Understanding Anti-Vaxers

Bob Altemeyer, February, 2023

Do you believe in Santa Claus? Probably not. But suppose you were surrounded by people who did. Suppose in fact that you chose to surround yourself with Santa Believers, soaked up all their beliefs, and studiously ignored the overwhelming evidence that Santa Claus is just a myth. Wouldn’t your chances of becoming a “Santa-istjump way up?

Cognitive psychologists call selective exposure to what you want to believe “confirmation bias,” and Google will lead you to a ton of evidence that it affects people’s thinking. Most of us favor information that shows our beliefs are right and we avoid sources that scurrilously say we are wrong. Theists and atheists, Yankee fans and Red Sox fans, left-wingers and right-wingers. And confirmation bias positively pulses through the veins of “true believers.” Intensely believing in something can make your thinking one-part Correct and nine-parts Biased. This wallpapering of the world with distortion can then lead to yet stronger beliefs, and an idealogue can grow a gnarly, warped view of reality this way. It has probably always been thus, but today it seems this whipsaw back-and-forth combining of confirmation bias and strong believing is leading many people to embrace conspiracy theories that are eroding the foundations of democracy. ­­(See Endnote 1[i])

“Pizzagate” and QAnon

Take QAnon, for example. Its roots go back to a 2016 claim that officials of the Democratic Party were running a Satanic, human trafficking, child abuse operation in the Comet Ping Pong Pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. The evidence? Someone claimed the emails of a Hilary Clinton campaign official contained coded messages to this effect. But anyone can say anything contains coded messages, from winks and blinks to Winnie the Pooh and the Bible. In this case it looks like a couple of guys got drunk and Twittered out the wildest political accusation they could dream up in an election year. However, various anti-Clinton blogs and news sites repeated the charge, and “Pizzagate” was born. No one, from hungry investigative journalists to the D.C. police, found any evidence backing up the story. But many people believed it, right from the start, raising the question, “What wouldn’t they have trusted if it damaged Hillary Clinton?” When you believe something that has no evidence supporting it because you like it, that’s confirmation bias in 24pt print.

QAnon appeared a year later with anonymous postings on an obscure Internet message board by someone who claimed to have a Q clearance for secrets in the American government. This is the highest security clearance in the U.S. Department of Energy, equivalent to a “Top Secret” clearance in the Department of Defense. About 80,000 people had Q clearance in 2017 and nearly ten times that many had a Top Secret clearance.

“Q” claimed the Trump administration was fighting a cabal of cannibalistic pedophiles composed of high-ranking Democrats, government officials, Hollywood insiders, and financiers—many of them Jews—who ran a world-wide child-trafficking scheme.  Almost no one knows about them, Q said, because they are so powerful. They form an entrenched Deep State in the U.S. government that is fighting President Trump on all fronts. But Trump is going to arrest the lot and execute their leaders soon on the day of “The Storm.”

There was every bit as much evidence supporting this conspiracy theory as there was in Pizzagate. Which is to say, as much pineapple as there is on a Hawaiian-pizza-hold-the- pineapple. Questions immediately come to mind. How would someone know about this simply from having a high secret clearance in the Department of Energy? That department looks after nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, so Q might have credible insight into, say, the arms race. But how was “he” party to the president’s plans for dealing with this life-and-death struggle pervading the government? Did any of the other 80,000 “Q’s” also know? Any of the hundreds of thousands of “Top Secrets”? Did this anonymous entity even exist? [1]

If you are willing to believe things for which there is no evidence, you have a lot to choose from. One would only believe this if one already wanted to. NBC News discovered later that three Internet pros did want to, or at least they wanted other people to (https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531). These real conspirators agreed to call attention to Q’s messages even though it meant they might make lots of money by doing so. They did, and they did as tens of thousands ate it up. The influencers moved to mainstream venues and their audience exploded. QAnons began showing up at Trump rallies, and he increasingly embraced them.

Part of the QAnon appeal lay in the fact that, like any conspiracy theory with unrestricted access to fantasy, it cannot be disproven. Why didn’t the D.C. police find evidence of child torture in the back of the pizza shop? Because they were part of the cabal, a true believer could say. Or if they did, the chief of police squelched the evidence. Or the FBI snuck in and cleaned the restaurant every night. And so on. Any objection that would pop the fantasy—such as, “How is it possible Republicans did not know what these murderous Democrats were up to?”—can be “refuted” by “That just shows how powerful the conspirators are.”

If you have nothing to do with the rest of your life, try disproving a conspiracy theory, especially to someone captured in its talons. But as attractive as a theory that “explains everything” may be, it poses a great danger: If it is wrong, you cannot find out. Especially if the true believer ignores predictions about things that fail to occur, such as “the Storm” and QAnon’s insistence that Donald Trump would be re-inaugurated president in 2021 https://www.newsweek.com/qanon-trump-march4-predictions-failed-1573739 . When you want to believe that badly, you are leaping out of a plane with a bundle strapped to you that might be a parachute, but also might be full of confetti.

QAnon Engulfs the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Soon millions upon millions of Americans would make such a leap over vaccinations, and many would hit reality hard and die. The QAnon conspiracy theory had nothing to do with vaccinations. But when the COVID pandemic broke out, QAnon provided a rich seedbed for theories that a small, extremely secret group of extremely powerful people was using the disease to attain world domination. Various Internet blogs and far-right news programs screamed that these conspirators controlled governments, medical researchers were compliant, the mainstream media were full of lies, and the reports of deaths were fake.

Soon, the only way to gain an audience in the anti-vax movement was to come up with a more sensational and dire assertion. Thus, it was claimed Chinese leaders had created the virus for their partners in the cabal such as Bill Gates, George Soros, the Rothschilds, and baby-eating Democratic Party leaders. And the vaccines had not been tested. And they could be used to track everybody, or change your DNA. And the bodies piling up in morgues showed the vaccinations, not the virus, were killing people. And the World Health Organization’s drive to inoculate everybody on the planet showed the goal was to kill everyone. And government leaders and scientists who fought the New Order had been replaced by traitorous clones who are leading humanity to destruction. And so on.

This is so crazy, it must be the work of a crazy person. Why would Super Communists be working hand in glove with Super Capitalists? How come so many people know about the secret cabal? If it is so very powerful, why hasn’t it swatted down the folks “exposing” it day-after-day? How could an injection change the DNA in your body? What would a cabal do after it killed everybody else ? How do you make a clone that believes the opposite of what the original believed?

But developing inner logic and outer plausibility is playing against the rules in a conspiracy theory. The more impossible its assertions, the more attention it draws. The more it blows your mind, the greater the appeal to join the insightful who have penetrated its secrets. The wilder the conspiracy, the greater the fear it creates. One has to give the anti-vaccination conspiracy theory an A+ for Mind Blowing, Implausible, and Scary.

However, believing these things puts one at considerable risk personally. The death rate from COVID among unvaccinated persons is about 800% that of the mortality rate among the vaccinated https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-compare-covid-deaths-for-vaccinated-and-unvaccinated-people/ . If you escape death, you will probably be sick for some time, maybe the rest of your life. Almost everybody knows somebody who has gotten the disease and suffered from it. Why do so many people resist getting vaccinated?

Who Are the Anti-Vaxers?

Human beings are the most complicated things we have discovered yet in the universe, and no one factor explains why people become anti-vaxers. Some Americans have a strong libertarian point of view that resents any governmental interference in their lives. They were mightily offended by requirements of social distancing and masking before anti-COVID vaccines even existed, and they got really offended when businesses and stadiums were shut down to protect public health. Others had personal experiences with law enforcement and courts on quite unrelated issues (e.g., divorce judgments, zoning rulings) that convinced them that “the government” was their enemy. Some had long ago immersed themselves in supposed government coverups from the assassination of JFK to 9/11. Others are confused by the complexity of modern times, or threatened by changes in society and social norms, or are looking for someone to blame for their not making more headway in life. Being socially isolated and being mentally ill could also lead someone to exploring the conspiracy. But once you went into the rabbit hole, for whatever reason, the vacuous ideas passionately espoused by true believers could suck you down so deeply you could never get out.

A survey of a large sample of American adults conducted in June 2021 by the Public Religion Research Institute provides the best demographic insight into who falls down the hole (https://www.prri.org/research/religious-vaccines-covid-vaccination/ ). It found that 71% of its respondents had by then accepted vaccinations against COVID, with nearly all of them having received at least one inoculation. About half of the unvaccinated  29% were hesitant to get inoculated, but said they might get a shot to (say) keep their jobs. The rest said they flat out refused to be vaccinated. Comparison with a survey three months earlier showed opposition to vaccinations had dropped markedly among the “hesitants,” but the number of “stick it in your ear” refusers had barely budged (14% to 13%).

You may not be surprised that Republicans proved more likely (37%) to eschew vaccination than Independents (29%) and Democrats (15%). The finding that persons with less than a four-year college education were more likely (36%) than average to be unvaccinated may also seem predictable. But would you have guessed that the unvaccinated would especially be found among white Protestant evangelicals (45%)? Furthermore, nearly a quarter (24%) of these evangelicals were hard-line refusers who telegraphed unbending resistance to inoculation.

Let’s not overgeneralize. Do the results show most white Christian evangelicals are anti-vaxers? No. But you’ll find more unvaccinated Americans in this demographic category than in any other. Why in God’s name (so to speak) should this be? There’s nothing about inoculations in the Bible. And vaccinations have nothing to do with the issue that energizes fundamentalists most: abortion. [2] [3]

The research-blessed explanations  go back to childhood teachings, mainly from parents who had no idea they were shaping behaviors that would someday make their children vulnerable to a plague. For example, when you ask people to recall how they learned who they were, evangelicals are notably likely to say their identity centered as far back as they can remember on being members of a particular faith. It became a defining feature of their lives, an anchor, and it seemingly laid a template at an early age for dividing humanity into an Us vs. Them ethnocentrism that underlies so much of their adult thinking. A two-minute discussion with an anti-vaxer on almost any topic will reveal this marked splitting of the world into (just) two categories. It underlies most of their beliefs. It’s how they learned to view people, and it makes them vulnerable to conspiracy theories which enfold them in a very select “Us” who know “what’s really going on.”

This way of thinking can nourish poisonous attitudes. Study after study has found that white fundamentalist Christians as a whole harbor more racial and ethnic prejudice than any other major religious group. Conspiracy theories have long been carriers of antisemitism. You could start a rumor that car mechanics are plotting to take over the world, and by the time it got back to you it would be about Jewish car mechanics. Additionally, ethnocentric minds instantly categorize people as white or nonwhite, and many evangelicals hold white supremist views. They are drawn to QAnon’s adoption of white replacement theory, the notion that the government is plotting to create a nonwhite majority in the USA, even using the COVID vaccine to kill off white Americans so it can replace them with nonwhites.

Fundamentalists also show a marked inclination for one-sided searches for truth at an early age. Many people have doubts about religion during adolescence. Evangelicals report that when these doubts arose, they went to their parents for guidance. Or to priests and pastors, or to the Bible, or to talking with friends who held the same beliefs. It was a one-sided search and not surprisingly the young fundamentalists almost always decided their beliefs were right. Non-fundamentalists did these things as well, but they also read what nonbelievers had to say, delved into the science on issues, and talked with nonbelieving friends. And they changed their beliefs more often. Immersing yourself in one-sided arguments, which anti-vaxers do when shunning mainstream news outlets and avoiding blogs that expose the weaknesses of their position, shows confirmation bias in 32pt print. Evangelicals were taught to do this, and rewarded for it, almost all of their lives.

Why aren’t anti-vaxers moved by the near-unanimous statements from scientists about the dangers of the virus and the value of vaccinations? Well, religious fundamentalists have been at war with science for generations, and they were taught as children that when science contradicts their beliefs, science will always be wrong. Battles have been fought over the age of the Earth, the evolution of the species, the creation of humans, the origins of scriptures, the existence of races, “demonic possession,” inherent gender differences, and so on up to the biological basis of sexual orientation. Because they were primed to believe that new, unsettling ideas showed “Them” at work, evangelicals doubted climate change was occurring longer than the oil companies did. And in all of these fights, science proved right. But fundamentalists still believe science is always wrong when it conflicts with their beliefs.

If this strikes you as dogmatism, experiments have shown that religious fundamentalists can stick to their guns no matter what the evidence says—even evidence from their most trusted source. If you read the four Gospel accounts of Easter morning, you will find they present highly inconsistent and at times downright contradictory accounts of what happened. But many religious fundamentalists will insist no inconsistencies or contradictions exist, despite such being pointed out and despite the evidence coming from the Bible itself. The childhood learning that “The Bible is perfect” outweighs what’s in the Bible itself. Dogmatic people say there is no evidence that can convince them they are wrong, and they mean it. Faith ranks foremost among the cardinal virtues. So, if you try to present evidence about the value of vaccinations to an evangelical anti-vaxer, do not be surprised if you’re just pissing into the wind. Even if you win every point, he’ll call it a draw and keep on believing.

If you are now thinking that such dogmatism betrays an underlying anxiety in some anti-vaxers that they have jumped out of the plane without that parachute, you may be right. Our most private thoughts do not always mesh with our public behavior.  For example, under special circumstances many fundamentalists will say they have doubts about God’s very existence that they have never revealed to anyone. So on a deep level, they may fear “it ain’t necessarily so.” But they staunchly proclaim the opposite to others—and themselves.

Lacking a studied basis for their beliefs developed from facts and reason, fundamentalists rely on social reinforcement to maintain their opinions. They believe what they believe because the people they choose to believe believe it. This approach buys them a golden ticket to being wrong, and it makes them vulnerable to fraudsters who appreciate how much evangelicals will pay to be told they are right. Experiments have shown that persons with this needy outlook can be highly gullible. They will ignore warning signs that someone is faking his beliefs to gain their acceptance, and money, and votes because “the con” gives them so much of what they want: social reinforcement of views that collapse without it.

Fear drives much of fundamentalists’ behavior. Their parents taught them that the world was sinful and dangerous. You would expect then that they would be highly anxious about a contagious disease. And they did indeed become petrified over AIDS. They wanted children kept from schools and workers fired from their jobs even after it became clear you had to go to bed with someone with AIDS or share syringes with them to risk contracting the disease.

So why do so many fundamentalists expose themselves to COVID by refusing to wear masks and attending super-spreader events? For one thing, crowds of people wearing masks in public had a foreign, mainly Asiatic connotation. Images of everyone in Chinese cities complying with strict containment rules created the association between wearing masks and being subservient coolies in a Communist regime. As well, President Trump almost never wore one, even after he caught COVID, and he pointedly ignored the guidelines for social distancing. Yet more important, the plague became a sign to some fundamentalists that the world was about to end, and wearing a mask showed you would be playing on Satan’s team in the titanic struggle ahead.

What? Well, evangelicals eagerly anticipate the “End Days” when Jesus will return to earth and vanquish the forces of evil. To some fundamentalists the worldwide COVID pandemic signaled the end of the world, when the Mother-of-All-Ethnocentric-Events would take place as the Saved cashed in their faith and the Unsaved got what was coming to them. One of the precursors of this momentous event, it is said, will be the appearance of the Antichrist, whose followers will wear “the mark of the beast.” Many interpretations have bubbled up over past centuries as to what that mark will be—all of them wrong, one has to conclude. The belief began to circulate on the Internet that the Antichrist’s minions, the “Thems” themselves, could be identified because they wore anti-COVID masks. Jesus knew this was how things would end, it was proclaimed, and that’s why he says over and over in the Gospels not to wear “masks” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2021/02/16 /covid-vaccine-misinformation-evangelical-mark-beast/

Not all evangelicals believe this, any more than all evangelicals are highly ethnocentric, prejudiced, anti-science, and so on. But the anti-vax movement gave generally fearful people something even scarier than COVID to avoid at all costs: vaccinations. Yes, you might get the virus if you were unlucky. But if you got vaccinated, you were warned, you would for sure get all the diseases and mind-control devices hidden in the vaccine. So as afraid as overly fearful people might be of the virus, they became terrified of the vaccine.

What’s To Be Done?

Even catching the COVID disease does not convince many anti-vaxers they have been massively misled. They instead insist they have something else and the doctors are lying— because they are part of the conspiracy, or because hospitals get more money by reporting COVID cases. Or yeah, they were unlucky and caught the disease. But it was still smarter than getting vaccinated, which was sure to kill you or turn you into a mindless robot.

There’s probably nothing that will help committed anti-vaxers change their views. Many of them have already lost  precious relationships  as their spouses, parents, children, and best friends will not believe the ideas that have set them on fire. If such tremendous losses fail to bring them back to reality, arguing with them will almost surely prove ineffective. Some of them may twitch a bit when the latest sensational QAnon prediction falls flat on its face. But most anti-vaxers will reinterpret the prediction, or just ignore the failure and eagerly wait for the next one. They have been successfully vaccinated against ever catching the truth.

While Staunch Believers seem hopeless, we can try to help people who have just begun poking their noses around the rabbit hole not to slide down it. If someone you know is developing an interest in this (or any) conspiracy theory, try to figure out why. As noted earlier, people often have underlying reasons for investing in strange beliefs. They may have trouble understanding a confusing world. They could need help overcoming personal problems. They might need to belong to a group that will value them. Many people probably clutch at conspiracy theories as a way of dealing with a basic shortfall in their lives. Can you help deal with that underlying shortfall?

As well, one can confront the conspiracy theory itself—in the early stages of its adoption. It’s probably better to channel Socrates than Angry Drill Sergeant in this situation. Asking, “How does this conspiracy hide from everybody?” will likely coax more thoughtful hesitation in a potential believer than, “That is the stupidest thing I ever heard!” Ditto, “How come so many people have heard of it if the plotters are so powerful?” “How can an injection put an electronic device in your body that lets the government track you?” “Why didn’t Trump lock up Hillary when he had the chance?” The more often you elicit a response of, “I don’t know,” the better the chance that the person will realize he is walking the plank.

In the long run, we have to do a better job helping people think critically. One research-blessed approach is based upon a 1960s’ discovery called, ironically in the present context, inoculation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inoculation_theory . The social psychologist William McGuire discovered that people had little resistance to attacks on cultural truisms, such as X-rays are good medical tools. He found that outlandish claims that even low-level X-rays severely damaged organs convinced people that X-rays were dangerous. The average person had no defense against the claims because they had “just believed” what they had been told earlier about X-rays.

But if people had previously seen an attack on X-rays successfully refuted, even if that attack targeted some other aspect of X-ray use, the claim about damaging organs was unpersuasive. These people had been inoculated against catching Stupid on the subject. So, proponents of anti-COVID vaccination might usefully refute attacks on inoculations in advance. Pick one or two assertions that are easily exploded. The effect may well generalize in people’s thinking, and it may keep some of them, who might otherwise be seduced by the Chills and Thrills of QAnon, from falling into the deep end.

In the longer long run, we should be encouraging our children, in school, to examine “facts” and cherish sound evidence. We should be teaching them to test beliefs for internal consistency. We should help them learn that one should believe something because the evidence supports it, not just because one can imagine it or want it to be true. We should help them appreciate the inherent danger in strongly believing ideas that cannot be tested. Some people learn to do these things from experience. We should help others learn how to protect themselves by examining claims and deciding for themselves.

If I were teaching a social studies class in middle school or high school, and could create a lesson plan on this topic, I would give my students the following assignment.

“I want you to think up a wrong idea. Like, ‘Water is dry, not wet,’ and ‘Cars would be more stable if they had just one front wheel.’ But see if you can think of a wrong idea that looks like it’s true. Like ‘The earth is flat’ or ‘Trees die in the autumn because they lose their leaves.’ The more it looks like it might be true, the better. But the important thing is, you have to be able to prove it is not really true. Pictures from space prove the Earth is a globe. Trees that grow new leaves in the spring obviously did not die.”

“You have to include your proof when you do the assignment. For example, ‘Some people say they can find underground water with magical dowsing rods. But when they try to do it in experiments, according to Wikipedia they fail.’ The idea has to be shown it’s wrong. It can’t just be your opinion that it is wrong.”

Getting the students to think up deceptive “truths” might be worthwhile in itself, but I would present the best ones (the most glamorous, the most deceptive, the ones harder to disprove) to the class and invite the students to tear them apart. If I didn’t get very many of these, I’d offer some of my own. (A good source is back issues of a magazine called The Skeptical Inquirer.) The whole point is to get the students to critically evaluate ideas. I’d present the various reasons for turning thumbs down on a proposition or at least withholding judgment. I’d point out that since many false ideas fail when tested, testing is important. And proposals that contradict much of what else is known merit suspicion. And some ideas are dangerous because, while they might be true (“If you drink this poison, you will not die.”) you can’t take the chance that they are false.

A month later, I’d give the class the same assignment and see if there was evidence the exercise had a beneficial effect. Hypotheses should be tested.

Anti-Vaxers and Free Speech

In 1993 I gave a talk to a Jewish group in Winnipeg about my research on hate literature.[4] Repeated experiments had convinced me that Holocaust Denial is “effective.” That is, pamphlets that made absurd claims (e.g. the prisoners at Auschwitz staged jolly operettas) to assert the Holocaust is a Jewish fiction made university students less likely to believe the Holocaust had occurred.  Even students who had just seen Schindler’s List were affected. (I always refuted every claim made in the denial piece at the end of the experiment, aiming for a big inoculation effect.)

Some of the people who heard my talk that night were Holocaust survivors, and many others were related to, or knew someone who had perished in this signature horror of the 20th Century. I asked the group attending my talk if I should publish my findings. After all, news that Holocaust Denial “works” was probably going to encourage more denial—posing a threat to them, their children, their grandchildren, and Jews in general. My listeners urged me to continue doing research to make sure the conclusion was right, but otherwise to report the results. The consensus was, “If this is true, it should not be hidden.” This showed, to my mind, a courageous commitment to free speech.

Free speech in a democracy quietly assumes that people can think straight and will. That letting everybody have the right to state what is true will pay off in the long run because a herd immunity to falsehoods will develop. But if large parts of the population fall for nonsense as blatant as Pizzagate and QAnon and the anti-vaccination conspiracies, we’re in trouble. And I’d say we are.


[1]  Peter Benchley wrote a spy novel in 1986 entitled “Q” Clearance, and whoever reshaped the Pizzagate Conspiracy into this one may have erroneously thought that a “Q” rating gave one access to the very highest and deepest of government secrets. It does not. Furthermore, a system of security clearances is necessarily quite restrictive. A Top Secret clearance does not give you access to all the top secrets the government has, but only those you need to do your job. Q didn’t seem to know this. He may not even be a federal employee, much less one with an important job somewhere. Q issued the last of his 5,000-odd “Q Drops” in December, 2021, and I would not be surprised if he stopped posting his absurd and often incomprehensible messages because someone got him on the right meds.

[2] The generalizations that follow are based on research using the Religious Fundamentalism Scale. Persons who call themselves “evangelicals” score very highly on this scale, and I use the terms “fundamentalists” and “evangelicals” interchangeably. You will find details for the studies being described here in Chapter 4 of my book, The Authoritarians, which is free and two clicks away on this website. Other findings were reported in Authoritarian Nightmare by John Dean and myself, published by Melville House.  More technical accounts are available in The Authoritarian Specter published by Harvard University Press.

[3] White evangelicals usually score highly on an authoritarianism measure centered on belief in submitting to “the proper authorities.” You can bet that evangelicals who are anti-vaxers have very different ideas from most people as to who the proper authorities are.

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­[4] Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter, 1996, Chapter 10. See also Note 12 on pages 343-4). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Endnote 1.  A group can force “sources” to give it false information. Court documents released in February 2023 showed that various Fox News executives and commentators did not believe the 2020 election had been stolen. But when Trump told his followers to watch a different news channel instead of “disloyal” Fox, and viewership dropped, the network stopped fact-checking his claims and began earnestly preaching the stolen election conspiracy theory to an audience whose message could not have been clearer: “Tell us what we want to hear, or we’ll find someone who will” (https://www.cnn.com/2023/02/16/media/fox-news-stars-executives-court-documents/index.html ). Fox News said the comments made by its executives and commentators were taken out of context, (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/us-politics/article-fox-news-was-aware-vote-rigging-claims-were-false-dominion-says-as/ ).