Vaccine skeptics appear to think differently than others, research suggests
New research suggests anti-vaxxers overestimate all problems associated with mortality.
- Researchers at Texas Tech University discovered that vaccination skeptics overestimate dangers associated with other causes of mortality.
- The main drivers of vaccine hesitancy include a predilection for believing in conspiracy theories and distrust in the medical system.
- While the researchers are hopeful this could lead to overturning anti-vaxx sentiments, that is a challenging proposition in the current climate.
In 2000, the United States declared that measles had been eliminated. This public health victory was part of a two-century long battle against disease kicked off by Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccines. The concept of vaccination, though, is much older; Jenner was the great popularizer. His cowpox vaccination began a line of research that continues to this day as researchers around the planet seek a vaccine for COVID-19.
In 2019, measles cases surged in America, with the highest number of citizens infected since 1992. An ironic year, perhaps, given that Andrew Wakefield claimed to link vaccinations and Crohn's disease in 1993. That notion was roundly disproven, but peer-reviewed research did not stop the British physician. Wakefield's next target became finding a connection between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism—again, ironic, as he filed a patent for his own single-jab measles vaccine while denouncing the one in circulation. Later, with the anti-vax movement in full-swing, Wakefield even invented a disease called autistic enterocolitis, for which, of course, he sold a cure.
Wakefield was ultimately discredited; his medical license was taken away. The movement he started continues to grow in size and influence. Why? A team of researchers at Texas Tech University offer a clue: vaccination skeptics tend to overestimate dangers associated with everything.
Tyler Davis, an associate professor of experimental psychology at TTU, and Mark LaCour, a doctoral student in psychological sciences, recently published their findings in the journal Vaccine. The main drivers of vaccine hesitancy include a predilection for believing in conspiracy theories, distrust of the medical system (and governing bodies in general), media exposure, and a preference for alternative medicine. They also note distal causes, such as fear of needles and excessive emotional reactivity toward world events.
Davis and LaCour sought a foundational belief system underlying the numerous causes for vaccine skepticism. They surveyed 158 participants to discover that thread: those hesitant toward vaccines are more often than not skeptical of any potential threat.
Potential is an important word. Vaccines are one of the most sound and effective medical practices we've discovered. Yet our brains are wired to perceive danger and will often look for outliers if everything is humming along smoothly. For every million people that don't get measles, if there is one who has an adverse reaction and dies (which does happen), skeptics exploit that case in order to market their beliefs.
This is a perception that relief charities, for example, exploited long ago: show a singular starving child instead of a statistic displaying a million starving children. Then, we're more likely to donate. In the case of charities it was an important realization. With vaccination skepticism, the opposite is true.
Davis expresses surprise that vaccine hesitancy so consistently lines up with other forms of mortality-related events. He notes,
"Here we saw an overestimation of rare events for things that don't have anything to do with vaccination. This suggests that there are basic cognitive or affective variables that influence vaccine skepticism."
Participants were asked to rate the frequency of death associated with 40 separate instances, including cancers, fireworks, and car accidents. Those who overestimated the rate of vaccine deaths also overshot when it came to other causes of mortality.
As a control, each volunteer was asked to rate the frequency of neutral or positive events, such as how many Willie Nelson concerts or papal visits occur. Vaccine skeptics did not overestimate these percentages nearly as often.
Bruno Cassaro de Andrade, a chemical engineering student, works with a test during the method of separating specific proteins to be applied in the production of vaccines on March 24, 2020 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. The Ministry of Health convened The Technological Vaccine Center of the Federal University of Minas Gerais laboratory to conduct research on the coronavirus (COVID-19) in order to diagnose, test and develop a vaccine.
Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
LaCour notes that skeptics appear to exhibit poor judgment in regards to probability. "They might be more easily swayed by anecdotal horror stories," he says.
"For example, your child can have a seizure from getting vaccinated. It's extremely rare, but it is within the realm of possibility. If you were so inclined, you could follow Facebook groups that publicize extremely rare events. These cognitive distortions of anecdotes into trends are probably exacerbated by decisions to subscribe to statistically non-representative information sources."
The authors rightfully express excitement over these findings. They believe it could provide insight into reaching anti-vaxxers in the future, perhaps by exposing them to "pro-attitudinal information." A bit optimistic, given that prior studies show that anti-vaxxers dig their heels in deeper when shown pro-vaccination literature. Still, if there's ever a time that we need to understand the efficacy of vaccinations, it is now.
As often happens during crises, the coronavirus pandemic has stirred up an inordinate amount of fear and confusion. Anti-vaxxers are having a moment, just the wrong one (as if there's ever a right one). The anti-Bill Gates sentiment is overwhelming even as his foundation has pledged billions of dollars to help develop a vaccine. Misinformation is rampant.
Davis and LaCour's study focuses on mindset, though in the beginning they differentiate cognitive influences from cultural and affective influences. I'm also not sure it's possible to differentiate between affect and cognition. Feelings give rise to cognition; consciousness, at least the perceptive component, is culture-dependent. You simply cannot intellectualize someone's gut feeling away.
Considering the culture of fear that America harbors, it's difficult to imagine how we move beyond science skepticism, even when the science is in our own best interest. What you're looking for determines what you see. At some point a COVID-19 vaccine is going to arrive. That anyone will die after that date due to hesitancy will only add another tragic chapter in this ongoing saga.
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Join Radiolab's Latif Nasser at 1pm ET on Monday as he chats with Malcolm Gladwell live on Big Think.
University of Utah research finds that men are especially well suited for fisticuffs.
- With males having more upper-body mass than women, a study looks to find the reason.
- The study is based on the assumption that men have been fighters for so long that evolution has selected those best-equipped for the task.
- If men fought other men, winners would have survived and reproduced, losers not so much.
Built for mayhem<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzk4NTQ2OX0.my6nML12F3fEQu3H4G0BScdqgaMZkRQHxgyj-Cmjmzk/img.jpg?width=980" id="906fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd77af7a881631355ed8972437846394" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers are, of course, talking averages here, not stating a rule: There are plenty of accomplished female pugilists, as well as lots of males who have no idea how to throw a punch.</p><p>Even so, says co-author <a href="https://www.wofford.edu/academics/majors-and-programs/biology/faculty-and-staff" target="_blank">Jeremy Morris</a> says, "The general approach to understanding why sexual dimorphism evolves is to measure the actual differences in the muscles or the skeletons of males and females of a given species, and then look at the behaviors that might be driving those differences."</p><p>Carrier has been interested in the idea that millennia of male fighting has shaped certain structures in male bodies. Previous research has reinforced his hunch:</p> <ul> <li><a href="https://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/2/236" target="_blank">When a hand is formed into a fist, its structure is self-protective</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://unews.utah.edu/flat-footed-fighters/" target="_blank">Heels planted firmly on the ground augment upper-body power</a>.</li> <li><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24909544" target="_blank">A study examined facial bone structure as being especially well-suited for taking a punch</a>.</li> </ul> <p>(That last one is our favorite. Do you know the German word "<a href="https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Backpfeifengesicht" target="_blank">backpfeifengesicht</a>?" It's an adjective describing "a face that badly needs a punching.")</p><p>"One of the predictions that comes out of those," asserts Carrier, "is if we are specialized for punching, you might expect males to be particularly strong in the muscles that are associated with throwing a punch."</p>
Testing the theory<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjY2NDIzMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzMxMTE2MH0.UXJICMy57UPYUWskhK98alctOrPidJL9yxMkz3HDQrM/img.jpg?width=980" id="98718" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b12287684ac3e740b70392e6433a6b8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Ollyy/Shutterstock<p>The researchers measured the punching — and spear-throwing — force of 20 men and 19 women. The assumption was that early humans were punchers <em>and</em> spear-throwers.</p><p>Prior to testing, each participant had filled out an activity questionnaire so that "we weren't getting couch potatoes, we were getting people that were very fit and active," says Morris.</p><p>For punching, participants operated a hand crank that required movement similar to throwing a haymaker. The purpose of the hand crank was to spare participants any damage that might be inflicted on their fists by throwing actual punches. Subjects were also measured pulling a line forward over their heads to assess their strength at throwing a spear.</p><p>Even though all of the participants, male and female, were routinely fit, the average power of males was assessed as being 162% greater than females. There were no gender differences in throwing strength recorded. Other untested, though presumably likely, hand-to-hand combat activities come to mind including tackling, clubbing, running, kicking, scratching, and biting.</p><p>Carrier's takeaway: "This is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting, and males fighting in a particular way, which is throwing punches."</p>
Boys will be boys<p>It, er, strikes us as odd that, even in science fiction — hi-tech weaponry notwithstanding — the hero <em>is</em> going to wind up duking it out with some bad guy, or alien, in the climactic battle. What is it about men punching, anyway? Are they more sexually attractive? The study suggests so:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>The results of this study add to a set of recently identified characters indicating that sexual selection on male aggressive performance has played a role in the evolution of the human musculoskeletal system and the evolution of sexual dimorphism in hominins.</em></p><p>It's tough to contribute to the gene pool after being killed in battle.</p><p>Also, while the authors aren't <em>quite</em> saying that males' historical fighting role is mandated by biology and not by social expectations, neither are they quite <em>not</em> saying it.</p><p>As Carrier explain to <a href="https://attheu.utah.edu/facultystaff/carrier-punch/" target="_blank">theU</a>: "Human nature is also characterized by avoiding violence and finding ways to be cooperative and work together, to have empathy, to care for each other, right? There are two sides to who we are as a species. If our goal is to minimize all forms of violence in the future, then understanding our tendencies and what our nature really is, is going to help."</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."