Eyal Winter Ph.D.

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The Dangerous Group Bonding Among Anti-Vax Radicals

Why evidence can't help against anti-vax myths.

Posted Jun 15, 2019

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Source: Bixabay/Shutterstock

Doctors, scientists, and health organizations are working hard to undo the harm caused by anti-vaccination myths. Millions are spent on ad campaigns to combat the anti-vax groups without major success. The reason is our total misconception regarding organized anti-vaccination groups, their driving force, psychology, and social role. Anti-vax radicalism is not about vaccination, it is not about children—it's not even about health. It is all about group formation, ingroup bonding, and outgroup aggression. Our evolutionary desire to be group members is a trait without which our hunt-and-gather ancestors would not have survived. This trait shapes our social interaction and social networks, but just like existing diversity in sexual preferences, people display diversity in social preferences.

One form of these preferences is the desire to be a member of a small group with a strong ingroup commitment, exercised through the rejection of outgroup members. This desire can be so strong that the basis that bonds the group becomes irrelevant. This following famous group formation paradigm has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments by social psychologists hundreds of times: You bring together people who don’t know each other to a lab to play strategic games in which people do well when they cooperate with some and compete with others. Before participants enter the lab, they are asked to choose a tag from a pool of tags with two colors: green or blue. These colors have no role in the game whatsoever, but yet it is found again and again that participants form groups based on the color they chose. They play nice and form alliances with those who made the same color choice and compete vigorously against those who chose a different color.

Anti-vax grouping involves precisely the same social phenomenon. Those who spend fortunes to combat them typically limit themselves to try to show them wrong, bringing evidence and appealing to logic and reason. They ignore the fact that anti-vax radicals have an emotional standing. Evidence can be no more effective here than in trying to convince a devoted Christian to convert and become an atheist by demonstrating to him/her that Jesus Christ could not have walked on water. Indeed, this form of group bonding is very expensive to its members. But it is precisely the willingness to pay this cost of risking one’s children that enhances the group bonding. It explicitly demonstrates one’s commitment to the group to be superior over the health of one’s own children.

Without understanding this pathology and finding a social vaccine against it, we would never be able to effectively deal with anti-vaccine enthusiasts and the risk they pose to their children and to ours.