Cognitive Dissonance, the Sunk Cost Fallacy and Vaccine Culture

“We already know that Luftwaffe pilots are superior to Allied pilots, now we just need the research to prove it!”– Colonel Klink, Hogan’s Heroes, Season 2, Episode 1

“I’m so glad we got the flu shot. We just got sick with the flu and it was terrible, but it would have been so much worse if we hadn’t gotten the flu shot!”

I’ve heard statements like this several times. On the surface it sounds comforting and nice, but when you take away all of the emotion associated with vaccination, these sorts of beliefs come down to cognitive dissonance and the sunk cost fallacy.

As I’ve previously discussed, vaccination is a big part of our culture. When we participate in this ritual, we receive a number of social and emotional payoffs. We feel that we are doing our part in fighting off disease and epidemic, the people we respect in the medical and public health communities give us their approval and it is a way of affirming the stories we have grown up with about how technology can save us from nature.

The problem comes when vaccines don’t work or cause a serious side effect. Part of the story we have been raised with about vaccination is that it is highly safe and effective. When it isn’t safe or effective, we experience what is called cognitive dissonance. This is when the reality of a situation and what we believe don’t match up. (Blogger Tyler Tervooren of Advanced Riskology has written a great blog post on the subject here. Please note, Tyler is pro-vaccination and has mentioned the need to get flu shots to prevent illness during the cold and flu season.)

When we get the flu vaccine and subsequently get sick, our brain enters a tailspin that goes something like this: “I just got a flu shot, how can I get sick when I just got a flu shot? Did the vaccine not work? But it has to work, because vaccines are safe and effective; everybody says so and it’s a scientific fact. Everybody I respect tells me that vaccines are safe and effective. If vaccines aren’t safe and effective, my worldview crumbles and I will lose standing in my community. There has to be another explanation. OK, here it is. I would have gotten deathly ill if I hadn’t had the shot. So even though I got sick, the shot saved me from getting severely ill. Whoo! Glad I dodged that bullet!”

It’s often not just a matter of a single disease like pertussis or the flu. Often, we have vaccinated ourselves and our children several times over, so if we were to adopt the belief that vaccines don’t work, it would mean that all those doctors visits and injections were actually a waste- or potentially even harmful. This is where it gets really difficult for parents. None of us want to believe that we have exposed our children to a potentially dangerous situation. From a social and emotional standpoint, we have a lot on the line when it comes to vaccination because our acceptance in society and our worth as parents seem to be in danger if we forsake vaccination. Faced with this, many of us succumb to the sunk cost fallacy. We’re in so far that we feel like we have to keep going even if what we’re doing isn’t working.

Telling ourselves that vaccination is working when it isn’t may make us feel comfortable, but it won’t protect our health. If we want to actually be healthy, we need to face reality. Sure it means saying “no” to the herd, but it’s a question of priorities. Is it more important to fit in or to protect our bodies? Everyone knows what my answer is, but you will have to answer for yourself.

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