Greater Good?

Study uncovers unexpected motives of anti-vaxxers

By Kardelen Koldas '15
June 26, 2020

Louisa Goldman ’20 has a pretty clear stance on the pro- and anti-vaccine divide. To her, there’s no question about the need or importance of vaccines. So why would some people reject them? It’s a question she didn’t want to leave unanswered.

Last summer she traveled to Atlanta for a CDC meeting on immunization practices that anti-vaxxers often attend. She listened to their emotional speeches and found that one woman’s words stuck with her: It’s just so sad that all my civil rights are being taken.

“I never really heard or thought about the anti-vax movement in that way,” said Goldman, an American studies major on a premed track. “It forced me to look at it as more of a cultural phenomenon rather than just simply a shortcoming of medical or scientific education.”

In her senior year, Goldman set out to identify motivations underlying the anti-vax movement through an honors thesis. Her timing couldn’t have been better, with her research bookended by  Maine’s referendum on a bill that passed last March, banning all non-medical vaccine exemptions, and the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Goldman, winner of Charles W. Bassett Prize in American Studies, first examined the nationwide anti-vax movement, detailing its history and operation. (The most recent version of the movement started in 1998, with Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study linking the measles/mumps/rubella [MMR] vaccine to autism. Supporters are mostly parents, and mothers, from all social and political spectrums.) Next, she turned her lens to Maine’s anti-vax movement—which had grown significantly because of the bill—investigating its demographics and arguments. 

Using publicly available Facebook posts, she analyzed how Maine’s anti-vaxxers vocalized their position leading up to the referendum. Four key themes emerged: individual rights, parental rights, rejection of Big Pharma, and shared state identity. Goldman then viewed these themes through neoliberalism—which advocates for a free market, limited government interference, and personal liberties—and found that vaccine rejection was driven by more social and economic anxieties than by science. 

“I think it’s so ingrained within our society to think of ourselves above others and to completely justify that behavior as something that’s completely American and freedom-loving. I think there really needs to be some structural changes with the way that we think about it.”

Louisa Goldman ’20

Bringing neoliberalism into the discourse is a unique approach in the literature that mainly focuses on the scientific literacy of the movement and religious explanations, noted Goldman’s advisor, Assistant Professor of American Studies Benjamin Lisle. 

“Neoliberal mentalities and policies have such a profound effect on the ways that we experience the world in ways that we certainly wouldn’t assume,” said Lisle, whose senior seminar, “Space, Culture, and Neoliberalism,” led Goldman to take this path. “I think it exemplifies the way that a scientific perspective can combine with cultural perspectives to tell us something quite important about society.”

When COVID-19 broke out, she revisited the anti-vaxxers’ posts to see how, and if, their motivations changed amidst a pandemic.

Turns out, they hadn’t.

When it came to partaking of a future coronavirus vaccine, wearing a mask, or supporting quarantine efforts, the anti-vaxxers still put individual choice ahead of public health. “They’re interested in this really internalized sense of how important individualism and choice are [rather] than the health of the entire community.” It’s not that they fail to understand science, she said, but that they feel anxious and powerless.  

These emotions can’t be erased by producing a bunch of nice-looking graphs showing how community health works, stressed Goldman, currently an intern at Maine’s Department of Education. 

“It’s really a lot deeper than that,” she said, “It’s going to involve deeper and more impactful changes society-wise.”