How to protect the herd

by | Feb 16, 2015 | Blog | 2 comments

syringe for vaccineMy long-established morning routine stopped running on auto-pilot a few weeks ago.

Now, most mornings when I pull out my mascara wand, I tune out the morning news broadcasters, look wistfully at my left eyelid, and start wishing that people would trust science more.

The huge abyss of what we know about science and how we act seems to be growing, not closing.

More to the point, I hope that all parents would take advantage of all the advancements in science over the past few decades and get their kids vaccinated, especially for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and chicken pox.

And while the magic wand (a la mascara wand) is waving, let’s also wish for leaders in organizations to embrace science too.

But back to the morning news for now. If you’ve been following this story, you’ve probably heard that more than 100 people in California—including six Disneyland employees—and about two dozen people in six other states, Mexico and Canada have fallen ill with measles, a disease that had basically disappeared in the United States. The endemic spread of measles was eliminated in 2000 with a record low of 37 cases in 2004.

When I was growing up in Oklahoma, I got the measles vaccine, but the MMR and chicken pox vaccines hadn’t yet been introduced.

So while recovering from the mumps, I came down with a severe case of chicken pox. From head to toes, I was covered in red marks, including pox on my eyelids, inside of my mouth and all over my limbs, which left scars. None of my eyelashes ever grew back on one area of my left eyelid.

As far as disfigurements go, my scars are very minor—noticeable enough to keep me from competing in beauty contests, which was fine with me, yet insignificant enough for everything else.

However, my scars are reminders of the force of childhood diseases and the vaccines that can keep them at bay and save lives—if used properly.

And that’s the rub. Vaccinations are an emotional issue for some and trigger the “fight or flight” reflex.

Even though the medical profession can prove that vaccines are safe and save lives, some people don’t —or can’t—hear this information, especially if it is inconsistent with their already established beliefs.

For example, in the case of the MMR vaccine, some people still cling to the research results that showed a link between vaccines and autism, even though in 2010 Lancet retracted the 1998 paper and the researcher Andrew Lakefield lost his license to practice medicine.

Others object to vaccines because of personal beliefs. They want their children to live a “toxin-free” lifestyle or they want to delay the scheduling of the shots, even though the science  shows that the vaccine dosage and schedule provide “herd immunity” and protect the public’s health.

As I’ve learned in my applied neuroscience program, when we hear information that threatens or contradicts our world view, we unconsciously push it away. Just as quickly, we retrieve memories and associations that are consistent with our already established beliefs.

Or as the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathon Haidt explains this type of confirmation bias, people may think they’re reacting as scientists, but they’re actually acting as lawyers trying to win their case. This involves rationalizing arguments to fit their point of view and the outcomes they want.

So what to do when you’re working with people who want to ignore or oppose the science?

Above all, don’t argue with them or do anything else that can make them feel defensive and threatened.

Don’t give them the facts either.

Instead, recast the conversation around values, especially values that will resonate with them.

Also, enlist the support of individuals or professionals who are credible with those you want to influence.

Another technique I’ve used successfully is stealth performance. I just practice my craft, the best way I can, basing my actions on science.

As an example, rather than try to convince a new CEO hired from the outside that he shouldn’t shake employees out of their complacency and insist that they change NOW, I just cast his message in the most brain-friendly way I knew how.

The talking points he received from me first acknowledged all the great actions that employees had been taking at the company, praised them and then explained how we was going to support them to build on those actions and make improvements customers were requesting.

These points sounded good to him, they were easy to use and so he delivered them. Employees responded favorable both to him in person and on a survey, which delighted him.

Was this technique transparent? No.

Was it dishonest? No. Sneaky? Maybe.

If he had asked or expressed interest in what I was doing, I would have told him. But this work seemed more like giving him the keys to a car rather than explaining how a car gets made. You can drive a car without understanding how it works.

As far as convincing parents about vaccinating their children, I’d gladly show them my scars— but I don’t know if it would close the disconnect between the proven science and their beliefs, much less changing their actions.

Where are you in the herd on this issue?




  1. Aika

    We currently have a measles outbreak here in the Philippines. I saw on the news that government agencies, healthcare institutions and even schools offer free vaccinations to people. However, some parents don’t want their children to be vaccinated and it got me thinking why? My mom often told me that I got all the vaccines needed when I was a child, which is why I never got measles growing up.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Aika, for your comment. Sadly, we’re also having a measles outbreak in the US too. A number of individuals who’ve never personally experienced measles seem to like the autonomy to decide whether or not they get vaccines for their children, rather than trusting science that shows the value of vaccines. Unfortunately we’re in an era where people want to trust themselves more than the experts and the scientific evidence. So adults take action that’s not in their best interest for themselves and their children, yet the adults have the satisfaction of knowing they’re controlling their situation.

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