality and abundant really just doesn't really rate that well because people aren't spending all day researching this topic. And this kind of brings a second point to bear which is that people are kind of lazy in the way they think. Like that is we tend to just defer to our intuitions and our kind of hunches about things and our kind of instincts and you know we can engage our serious reasoning skills to come to more reasonable conclusions but we just don't have that much time and the effort required is not something that we're kind of predisposed to do. And so what that means is people will fall through the cracks and they're going to believe false things.

GILGER: So we're mentally lazy but does repetition have to do with this? Like how does something like this grow like as we've seen vaccination rates quadruple in recent years in the country? It obviously has spread.

PENNYCOOK: Right. The way in which it becomes acceptable to not do something depends on you know whether other people are not doing it right. So if it were the case that nobody questioned vaccines, you might still have that impulse that this is something that you don't want to do because you don't like your kid getting needles. But then you wouldn't question it because nobody else is questioning it. And so these things will snowball. Even if the information isn't improving, if there's no real reason to not vaccinate your kids, the fact that more people are just actively questioning it even based on like false information or whatever else will make it easier for you to just do the easy thing which is "I'm not going to do that. I'm unsure. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn't work but it's easier for me not to do something than do something" and so they just don't do it.

GILGER: So kind of trusting our gut can get us in trouble. And you actually say that reasoning can make the problem even worse. Like if you try to reason with someone about something like this you can convince them of their point even more.

PENNYCOOK: Well in some contexts that's seems to be what happens. So like for example in the context of people's beliefs about the risks associated with climate change, what the evidence shows is that people who are more educated more reflective you know are smarter in a variety of ways are more polarized on that issue. That is Democrats who are more educated and so on are more likely to believe that climate change is a problem. But Republicans who are more educated and so on are less likely to believe it's a problem compared to those Republicans who are less educated. So there is some evidence that in some contexts and like really a partisan political context typically the ones where there's it's really complicated with the answer is like in the context of climate change or in the vaccines where there's you know it's about what the actual underlying sciences it might be that getting people think more will be just kind of screw them up. They don't know what the actual climate science is. They have a hard time understanding what the underlying science that supports using vaccines is. And so the more time they spend the more that is kind of convinced themselves that they're doing the right thing.

GILGER: OK, so then I guess that leads us to a final big question which is — can you change people's minds at all or why is it so hard to change people's minds? Is there any hope that we can turn the tide on this?

PENNYCOOK: I think that there is and that actually relates to my last answer which was that, there are some contexts certainly where people when they start thinking about things, all they're kind of doing is making themselves believe they're finding ways to kind of confirm what they already believed. But generally speaking, that's not how things work. And mostly if you give people evidence they do to some extent take into account. The problem is that we don't control what everybody sees. That is we as in the global like you know scientists or whatever. When someone's on social media or whatever else, what they see is dependent upon who's in their kind of echo chamber right. And so if that were the case that everybody was seeing this high quality information about vaccines, certainly more people would be using them. There's no question about that. It's just a matter of getting people to engage with the material, which is difficult. And that's because as I said before, people are kind of lazy thinkers and that requires effort. It's easier to just ignore it and you know not do the thing that you don't feel like you have a strong impulse to do.

GILGER: So, the Internet has really changed this conversation, then.

PENNYCOOK: Well, I certainly, I mean in the context of to me, that's the number one biggest reason why this is becoming a thing again. People are getting measles because you know there's good and bad things that come with the internet of course. The good thing is that we have like an almost infinite amount of information available to us. I can look up at any time you know like the history of the Roman Empire or whatever and just like get lots of amazing information about that. But there's also lots of crap on there. And so people need to be taught how to discern between high and low quality information, good and bad sources and so on. And unfortunately, our education on the topic has not kept pace with the technology. So people are not, they don't have the skills that they need to have in order to kind of sift through all the garbage on the Internet. And so you get people doing irrational things like not vaccinating their kids or spreading fake news or whatever. But there's a possibly to improve it if we just improve education on the topic.

GILGER: Right. So this gives us a way out, in the sense of like if we can educate people about how to differentiate real information from fake information on the internet, in the next generation perhaps, will be in a better spot.

PENNYCOOK: You know, it's a little bit speculative. I can't say 100 percent, but I definitely think that that is a more likely case. But that's dependent upon us that is the generation responsible for educating that generation to try to focus on that sort of thing and get better. And so that's the primary message that I've been trying to get across.

GILGER: All right. Gordon Pennycook is an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Regina. He's a psychologist who studies the spread of misinformation. Gordon, thank you for joining us to talk about this.

PENNYCOOK: It's my pleasure.  

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.