Study: Scare tactics don’t sway vaccine skeptics

Emotional scare tactics used to try to convince vaccine skeptics to immunize their children may not have the desired effect.

A recent study by Graham Dixon, associate professor with The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State, challenges the popular belief that emotional appeals have an effect on people’s health beliefs, according to a news release from WSU.

The article will be published in the journal “Communication Research.”

“Many health practitioners believe the best way to communicate the value of vaccination is to highlight the consequences of non-vaccination by using emotional pictures,” Dixon said in the news release. “My study shows that approach can backfire, particularly with individuals who have anti-vaccine views.”

In Dixon’s study, people read messages about vaccination that include a photo of a child in a hospital bed. Study participants were told the child had a vaccine-preventable disease due to non-vaccination.

People with anti-vaccination views were not emotionally affected by the picture and experienced lower risk perception regarding non-vaccination, according to the release.

Dixon said people’s existing attitudes and beliefs often bias how they process new information. As a result, a seemingly persuasive message might be effective for one group and backfire for another, according to Dixon.

“The fear is that emotional campaigns might lead people with anti-vaccine views to become even less concerned about the risk of vaccine-preventable disease,” he said. “Instead of using scare tactics, health practitioners should target the factors behind anti-vaccine beliefs by improving doctor-patient relationships and increasing trust in modern medicine.”

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at or 360-735-4546.

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