In light of the recent measles outbreak primarily affecting California, there need to be more conversations about the necessity of vaccinations. People supporting and condemning the idea of vaccination have begun discussions quickly and run into the ground regarding, essentially, the ethics of forcing people to get vaccinated or to vaccinate their children.
People are having two major conversations, one regarding the general policies that ought to be enacted regarding vaccination and participation in certain social institutions, such as schools. In this case, we address whether it is appropriate to restrict children’s access to education, to bar them from being in school, for the sake of the safety of the collective. Some factions, as a result of this outbreak, are now moving toward mandatory vaccination in schools.
The other side of the debate is more focused on the idea of convincing parents that vaccination is a good thing. It is frustrating for vaccine advocates who are met with continued opposition to their ideas. Researchers have proven vaccines to be effective through extensive research. Moreover, they have also demonstrated that there isn’t any significant connection between the administration of vaccinations and the development of autism.
Yet some skeptics are still adamant about remaining without vaccinations. There are those who argue that not getting vaccinated is a way to exercise their political freedom. However, with this outbreak, we have seen that not getting vaccinated can put the health of many others at risk. The Constitution does not protect our freedoms when we exercise our freedom in a way that puts others in harm’s way.
Especially in cases where skeptics recognize the validity of arguments for vaccines, the continued resistance comes from a place not of dysfunctional logic but more likely of a deep-seated set of beliefs, or from a predisposition to a psychological bias against the idea of vaccination. These are the people who are most difficult to convince.
A psychological bias can be something as simple as our predisposition to less action as opposed to more. This sort of bias may lead a parent not to vaccinate their child simply because vaccination requires action, which requires some sort of change to be made. It’s much easier to keep going in the way that you are than to change a course. A strict belief system would prevent said believers from accepting the same logic as that based on a different set of beliefs, such as those that place faith in scientific inquiry. If a feeling on a topic is not rooted in reason, it is highly unlikely that persuasion via reason, a logical appeal, will be even remotely effective.
However, this does not mean that we need to throw our hands up in defeat. It simply means that the focus of persuasion ought to be shifted from an appeal to logic to an appeal to credibility or an appeal to emotion.
An appeal to ethos, leveraging a speaker’s credibility to persuade the audience, could be effective. Appeal to ethos would function by getting the anti-vaccine advocate to trust the pro-vaccine advocate as a person. If the audience trusts the speaker, the pro-vaccinator would be more easily able to convince the anti-vaccinator without necessarily having a cleanly structured logical argument. However, this would likely be ineffective if the audience had really strongly rooted beliefs or was suspicious of speakers with a charisma that would generally make that speaker seem trustworthy.
In order to reach the anti-vaccinators who will not be convinced by logical argument or speaker credibility, we need to use a different approach: through emotion. One way to do this could be talking about things that are more important than beliefs regarding the vaccination process. Thus, it would make more sense to use narratives, the stories of actual people that will pull at the heartstrings of non-endorsers. It is important that there be a variety of narrative structures and perspectives so that the anti-vaccinators do not feel as though stories from a single fringe group, containing negative impacts from not getting vaccinated, target them.
Presumably, the parents against vaccination are only opposed to the idea because they believe it will somehow negatively impact their children. We need to focus on emotionally persuading parents that vaccination will be best for their children’s physical, social and emotional health. If we can, they might be more willing to sacrifice their presumptions not only for the greater good but also for what is more immediately important to the parent: the good of the child.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.