Maybe I’m making things worse with respect to medical myths. But I don’t know what else to do.

My Upshot colleague Brendan Nyhan has a new manuscript out, “Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information“:

Seasonal influenza is responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of medical costs per year in the United States, but influenza vaccination coverage remains substantially below public health targets. One possible obstacle to greater immunization rates is the false belief that it is possible to contract the flu from the flu vaccine. A nationally representative survey experiment was conducted to assess the extent of this flu vaccine misperception. We find that a substantial portion of the public (43%) believes that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. We also evaluate how an intervention designed to address this concern affects belief in the myth, concerns about flu vaccine safety, and future intent to vaccinate.

Any fan of this blog, or of Healthcare Triage, or of my books, knows that the flu shot cannot cause the flu. It can’t. Yet, in a national survey, about 43% of Americans answered that it could.

(This is the when my head hits the desk, I scream loudly enough to frighten co-workers, and I pledge to look for a Twitter avatar that’s even more outraged than Marceline with fire shooting out of her eyes.)

But then Brendan went a step further. They gave people one of two interventions. The correction intervention involved language adapted from the CDC which told people they can’t get the flu from a flu shot. The danger intervention tried to scare people about the flu, by presenting them with facts about its risks.

The correction path did reduce false beliefs about the flu vaccine. The percentage of people who endorsed that flu shots caused the flu fell from 39% to 27% for low concern people and from 70% to 51% for high concern people. Correction also reduced beliefs overall that the vaccine is unsafe. Danger didn’t do much.

But then things get depressing. Neither correction nor danger led, overall, to more people getting the flu shot. In the subgroup of people most concerned about the vaccine’s side effects, though, correction actually led to fewer people getting the vaccine. Beforehand, 46% of people with high side effects concerns said they were likely to get the vaccine. After reading correction, that percentage dropped to 28%.

In other words, when talking to people who don’t want to get a flu shot because of myths, my efforts to correct their beliefs may be leading to fewer of them getting one, even though I’m actually getting through to them. Maybe I’m making things worse. But, seriously, I don’t know what else to do!


P.S. This isn’t the first time Brendan has done this to me. See “Health care myths are a real problem” and “Brendan Nyhan is going to drive me to drink“.

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