Princess Diana was murdered by the Royal Family. The U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Pharmaceutical companies cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines. Each statement is a ‘conspiracy theory’; defined as a proposed plot by powerful people or organizations working together in secret to accomplish some (usually sinister) goal (e.g., Wood, Douglas & Sutton, 2012). Current psychological research is exploring the reasons behind why people endorse conspiracy theories, and investigating the impact such theories can have on individuals, and society. One question that presents itself is: is the impact of conspiracy theories recognised in current UK public policy? Using anti-vaccine conspiracy theories as a specific case study, this will be explored.
One important area of current psychological research is investigating the impact of conspiracy theories on the individual, and society. For example, research has shown that conspiracy theories may change the way people think about social events. After exposure to conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana, participants were persuaded to endorse the conspiracy theory account without being aware of it (Douglas & Sutton, 2008). Further, scholars have experimentally demonstrated that exposure to conspiracy information can be detrimental by reducing pro-environmental intentions and willingness to engage in politics (Butler, Koopman & Zimbardo, 1995; Jolley & Douglas, 2014a).
Conspiracy theories can also have potentially negative consequences for the prevention of diseases. The development of vaccines is one of the most important advances in the history of medicine. Indeed, a recent Parliament Postnote discussed how governments should further stimulate vaccine research (Post, 2008). However, even with increased efforts of policy makers, in recent year’s vaccination rates have declined. In many regions of the UK rates lie well below the recommended 95% uptake (Health Protection Service, 2013). One obstacle may be the influence of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Rather, current psychological research has shown exposure to anti-vaccine conspiracy information reduces pro-vaccination intentions (Jolley & Douglas, 2014b). Thus, whilst the decrease uptake of vaccines could be for several reasons, it highlights the contributing potential detrimental effect of conspiracy theories.
Current UK public policy is based around voluntary immunisation. This has been successful in most cases. However, policy makers do need to take into account ways to effectively approach the ever increasing number of parents in the UK who do not vaccinate their children. Research has shown that detailed information about risk and benefits of immunisations appear to be successful in altering the decision of parents who were initially opposed to vaccination (e.g., Moran, Gainotti, & Petrini, 2008). Thus, as recently suggested by Fine-Goulden (2010), all parents who have not arranged for their children’s vaccinations should meet with a well-informed healthcare professional who can provide this information face to face and address any particular concerns in a sensitive manner.
However, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories reflect suspicion and mistrust of scientific research examining vaccine efficacy and safety. Rather, they attempt to explain away overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccines are effective, safe, and necessary (Kata, 2010). Therefore, such a policy that involves a meeting with a health care professional may not be successful with parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs due to their suspicion and mistrust of scientific research. This clearly demonstrates the importance of current public policy taking in to account conspiracy theories and their impact.
Conspiracy theories are a popular area of conversation, with beliefs seemingly to be increasing over time. Current psychological research is showing conspiracy theories to be potentially detrimental to us all. This research is timely in the face of declining vaccination rates, and recent outbreaks of vaccinated-against diseases such as measles. For those parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, just being given information about vaccines may not be sufficient to improve their vaccine uptake. Instead, further interventions need to be explored and tested empirically for those parents who hold anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, which can then inform future public policy. Similarly, such an intervention developed may be fruitful in other domains, such as in policy to encourage pro-environmental engagement. This clearly highlights the importance of psychological research informing future intervention and public policy.