In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology researchers examine the link between conspiracy mindsets and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines for children in the US. They find that 17% of their sample that strongly held a “conspiratorial mindset” tended to be sceptical of government authorities and health agencies. They were also more likely to believe misinformation about vaccination and COVID-specific conspiracies.  

Conspiracies and COVID-19  

The authors use a 2021 definition of conspiracy belief as the judgement that it is probably that an “actor or group of actors…is secretly working to produce an unlawful or harmful outcome for others in society”. Theories about COVID-19 and subsequent vaccination campaigns have entered social circulation during the pandemic. These range from claims that it is a government creation to the suggestion that 5G towers were contributing to the spread.  

“The acceptance of such conspiracy theories has been especially problematic because of their association with vaccination hesitancy.” 

In this paper the researchers demonstrate that people who held a conspiratorial mindset prior to the pandemic not only doubted the credibility of health authorities and the value of other vaccines, like the MMR vaccines, but were more likely to accept misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines during the pandemic.  

The study 

The research draws on data from a nationally representative probability sample drawn randomly from the SSRS Opinion Panel of US adults over the age of 18. Panel members were randomly recruited with almost 2,000 completing the first wave of the survey in April 2021. The survey moved through a list of items as follows: 

  • Assessment of respondent’s COVID-19 vaccination status  
  • Questions about the trustworthiness of various health authorities 
  • Knowledge regarding vaccination in general as well as towards COVID-19 
  • Belief in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccination and the pandemic 
  • Conspiracy mindset items  
  • Media use 
  • Demographic information 

During the 5th and 6th waves of the study, questions about childhood COVID-19 vaccination were asked.  

What did the study find? 

The authors state that a “discernible segment of the US population (about 17%) held a conspiratorial mindset toward the government in general and toward US health agencies in particular”. Those who held conspiratorial mindsets were more likely to accept various forms of misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccination in general and for COVID-19. The model also predicted that people holding such a mindset would seek media that promoted conspiracy theories, avoiding mainstream media. This prediction was supported, with “conservative media”, which has historically “promoted various conspiracies” and misinformation, appealing most.  

The authors conclude that a conspiracy mindset remains a powerful factor underlying adult reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to recommend COVID-19 vaccination for children between the ages of 5 and 11 in the US. Dr Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre and lead author, commented that the findings “forecast challenges for the future control of childhood infections”. 

“Although the CDC continues to recommend vaccination for COVID-19 in children of school age, persons with a conspiratorial view are clearly not accepting the recommendation.” 

Have you had to encourage adults with conspiratorial mindsets to get themselves or their children vaccinated? Do you agree with the study findings? Make sure you check out the full paper here, and don’t forget to subscribe for more.

We are looking forward to our Vaccine Hesitancy and Misinformation workshop on 16th October in Barcelona, led by Dr Angus Thomson. Join us by getting your tickets here!