This is a familiar contention.
But there’s not much evidence for it.
The principal basis for the claim consists in impressionistic reconstructions of popular and historical sources.
Some thoughtful researchers have also presented empirical data (Clifford & Wendell 2015). Although interesting and suggestive, these data show only a weak, uneven correlation between popular attitudes toward vaccination & disgust sensitivity.
What’s more, the study in which these data were presented didn't examine the relationship between disgust sensibilities and attitudes toward any other issues.
If disgust “drives” antivax sentiment, then presumably disgust’s influence on vaccine attitudes should “look like” its influence on other policy and risk attitudes that we have good reason to think are disgust driven. By “look like” I mean should have a comparably strong effect, and be in the same direction as the impact of disgust on these attitudes and policies.
By the same token, it disgust is a meaningful influence on vaccine attitudes, then the relationship between the two shouldn’t “look like” the relationship, or basically nonrelationship, that exists between disgust and policy and risk attitudes that we have good reason to think aren’t disgust driven.
This sort of external validation test is essential given how spotty the reported correlations are between disgust sensitives and vaccine attitudes.
Well, some colleagues and I collected data that enables this sort of evaluation. In my view, it weights strongly against the asserted disgust-antivax thesis.
There are more data than I’ll present today, but for a start, consider how disgust relates to support for the policy of mandatory universal childhood immunization.
To measure disgust, we used the conventional “pathogen disgust” scale, which other researchers (Clifford & Wendell 2015) have reported to be correlated with vaccine attitudes.
To measure subjects’ attitudes toward mandatory universal childhood immunizations, we asked them to tell us on a six-point scale how strongly they supported or opposed “requiring children who are not exempt for medical reasons to be vaccinated against measles, mumps, and rubella.”
To enable the comparison that I described, we also measured how strongly subjects supported or opposed a collection of other policies that one would expect to be either related or unrelated to disgust sensitivities.
In relation to the former, we observed the expected result. Disgust sensitives (modestly) predicted opposition to gay marriage and legalization of prostitution.
They also predicted support for making Christianity the “official religion” of the US and for imposing the death penalty for murder, policies that reflect moral evaluations—“purity” in connection with the former and “punitiveness” in relation to the latter (e.g., Stevenson et al. 2015)—that are understood to have a nexus with disgust.
Likewise we observed that disgust sensitivities were inert in relation to policies one would expect not to be related to disgust. There was no meaningful relationship between disgust, e.g., and support for raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans, for legalizing on-line poker, or for amending the Constitution to permit prohibiting corporate campaign contributions.
Okay, then. So what about universal mandatory vaccination?
Well, contrary to the disgust-antivax thesis, It turned out that there was no meaningful relationship between support or opposition to that policy and disgust, as reflected in this standard measure. Indeed, the very small effect we observed was in the opposite direction from what that thesis posits—that is, as disgust sensitivities increased, so did support for universal immunization, although by a factor no serious researcher would take seriously (r = 0.07, p < 0.05).
In sum, the relationship between disgust sensitives and vaccine policy attitudes “looks” identical to the relationship between disgust and policies disgust-unrelated policies and nothing like the relationship between disgust and disgust-related ones. Not what one would expect to see in the evidence if in fact the disgust-antivax hypothesis were correct.
There’s more, as I said. I’ll get to it “tomorrow.”
But if disgust doesn’t drive antivax sensibilities, what does?
The answer, I think, is that nothing systematically does.
Contrary to the popular media trope, there is tremendous support for mandatory vaccination in the US (Kahan 2016; CCP 2014; Kahan 2013)—a point I’ve stressed repeatedly in this blog & that is reaffirmed by the 80%-level of support reflected in the policy item featured here.
As also emphasized a zillion times, this level of support is uniform across cultural and political and religious groups of all descriptions. Among the groups that bitterly disagree on issues like climate change and evolution, there is consensus that universal immunization against common childhood diseases is a great idea.
This makes vaccine hesitancy a “boutique” risk perception—one that is held only by fringe elements for reasons that have no wider resonance with the groups of which those individuals are a part & in which risk perceptions normally take shape.
For that reason, what “drives” anti-vaccine sentiment will always evade detection by broad-based survey techniques.
To help address the problem of vaccine hesitancy—and it is a problem, even if it is confined to opinion-group fringes and geographic enclaves--researchers shouldn’t be using survey methods but should instead by using more fine-grained tools like behaviorally validated screening instruments (Opel et. al. 2013).
This is one of the points made in an excellent report recently by the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Vaccine Advisory Committee (2015).
Researchers should read it. Everyone else should, too.
Clifford, S., & Wendell, D. G. (2015). How Disgust Influences Health Purity Attitudes. Political Behavior, 1-24. doi: 10.1007/s11109-015-9310-z
Horberg, E., Oveis, C., Keltner, D., & Cohen, A. B. (2009). Disgust and the moralization of purity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 963-.
Opel, D. J., Taylor, J. A., Zhou, C., Catz, S., Myaing, M., & Mangione-Smith, R. (2013). The relationship between parent attitudes about childhood vaccines survey scores and future child immunization status: A validation study. JAMA Pediatr, 167(11), 1065-1071. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.2483
Stevenson, M. C., Malik, S. E., Totton, R. R., & Reeves, R. D. (2015). Disgust Sensitivity Predicts Punitive Treatment of Juvenile Sex Offenders: The Role of Empathy, Dehumanization, and Fear. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 15(1), 177-197. doi: 10.1111/asap.12068