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Coronavirus

Friends of conspiracy believers may help reduce vaccine hesitancy: Study

Published: Updated:

Vaccine hesitancy, one of the World Health Organization’s top 10 threats to global health, is quite common and new research suggests that friends of conspiratorial thinkers can help change their minds about vaccines.

The study titled ‘The psychological roots of anti-vaccination attitudes: A 24-nation investigation’ led by psychologists suggested that people keep their social bonds with their conspiratorial friends because they could play an instrumental role in changing their minds about being vaccinated against COVID-19.

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“When close others approved of the COVID-19 vaccination… people with high conspiracy mentality were as willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as those with low conspiracy mentality,” the report suggested.

Health industry experts remain to be the most trusted advisors when it comes to vaccination, the WHO stated. However, this new study suggested that the views of friends and family could be very influential as well.

People line up to receive a dose of Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a vaccination centre in the State Department Store, GUM, in central Moscow, Russia January 18, 2021. (File Photo: Reuters)
People line up to receive a dose of Sputnik V (Gam-COVID-Vac) vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a vaccination centre in the State Department Store, GUM, in central Moscow, Russia January 18, 2021. (File Photo: Reuters)

With the rapid spread of the virus and the emergence of new and more infectious variants, it is more important than ever to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, according to the research.

The report also noted strong correlations between conspiracy thinkers and vaccine attitudes, highlighting an increase in vaccine hesitancy among conspiratorial thinkers.

“People are social animals, heavily influenced by their perceptions of the beliefs and attitudes of close others,” the researchers wrote, adding that “these perceptions are often referred to as a ‘subjective norm.’”

Previous research, published in March 2021, suggested that the belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories go hand in hand with lower trust in government institutions and less social engagement, meaning that connecting with other conspiratorial thinkers or communities might be difficult to achieve.

The team that conducted the new study analyzed the interplay between peoples’ attitudes to vaccines, their conspiracy mentality and their perception of what family and friends think about the vaccine, which involved the assessment of 1,280 adults who identified as vaccine-hesitant.

“Our findings suggest that when friends and families approve of vaccination, conspiracy beliefs no longer play a role in predicting vaccination intentions,” one of the study’s researchers, Kevin Winter, told psychology-focused news media PsyPost.

“When talking, for instance, about the COVID-19 vaccination, it could be a first step to reveal one’s own positive vaccination intentions to close others who endorse conspiracy beliefs,” the researchers wrote.

It is important to note that the research also does have its limits as it only suggests a link between close relationships and vaccine intentions, and does not directly prove that shifting conversations between friends and family would coerce them to change their vaccination intentions.

“Subjective norms might be helpful to reach those on the edge to conspiracist beliefs but might be less effective among those who are deeply enmeshed in fringe conspiracy communities,” the report concluded, suggesting that people emphasized the importance of vaccines and how they can protect people against serious illness.

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