Correcting Misperceptions about the MMR Vaccine: Using Psychological Risk Factors to Inform Targeted Communication Strategies

Published date01 June 2021
AuthorTimothy Callaghan,Kristin Lunz Trujillo,Matthew Motta,Steven Sylvester
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 464 –478
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920907695
Vaccines safely and effectively prevent the outbreak of dis-
eases that used to be prevalent across the globe. Yet many
people throughout the world believe misinformation that
vaccines are unsafe and cause significant side effects such
as autism, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the
contrary. These beliefs can lead to the pursuit of alternative
vaccination schedules, opposition to policies designed to
protect public health like mandatory school vaccination,
and even skipping vaccinations altogether, all of which can
create windows for nearly eradicated diseases to return and
spread (Joslyn and Sylvester 2017).
This phenomenon is part of a larger trend related to
antiscience attitudes and the rejection of scientific facts.
Science often becomes politicized when actors motivated
to reject it exploit its inherent uncertainty (e.g., Nisbet
and Mooney 2007). In addition, the advent of online
social media has enabled these actors to easily create and
disseminate information (e.g., Kata 2010). Should certain
members of the public accept this misinformation, it is
difficult to change due to motivated reasoning (Druckman
How can we effectively correct misinformed vaccine
beliefs, particularly if they are so difficult to change?
Research indicates that scientists and science communi-
cators are generally more likely to change minds when
they recognize and validate skeptics’ concerns (Kahan
2010), including their political opinions, values, and psy-
chological dispositions. In this paper, we develop and test
a novel, psychologically informed communications strat-
egy, to correct misinformation about vaccines. In a large,
nationally diverse opt-in survey of American adults, and
a smaller replication survey, we first test whether several
theoretically important (but understudied) psychological
907695PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920907695Political Research QuarterlyLunz Trujillo et al.
1University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
2Oklahoma State University, Tulsa, USA
3Texas A&M University, College Station, USA
4Utah Valley University, Orem, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kristin Lunz Trujillo, Department of Political Science, University of
Minnesota, Twin Cities, 1414 Social Sciences Building, 267 19th Ave S,
Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA.
Correcting Misperceptions about the
MMR Vaccine: Using Psychological
Risk Factors to Inform Targeted
Communication Strategies
Kristin Lunz Trujillo1, Matthew Motta2, Timothy Callaghan3,
and Steven Sylvester4
Many Americans endorse misinformation about vaccine safety. This is problematic because those who do are more
likely to resist evidence-based policies, such as mandatory vaccination for school attendance. Although many have
attempted to correct misinformation about vaccines, few attempts have been successful. This study uses psychological
correlates of vaccine misinformation acceptance to develop a novel misinformation correction strategy by tailoring
provaccine messages to appeal to these psychological traits. For example, people with higher moral purity levels are
more likely to view vaccines as contaminating the body, but messages highlighting disease via under-vaccination can
use their higher moral purity to push them toward vaccine support. Using a large survey experiment (N = 7,019) and
a smaller replication experiment (N = 825) of American adults, we demonstrate that interventions designed to appeal
to people high in moral purity and needle sensitivity—two relatively understudied correlates of vaccine misinformation
support—can also be targeted to effectively reduce vaccine misinformation endorsement. This study provides a better
understanding of the psychological origins of misinformed political and policy attitudes, and it suggests a strategy for
combating policy-related misinformation more generally, ultimately boosting support for evidence-based policies.
misinformation, moral purity, needle sensitivity, need for cognitive closure, science communication, policy attitudes

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