Christmas is here, but as you prepare for this year’s celebrations you can’t help but feel sick to your stomach: you’re going to have to hear another conspiratorial spiel from your grumpy brother-in-law at the table. The unwanted gift that is likely to await many of us at home this Christmas, in one form or another, is contagious misinformation.
Although health authorities categorically affirm that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, it is possible that a family member shares at the table the lies that they cause autoimmune diseases, that Bill Gates is using them to implant microchips to global control and surveillance, or perhaps the whole vaccine deployment is just a scam, given the rumors about fake syringes with “disappearing needles.”
Or, perhaps your relative’s concerns about the virus are less conspiratorial in nature, but are based on false information, such as the misperception that vaccines may somehow alter DNA or transmit COVID to you.
As the omicron variant spreads, health systems are expanding the third dose to larger numbers of adults. But what happens if you talk to a family member who does not want to be vaccinated because they believe the hoaxes or conspiracy theories?
I am informally called the “Cambridge Defense Against the Dark Arts” professor and I have studied the psychology of disinformation for many years, so I am in a position to help you counter disinformation that a family member might spit.
Create mental antibodies
Research shows that people’s trust in vaccines suffers when they are exposed to debates in which misinformation is not questioned. Therefore, the first point you should work on is to “vaccinate” the rest of your family against the misinformation that hangs over them.
The theory of psychological inoculation closely follows the medical analogy: just as exposure to a weakened or inactivated strain of the virus triggers the production of antibodies to help combat future infections, preventive exposure to a weakened dose of a Untruth (coupled with strong denials) can help people cultivate mental or intellectual antibodies against future misinformation.
In other words, an attempt is made to preventively protect people before harm occurs (prebunking) instead of debunking the falsehood once it has managed to break through.
So how can you put this strategy into practice, especially when not everyone is going to be willing to hear the facts? First of all, it is important to dig deeper and try to understand what is causing a certain misconception. By discovering the underlying “psychological roots” or the “technique” used to deceive people, you can prepare your friends and family.
By “inoculating”, you must warn your loved ones that they are about to be exposed to a conversation that is going to include misinformation (after all, one person prevented is worth two). But you can also give them – and firmly refute – some decaffeinated examples of the kinds of misleading arguments that are likely to come out.
Of course, it is not always possible to know what hoax a relative or acquaintance will come up with, but we have found that time and again the same anti-vaccine tactics are recycled as always. For example, you can explain that once people used to think that the cowpox vaccine could turn you into a human-cow hybrid, whereas now the hoax would revolve around that the COVID-19 vaccine allegedly alters your DNA. . It is a recurring hoax, do not fall for it!
In this way, everyone’s mental defenses are raised in advance: psychological “antigens” are generated against the myth. GoViral!, a social media drill I created with my colleagues, shows how to immunize people against the most common strategies used to spread misinformation about COVID-19.
How to deal with your brother-in-law?
But how do you deal with your curmudgeonly brother-in-law? My advice is apparently simple, but it is often forgotten when the discussion teases us: we must not force our interlocutor. Calling him a “covidiot” or flatly rejecting his ideas with contempt or disdain will not get you very far, and may cause the interlocutor to choose to dig in.
Instead, try a known technique as a motivational interview. It is a non-confrontational approach, based on the premise that people will change their minds when they feel ready to do so, not when told to do so. It focuses on showing empathy, listening, and acknowledging (legitimate) concerns about (in this case) vaccine safety.
Then people need to be provided with tools and information to find solutions that they feel comfortable with.
One option is to acknowledge that some conspiracies have occurred in the past. Another option is to let your loved ones know that you respect them and take their concerns seriously. Based on research on how to transparently communicate scientific evidence, our colleagues and I found that people with negative attitudes towards vaccination react better when an open discussion is promoted about these tests, the scientific uncertainties, and the benefits and concerns that surround it. to vaccination.
Even staunch “truth-keepers” care not to be manipulated, so instead of making them swallow the truth with a funnel, help them discover the techniques of disinformation for themselves, as this is often a more effective strategy. .
Note that refuting or discrediting is usually not as effective as the prebunking because misinformation continues to linger in our brain even when corrected. What done is done. Perhaps, given all this, the best gift we can give each other this holiday season is to strengthen our mental immunity to prevent misinformation from spreading in 2022.
Translated by Emma Reverter.
Sander van der Linden is Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Laboratory