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The Psychology of Vaccine Fear

The Psychology of Vaccine FearI was reading the other day about the rise in the percentage of parents who opt-out of having their kids vaccinated. This was in California, so it may not apply to the entire country. But there is a disturbing uptick of parents — especially those who enroll their children in private schools — who don’t get their kids vaccinated.

Three times as many private versus public schools don’t make the grade. More than 15 percent of the private schools in California failed to reach a 90 percent immunization rate, compared with 5 percent in public schools. Ninety percent is what public health officials believe is the minimal rate needed in order to keep many of these childhood diseases at bay.

This rate has doubled in schools in California over the past decade, fueled largely by rumor and lies about vaccinations, their value to a society, and bad science that was trumped up over decades worth of previous research by respected institutions and researchers.

Why are some parents making decisions for their children based upon fear and bad science? Let’s find out.

First, let’s be clear that the vast majority of parents aren’t making these kinds of poor choices for their children. Most parents want what’s best for their kids, and that means keeping them healthy and safe from disease.

Parents cite a variety of reasons for not immunizing their children, among them: religious values, concerns the shots themselves could cause illness and a belief that allowing children to get sick helps them to build a stronger immune system.

The story also says “like many parents who refuse some or all immunization shots, [one mother] worries her children’s immune system could be overwhelmed by getting too many vaccines at once.” While that’s a common mantra among the vaccine deniers, there appears to be little evidence to support that a child could suffer from too many immunizations at once.1

Will delaying or denying your child a vaccination somehow make them more immune to future disease (the idea that they are building up “naturally” the child’s own immune system)? Drs. Mark Crislip and Stephen Barrett have an answer to that:

In May 2010, the journal Pediatrics published a study that compared more than 40 variables related to mental and neurological function among a large group of children to see whether delaying vaccination provided any benefit.

After finding that no statistically significant differences favored the less-vaccinated children, the researchers concluded: “Timely vaccination during infancy has no adverse effect on neuropsychological outcomes 7 to 10 years later. These data may reassure parents who are concerned that children receive too many vaccines too soon.”

In other words, an unvaccinated child is gaining no benefit from not being vaccinated. And the potential consequences of not being vaccinated remain serious. “Chickenpox, whooping cough, influenza, and pneumococcus still cause hospitalizations and deaths in previously healthy children.” “The U.S. is in the midst of what could be its worst year for that disease in more than five decades, with nearly 25,000 cases and 13 deaths.”

What Drives Parents’ Vaccine Fears?

If the scientific data shows little support for these ideas, what drives a parent to making this sort of decision for their child?

A parent’s religious beliefs may offer a valid reason to forgo having a child vaccinated (if you’re religious). Some researchers offer additional theories as to the psychology behind vaccine fear:

[T]here’s no single explanation that accounts for why so many more parents who send their children to private schools apparently share a suspicion of immunizations.

Saad Omer, a professor of global health at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied vaccine refusal in private schools, surmised more private school parents are wealthy and have the time to spread five shots over a series of years and stay home should their child get an illness like chickenpox.

Neal Halsey, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins University, said parents who choose private schools are likely to be more skeptical of state requirements and recommendations.

I can agree with both rationales, to a point. I suppose the wealthy do feel less hemmed in by government’s recommendations for their children. And I suppose they have little regard for the value and role of public health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose primary purpose is to ensure society’s stable health.

I also see another factor at work here… Something called confirmation bias (or myside bias). It’s the psychological tendency of people to favor information that confirms their own personal, pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses about something. We all do it, and we do it all the time.

With the information so readily available online today, it’s not hard to conduct some quick research and find a community of people who agree with you, no matter what the subject or your opinion on it. I’m not sure vaccine deniers would’ve ever gotten the time of day two decades ago, pre-Internet era. But because they all found each other online so more readily, it let them spread their misinformation and fears in a way that was self-reinforcing.

That’s both the power and the predicament of the Internet — it spreads ideas fast, no matter how good or bad those ideas are.

We’ve been giving vaccines to children for decades now, and the overwhelming, vast majority of the scientific data show this has resulted in a positive gain for society as a whole. It’s unfortunate some parents don’t understand these benefits, not just for society, but for their child’s own safety and well-being too.


Read the full story: Private school vaccine opt-outs rise

The Psychology of Vaccine Fear


  1. Do Children Get Too Many Immunizations?
    The Answer is No.

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Psychology of Vaccine Fear. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Sep 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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