Can the anti-vaccine movement be convinced with more positive messages?

In the hallway the other day a colleague stopped me and said, “Hey, do you want to see something funny?”

“Sure,” I said, and he showed me the YouTube video called “How Anti-Vaxxers Sound to Normal People.”  The video highlighted that those who choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children do so for reasons that do not make sense, and frankly seem somewhat absurd.  It is a very funny video, and I felt common ground with all aspects of it. We laughed, and then I went back to my daily work of seeing patients.

I thought about the video repeatedly over the following days, and it reminded me of a similarly powerful video I had seen recently as well,  “Penn and Teller on Vaccinations.”  This video portrays two individuals rolling balls through plastic figurines that represented people. The balls, as infectious agents, knock down (kill) the plastic figurines that represented people.  Half of the “population” is protected by a plexiglass board (vaccines), and the other half not.

The purpose of the video is to show how vaccines are extremely effective shields,  protecting individuals from infectious disease (the ball easily wipes out the unprotected people, whereas the people protected by vaccines are not harmed).  What struck me, however, was how angry and adamant the two individuals appear.  I realized that between these two videos, although yes, I agreed with the message, I did not feel very good about them.

I believe that the greatest development in medicine is, hands down, vaccines. Vaccines have saved more lives than any other development in medicine — more than clean water, sanitation or antibiotics. Vaccines are extremely important, and of course, they work best if everyone gets vaccinated. I feel strongly about vaccines, and I understand many others do as well.

However, I wonder if we (the medical social media community) are attempting to make our point in a way that is counterproductive.  In the first video, “anti-vaxxers” are ridiculed and portrayed as somewhat clueless. In the second video, the predominant emotional theme is that of indignant anger. They are very powerful videos in different ways, and yet they are only preaching to the choir.  The videos appeal to those with similar views, but are likely to only further alienate, or marginalize, individuals not interested in vaccines.

A large body of scientific research supports the notion that people learn best through positive experiences and emotions, and meanwhile do not learn well through negative experiences. If the goal is to further alienate those who choose to vaccinate from those who choose not to vaccinate, then we are doing an excellent job. However, if we as a medical community want to sway opinions such that more people get vaccinated, then I suggest we change tactics.  It is easy to ridicule and to climb upon our pedestal and proclaim, but unfortunately, this approach is unlikely to change anybody’s mind.

I suggest we take the more difficult road that does not involve negativity or humor at another’s expense.  A course of action that involves thoughtfulness, creativity, and promoting change through positive emotions is likely to create a greater chance that those who currently do not vaccinate their children may someday change their minds and choose to vaccinate. Isn’t this really what we trying to accomplish?

Portraying vaccination in a positive light to people who are suspicious, skeptical, or who may have unconventional and difficult to understand beliefs is challenging, to say the least. However, this must be the path we pursue if we want more people vaccinated; this must be the path we pursue if we hope to continue to save lives.

John Merrill-Steskal is a family physician who blogs at Triple Espresso MD.

Image credit: HStocks /

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