The best way to face the myths of Covid this Christmas? Pre-layering rather than demystifying | Sander van der linden

TThe holiday season is approaching, but as you prepare for this year’s celebrations, you can’t help but notice a tight feeling in your stomach: you’re going to have to listen to another conspiracy rant from your cranky uncle at the dinner table. The unwanted gift that probably awaits many of us at home this Christmas – in one form or another – is contagious misinformation.

Although the NHS makes it clear that Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective, a family member may nonetheless share false news around the dinner table that they are causing autoimmune disease, which Bill Gates is using to implanting microchips for global monitoring and surveillance, or maybe the entire vaccine rollout is just a hoax, given rumors of fake syringes with ‘disappearing needles’. Perhaps the concerns in question are less conspiratorial in nature but still based on false information, such as the mistaken perception that vaccines can somehow alter your DNA or actually give you Covid.

As the Omicron variant increases across the UK, Covid-19 booster shots are now available to all adults who want them. But what if you talk to a family member who doesn’t want a vaccine because they believe in influential disinformation or conspiracy theories?

Unofficially appointed Professor of Cambridge’s Defense Against the Dark Arts, I have studied the psychology of disinformation for many years, so I am in a good position to help you counter any disinformation that might be spat out by a member of your family. . Research shows that people’s confidence in vaccines is compromised when exposed to debates in which misinformation is not disputed. The first thing to do, therefore, should be to immunize the rest of your family against the impending disinformation.

The theory of psychological inoculation follows exactly the medical analogy: just as exposure to a weakened or inactivated strain of the virus triggers the production of antibodies to help fight future infection, preventive exposure to a weakened dose of virus A lie (coupled with strong rebuttals) can help people cultivate mental or intellectual antibodies against future misinformation. In other words, you prebunk, instead of debunk.

So how can you implement this strategy, especially when not everyone will be willing to hear the facts? First of all, it’s important to dig deeper and try to understand what is behind a particular misconception. By learning about the underlying “psychological roots” or “technique” used to fool people, you can prepare your friends and family. To administer the inoculation, you tell your family that they are about to be exposed to a discussion that will involve misinformation (after all, warned is warned). But you would also give – and strongly refute – a few weakened examples of the types of misleading arguments that are likely to arise.

Of course, you can’t always predict the exact nature of the discussion, but we’ve seen time and time again that the same old anti-vaccination tactics are being recycled. For example, you could explain that people thought the smallpox vaccine was going to turn you into a human-cow hybrid, and now the Covid-19 vaccine is believed to alter your DNA. It’s a common trope – don’t fall for it! In this way, you build up everyone’s mental defenses in advance: psychological antigens are generated against the myth. Go viral!, an online social media simulation that I created with colleagues, shows how to immunize people against common tactics used to spread disinformation about Covid-19.

But how about facing your cranky uncle directly? My advice is deceptively simple but often forgotten in the heat of the moment: don’t force people. Calling people “covidots” or directly dismissing ideas with contempt or disdain won’t get you far, and people may sink deeper. Instead, try a technique known as motivational interviewing. This is a non-confrontational approach, based on the premise that people will change their perspective when they feel ready to do so, not when told to do so. It’s about empathizing, listening and acknowledging (valid) concerns about (in this case) vaccine safety. Then empower people to find solutions they feel comfortable with.

You can admit that some conspiracies have actually happened in the past, or you can let your loved ones know that you respect them and take their concerns seriously. Based on research on how to transparently communicate scientific evidence, colleagues and I have found that people with negative attitudes towards vaccination will respond best when you encourage open discussion about the evidence, scientific uncertainties, and concerns. benefits and concerns surrounding immunization. Even the ‘real’ die-hards really care about not being manipulated, so rather than forcing the facts down their throats, help them uncover disinformation techniques themselves – this tends to be a more effective strategy. .

Keep in mind that debunking is often not as effective as pre-debunking, as misinformation continues to linger in our brain even when it is corrected. Have you ever tried to ring a bell? Perhaps, all things considered, the best gift we can give ourselves this holiday season is to boost everyone’s mental immunity to prevent misinformation from spreading into the New Year.

About Harold Hartman

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