Parents prone to black-and-white thinking are less likely to vaccinate their children against COVID-19

A study of parents of children aged 5 to 11 in Italy found that black-and-white thinking was associated with a tendency to believe in conspiracies. This in turn was associated with a negative attitude towards vaccinating children against COVID-19. The study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Three years ago, in early 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic began. Since there was no vaccine or cure, many countries around the world attempted to slow its rapid spread by enacting strict containment measures. Vaccines became available less than a year later, but as vaccine production increased, governments needed to decide which priority groups would be vaccinated first.

Children infected with COVID-19 overwhelmingly showed only mild symptoms of the disease and were therefore not considered priorities for vaccination. However, health authorities soon realized that the only way to stop COVID-19 infection was to make everyone immune to the disease. The most effective way to achieve this was through vaccination.

Even among children, the share of cases with severe symptoms was still between 1% and 8%, making COVID-19 a significant health risk in this population. In addition, some children belong to populations at high risk of COVID-19 due to other diseases and they can still transmit the disease to adults for whom the risks of serious consequences of the disease are much higher.

Still, a significant number of parents decided not to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 when the vaccine became available. Such behavior, which is apparently against the interests of children and public health, but also against the health preservation interests of the parents themselves, has attracted much attention in research.

Paola Iannello and her colleagues wanted to investigate the role of conspiracy theory beliefs and absolutist thinking in parents’ negative attitudes towards their children’s COVID-19 vaccination. Absolutist thinking is a propensity to think in terms of absolute opposites – in black and white, dividing the world into good and bad, yes and no, without any nuance. Such a thought is usually communicated using absolute words like “never”, “always”, “completely”. It’s common in people diagnosed with eating disorders, affective disorders, and certain other mental disorders — but isn’t exclusive to them.

For this, the researchers interviewed 415 parents of children aged 5 to 11 years. Children had to be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, that is, they must not have any medical condition due to which vaccination against COVID-19 would be inadvisable. All participants were from Italy, although recruited from different parts of the country.

The data was collected between December 3 and 10, 2021, when childhood vaccination was in its infancy in Italy. The researchers collected socio-demographic information about the participants, their children, and asked them to specify the sources they usually use to gather information on vaccines. They were also asked if their children would be vaccinated.

Additionally, participants completed ratings of negative attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccines, worry about the spread of COVID-19 (the COVID-19 Worry Scale), attitude toward ambiguity (the Moral Absolutism/Divisiveness Scale of the Multidimensional Attitude Towards Ambiguity Scale), and Conspiratorial Beliefs (the Generic Conspiratorial Beliefs Scale).

Of the entire sample, 35.9% of parents answered that they will have their children vaccinated against COVID-19. About 20% said they wouldn’t, while 43.4% said they didn’t know. Fathers decided to vaccinate their children more often than mothers – 60.4% of parents who said they would vaccinate their children were fathers, while 60.5% of parents who said they were against vaccination were mothers.

Parents of younger children were more reluctant to have them vaccinated. Vaccinated parents were also more likely to have their children vaccinated, while the vast majority (92.1%) of unvaccinated parents said they would not have their children vaccinated. More educated participants were less likely to be against vaccinating their children.

The researchers tested a statistical model that assumes the association between absolutist thinking and negative attitudes toward COVD-19 vaccines is mediated by conspiracy beliefs. The results confirmed that such a link between these factors is indeed possible.

The study contributes to scientific knowledge about the psychological processes underlying attitudes towards vaccines. However, it also has limitations that must be taken into account. Notably, the study design does not allow for any causal conclusions. Additionally, the study was conducted at a time when COVID-19 vaccines were still a novelty. It is possible that later results, after the vaccines have been used for a while and people have become familiar with them, have been different.

The study, “Black-and-white thinking and conspiratorial beliefs prevent parents from vaccinating their children against COVID-19”, was authored by Paola Iannello, Laura Colautti, Sara Magenes, Alessandro Antonietti and Alice Cancer.

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