Scolding Anti-Vaxxers Won't Change Their Minds

Many Canadians fist-pumped when they heard CBC host Anna Maria Tremonti eviscerate an anti-vaxxer on Monday's The Current.

Darlene Tindall, a 39-year-old Sudbury mom, yoga instructor and energy medicine practitioner was a prime target for ridicule. In a soothing voice, she spoke about chakras, anecdotal evidence that vaccines leave children "vegetated" and about feeling bullied by the pro-vaccine side.

"Why is it bullying when someone tells you truth?" asked Tremonti in an icy voice. "You're entitled to opinion but you're not entitled to facts."

Boom. It's a sentiment many of us who trust science want to scream amid the current outbreak of measles in Ontario and Quebec. But we should restrain ourselves. If you want to change someone's beliefs, compassion and empathy work infinitely better than humiliation.

In the race to form an opinion, feelings always beat logic. So while it's tempting to snap at anti-vaxxers about how complications due to vaccines are statistically insignificant, an aggressive approach towards non-believers will fall on deaf ears. In fact, citing science can actually strengthen an anti-vaxxer's resolve. "Motivated reasoning" is a social psychology phenomenon where people discredit facts that don't fit with their beliefs and cling to information that reinforces them. It's why some people ignore clues that their partners are being unfaithful. It's why others deny evidence of climate change, the truth about 9/11 and that Obama was born in Hawaii.

If you want to convert someone with different beliefs, find common ground. That's how Tremonti's other guest, Mallory Olsheski, approached vaccine skeptic Darlene Tindall during the same segment. Olsheski, a mother of four, has good reason to put up a fight. Her three-year-old son recently had a heart transplant and can't be vaccinated due to complications. He relies on other children's immunizations to shield him from disease. But instead of aggression, Olsheski used empathy to sweeten her scientific arguments.

"I try very hard to hear your side," she told Tindall. "I'm empathetic with your situation. I believe you love your children we all love our children that's undeniable."

Instantly, Tindall's shield came down: "I guarantee you I will go back and will look at the science and I really do take into consideration families like Mallory's."

When I asked Tindall later why her tone softened, she said: "We're both moms and as far as I can see we both share the same desires for our children." Both moms.

Humans are more receptive to arguments when they feel understood. "We know social cues are important and hearing from other people who are like you can be powerful," says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, "Especially when the communication is respectful." He describes how during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, foreign medical teams were most successful in spreading awareness about disease prevention through trusted community leaders. A study from Yale Law School shows that conservative Republicans were more inclined to believed an article about climate change when the headline read "Scientific Panel Recommends Nuclear Solution to Global Warming" instead of "Scientific Panel Recommends Anti-Pollution Solution to Global Warming." The researcher concluded the former appealed to a pro-industry view. If you want people to eat facts, serve them with like-minded values.

Perhaps the most extreme example of persuasion through empathy is the story of Daryl Davis, a black musician who embedded himself in the Maryland Ku Klux Klan to write a book about the cult. As he befriended members in the 1990s, they started changing their minds about racism. Davis told the CBC he now has up to 18 white hoods in his closet from departed Klan members.

When people's beliefs contradict science, there's an obvious temptation to cut them down. But we should be more careful with how we deliver our arguments. On a policy level, messaging should come from people that communities trust, such as doctors or religious leaders. At the dinner table or on Facebook, try a little empathy. It will help the medicine go down and the immunization rates go up.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen