Beliefs about Childhood Vaccination in the United States: Political Ideology, False Consensus, and the Illusion of Uniqueness

Rabinowitz, Mitchell; Latella, Lauren; Stern, Chadly; Jost, John T.

Several contagious diseases were nearly eradicated through childhood vaccination, but some parents have decided in recent years not to fully vaccinate their children, raising new public health concerns. The question of whether and how beliefs about vaccination are linked to political ideology has been hotly debated. This study investigates the effects of ideology on perceptions of harms and benefits related to vaccination as well as judgments of others’ attitudes. A total of 367 U.S. adults (131 men, 236 women; Mage = 34.92 years, range = 18–72) completed an online survey through Mechanical Turk. Results revealed that liberals were significantly more likely to endorse pro-vaccination statements and to regard them as “facts” (rather than “beliefs”), in comparison with moderates and conservatives. Whereas conservatives overestimated the proportion of like-minded others who agreed with them, liberals underestimated the proportion of others who agreed with them. That is, conservatives exhibited the “truly false consensus effect,” whereas liberals exhibited an “illusion of uniqueness” with respect to beliefs about vaccination. Conservative and moderate parents in this sample were less likely than liberals to report having fully vaccinated their children prior to the age of two. A clear limitation of this study is that the sample is not representative of the U.S. population. Nevertheless, a recognition of ideological sources of potential variability in health-related beliefs and perceptions is a prerequisite for the design of effective forms of public communication.