Study finds anti-vaxxers’ views hard to change

A new Princeton University study looked at individuals and their beliefs and attitudes about COVID-19 almost two years after a worldwide pandemic was declared. The study examined the effects of cognitive dissonance on people’s attitudes and beliefs as they relate to COVID-19 safety precautions. 

The study, “Fostering COVID-19 Safe Behaviors Using Cognitive Dissonance,” was recently published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 

Psychology graduate student Logan Pearce and psychology professor Joel Cooper studied 101 participants and separated them into four groups. One was subjected to cognitive dissonance while three control groups focused on advocacy, mindfulness or neither. All three control groups watched a short video that encouraged mask-wearing and other anti-virus measures but did overtly bring attention to inconsistencies in participants’ beliefs and actions.

Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change. Pearce and Cooper applied the cognitive dissonance principle to one group by examining participants’ attitudes toward specific COVID-19 mitigation guidelines such as how wearing masks can help slow the spread of the deadly virus.  

It’s known that cognitive dissonance can prompt someone to make positive changes when they realize their beliefs and actions are at odds. It can also be problematic if it leads someone to justify or rationalize behaviors that could be harmful.

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 67 and came from 18 countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Poland and Portugal. Pearce and Cooper also asked participants whether or not they would take the COVID vaccines, which at the time of the study were not readily available.  

Speaking on Zoom, Pearce told the MSR that the historical fear of medicine and medical personnel, especially among Blacks and underserved communities, can be a significant hindrance for some to get vaccinated or adhere to COVID guidelines. “This trust within the Black community toward medicine…has been really, really terrible,” stressed Pearce.  

Logan Pearce

“We did not find a significant difference in outcomes between men and women,” Pearce pointed out. “We actually ended up getting a lot of international people because it was an online platform” due to COVID restrictions.

However, among the control groups, “We found that the mindfulness group was a little worse than all of the different conditions,” admitted Pearce.

After nearly two years into the pandemic, Pearce said she still doesn’t understand why some people are still not wearing masks in public or seeing the COVID vaccine as important for their health and safety. Only half of the study respondents told her that they “always” or “mostly” wear their masks in public or in close contact with others.  

“This is going to be part of our lives for a long while,” she said of the virus. “It is not going to go away next year or next spring. [The virus] is something that’ll be a part of our lives in some respects.

“I’d love to convince the anti-vaxxers,” said Pearce, “but I honestly don’t know what can convince them at this point. I thought, ‘It’s easier to convince people who already think it’s the right thing to do, but they’re still not doing it.”

The Princeton graduate student hopes that the study will help encourage more appointments for vaccinations, continued mask-wearing, and social distancing, especially among all communities, including underserved ones. She and her professor also suggest holding contests in which people compete by writing or recording compelling arguments to become vaccinated.

Pearce said that her next research project will use the same cognitive dissonance model on individuals getting the COVID-19 booster and flu shots, whether or not they like getting shots, any bad side effects after getting their shots, and if they believe that getting vaccinated will work or not.