The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has affected more than a hundred million victims with more than two million confirmed deaths. Safe and effective vaccine options from across the world have emerged offering a ray of hope. As the vaccination drive picks up, the threat of vaccine misinformation must be tackled at both the personal and administrative levels. This opinion piece discusses effective strategies based on the social-psychological theory of inoculation using which individuals can prevent themselves from becoming victims of anti-vaccination propaganda.
In social psychology, attitudes refer to our evaluations of various aspects of the world. That aspect could be an idea, an issue, an object a specific person, or even a social group. For example, one person might give more importance to planning for the future whereas another person might be more inclined towards living in the present and letting go of control. These are two contrasting
attitudes towards an aspect of our life. Persuasion is the process through which an individual’s attitudes are influenced through communication. Counter persuasion refers to the process of resisting persuasive influence. One should be highly vigilant of persuasive attacks which aim at creating vaccine hesitancy and thereby creating negative health attitudes among the public.
Inoculation theory is a social psychological theory that has proven itself effective at creating resistant and positive health attitudes. The application of inoculation theory to the context of vaccination is particularly elegant. At the core of inoculation theory is a biological metaphor (Compton, Jackson, & Dimmock, 2016). In medicine, inoculation refers to the deliberate introduction of the weakened form of a pathogen to artificially induce resistance or immunity against the pathogen. Inoculation theory says that subjecting an individual to weakened forms of persuasive arguments against preexisting attitudes can induce resistance against future persuasive attempts.
The most common inoculation framework comprises a two-step process. The first step is known as forewarning. Here, the individual is made aware that their present attitudes are vulnerable. It is usually done by presenting some kind of a warning message such as “You may be vulnerable to insidious anti-vaccination propaganda!”. The more credible the source of the warning, the stronger the effect of inoculation. The second and most critical step involves providing persuasive counterarguments to the individual’s current attitudes accompanied by refutations of those counterarguments. Here is a list of instructive examples picked up from the website of John Hopkins Medicine.
• Persuasive Counterargument: The COVID-19 vaccine has been hastily developed and is therefore unsafe and ineffective.
Refutation: Studies have shown the vaccine to be highly effective with no life threatening side effects.
• Persuasive Counterargument: COVID-19 vaccine contains controversial ingredients.
Refutation: COVID-19 vaccine has been authorized by trusted drug regulation agencies and has been found to contain normal vaccine ingredients.
• Persuasive Counterargument: COVID-19 causes infertility.
Refutation: Scientific literature establishes that COVID-19 vaccine does not affect fertility.
Over the past few decades, considerable evidence has emerged in favor of the effectiveness of inoculation in increasing resistance to attitudinal change.
Inoculation based health messaging has proven itself to be highly effective in preserving positive health attitudes regarding cigarette-smoking, alcohol consumption and marijuana use. A meta-analysis of inoculation based messaging found it to be an effective method for instilling resistance to attitude change (Banas & Rains, 2010). Two key features of inoculation based counter persuasion make it a flexible and reliable approach to health messaging. First, it provides \umbrella protection” against attacks, which means that the developed resistance transfers over to “new” unseen attacks that were not encountered during the “immunization” phase. Second, inoculation is effective regardless of whether the counterarguments and refutations were generated by the recipient themselves or not.
The well-documented success of inoculation based messaging over a wide range of medical domains establishes it as the method of choice of health practitioners and public health messaging professionals for creating positive health attitudes among the general population. Inoculation based messaging, therefore, emerges as an effective tool for combating COVID-19 misinformation and anti-vaccination propaganda. Responsible individuals can themselves inoculate themselves by becoming aware of the threats of nefarious persuasive influence and looking up common myths and misconceptions regarding the issue and their negations. Whereas, public health communication must also focus on making the public cognizant of the same.
More generally, inoculation theory gives support to the practice of disseminating common myths and misconceptions about an issue along with their refutations. It turns out aggressively debunking misinformation and propaganda and making people aware of this information is an effective and evidence-backed strategy for combating such lies and deception. At the time of a grave public health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, it is the need of the hour to deal with the proliferation of inaccurate information and the field of social psychology offers several powerful options to help in this regard.
- Compton J, Jackson B, Dimmock JA. Persuading Others to Avoid Persuasion: Inoculation Theory and Resistant Health Attitudes. Front Psychol. 2016;7:122. Published 2016 Feb 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00122
- John A. Banas & Stephen A. Rains (2010) A Meta-Analysis of Research on Inoculation Theory, Communication Monographs, 77:3, 281-311, DOI:10.1080/03637751003758193
- Robert A. Baron, Donn R. Byrne, Social Psychology
The above opinion piece was written by Shashank Kumar who is a senior undergraduate student at the Computer Science and Engineering department of IIT Kanpur and is currently also doing a course on social psychology.