It seems that telling people the truth about common misconceptions about the flu vaccine is actually a bad idea.

New research suggests that debunking common flu vaccine myths can actually have unintended effects, including cementing those myths in people's minds.

Even here, we've done it, writing about flu shot myths that aren't true. However, this new research suggests that although such communication does reduce misbelief, it still doesn't convince those leery about vaccines into getting them.

"There's a temptation to believe that communication is a silver bullet," says Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth researcher. "Our research suggests that's the wrong way to think about this. People's minds aren't that easily changed."

The research team took 1,000 volunteers and split them into three groups. They asked each person about how concerned they were about the flu vaccine's side effects. They identified about 24 percent across the groups who fell into the "very" or "extremely concerned" category.

One group received information about the dangers of flu. The second group received an explanation of how the flu vaccine does not give someone the flu, a common misconception about the vaccine. The third group received no information.

When researchers asked the first two groups about how much more likely they were now to get a flu shot, the results were surprising.

First, the debunking information did change people's beliefs about the vaccine. Of those concerned with side effects, only 51 percent in the group that received the debunking information still believed that they could get the flu from the flu shot. This compared to 70 percent in the other groups who didn't receive that information.

However, when it came to planning on getting the vaccine, the story changed. Only 28 percent of those exposed to the myth debunking stated that they might get a flu shot that season. This compares to 46 percent of those in the group that didn't get the same information.

So why did the debunking not work in convincing people to get the flu shot? There are several things at work here. It seems that the myths only play a small part in why concerned individuals don't want to get the shot. This is due to something called "motivated reasoning." This means that the brain still fills in the gaps with other reasons after debunking other reasons, or misconceptions.

There is also the possibility that in stating the myths in the first place, we actually give them more credence, creating an "illusion of truth" of the misconceptions.

Whatever the case, better communication is key in convincing people to get vaccinated.

"We know very little that's evidence-based about how to communicate about vaccines," says Nyhan. "We need to do a better job, whether it's journalists or educators or people in the health system, of providing accurate information about vaccines in a way that people will find persuasive, and we don't know how to do that yet."

[Photo Credit: Daniel Paquet/Flickr]

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