vaccine debate: where is the empathy?

The Vaccine Debate: Where is the Empathy?

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Of Peanut Allergies and Petulance

A few weeks ago, a fellow social media acquaintance posted an article about peanut allergies in children. The article argued that no peanut butter sandwich is as important as a child’s life, so she urged her fellow moms not to bring peanut items to school if a classmate had a known peanut allergy. I read it: it was heartfelt and very sensible. I am of the opinion that my daughter can certainly live without peanut butter sandwiches at school. Her school is nut free, and never once has it inconvenienced me in the slightest. When I found out about the nut-free rule, my first thought was “Wow. I’m so glad that I do not have to worry about my daughter encountering such a dangerous allergy situation all the time–that must be really hard for those parents.” Apparently, that’s not such a common response. Read any of these articles on moms talking about peanut allergies and you will find comments from parents reacting in ways that range from annoyed to down-right cruel. Parents protesting that “Kids should learn to navigate their allergies in the real world” and “My child won’t eat anything else!” This poor mother is sitting there having to worry about one sticky peanut butter finger touching a door knob and her small child dying in a matter of minutes from anaphylaxis after touching that door knob. Think about that for a second: HAVING TO WORRY THAT YOUR CHILD WILL DIE EVERY SINGLE DAY AT SCHOOL FROM PEANUT BUTTER.  Thinking about that is enough to make my heart bust open with torturous sadness for that parent. The lack of empathy in those responses was astounding. In some cases, down right sociopathic.

You may be on board with the peanut butter argument, agreeing that we should have empathy for children with peanut allergies. Those kids didn’t choose their allergies, and their parents have to worry that their children will die from a product that is nearly ubiquitous in our existence. You may be one of the parents that gets that, and that’s great. But the conversation took an even darker turn, and that is what I want to really talk about in this article. One respondent wrote something to the effect of, “Why do we just have to worry about peanut butter sandwiches when there are stupid, irresponsible parents who let their child come to school unvaccinated and put our children at risk of death every day.” If you’ve read this article, you can imagine that struck a nerve with me. Although I feel like my response to that comment was both warranted and respectful, it never does any good but open Pandora’s Box, leaving me tired, discouraged, helpless and hopeless. WHY? Lack of empathy.

Vaccine Vitriol: A Pattern of Predictable Disdain

There’s a group of people in our society that is marginalized beyond belief in the most cruel and unusual ways: vaccine injured children and their families. Now before you stop reading, thinking I am some crazy “anti-vaxxer” about to do some “pro-vaxxer” bashing, please know that is not going to happen here. In fact, I am attempting to do exactly the opposite. The vaccine argument is one of the most contentious and heated debates I’ve ever seen. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and say it is worse than probably any other political issue to date: even more so than gun control or immigration.

In any vaccine discussion, it is common for phrases like “you should have your kids taken away and go to jail” and “you’re an idiot who believes in pseudoscience” to fly around the conversation. To be honest, there’s a lot of self-righteousness and indignation sometimes on both sides of the issue. So what is going on here? Why can’t we have a civil conversation about vaccines, like, EVER?

Well, I’m a psychologist, so all the obvious answers (to me) ran through my head: cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance, etc. Yes, it’s well documented in psychological science that people cling tight to their beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, but these things don’t really account for why people can be so darn MEAN to each other in the process. Then (as I usually do), I started ruminating on how, at some level, every single thing that human beings do is explained by consciousness. Human beings are a product of their minds, and our minds are set up to run in very predictable ways. Human brains are pattern seekers; they constantly put things into groups or categories. Every piece of stimulus information we encounter (what we see, hear, touch, feel, taste), is organized in the brain in a way that helps us put things into logical order.

Information is stored in our long term memory in something called a semantic network, where similar pieces of information remain connected together in our brains. We create schemas, which are “templates” for objects and situations that become stored in our memory. These things help us predict and anticipate things we will encounter in the future. In other words, these processes help us navigate a world filled with overwhelming amounts of stimulus information. Usually, this works pretty well for getting around this complex world, except that life is not black and white, and dealing with the gray areas require much more effortful processing.

What does this have to do with meanness and lack of empathy? If our minds are naturally inclined to place things into groups, then that’s part of the reason that it’s so easy to cling to dualistic thought: right vs. wrong, bad vs. good, in-group vs. out-group, winner vs. loser. Not only are our brains pattern seekers, but we’re also social animals that seek out similar others. Both of these things help create a large “us” vs. “them” dynamic. Psychological science has also shown that we tend to have more empathy for those who are similar to us than dissimilar. In other words, when “us” encounters “them”, our brains are more inhibited from producing empathetic responses. Moreover, the anger that arises from our values being challenged activates our amygdala (our brain’s alarm system) which competes against our pre-frontal cortex (involved in self-control and rational thought). Combine all of that with the deindividuation (loss of self-awareness in a group) of the social media environment, and you’ve got a recipe for cruelty and indignation.

Beyond Us Versus Them in the Vaccine Debate: Empathy First

How can we unravel these barriers when it comes to the vaccine argument? One word (here it is again): Empathy. No, it’s not the dominant response in this situation, but research has also shown that we can call upon our executive functions like self-control and exert them upon will. It’s tough, and it depletes us when we do it, but it can be done. We need to approach these conversations by first trying to willfully control our immediate anger that results from confronting information that challenges our beliefs. Yes, that challenge is uncomfortable, but by taking a few minutes to let your mid-brain calm down and execute willful self-control, you’ll be better prepared to try to understand the other side of the argument.

One very smart commenter in that social media conversation, who was actually the first person to acknowledge that maybe I wasn’t crazy after all for speaking out against vaccinations, suggested that instead of eliciting anger and defensiveness, attempting to induce empathy with rational thought might be a better strategy. She suggested asking yourself, “Why would someone choose not to vaccinate their child?” or “Why would someone want to force everyone to vaccinate when they know some children have been injured by vaccines?” If you’ve really been able to put your anger aside (at least temporarily) then you’ll realize the answer to both questions is exactly the same: They want healthy children. Suddenly, it’s not “us” versus “them” anymore, it’s just “us”. We all want the same thing, we just have vastly different feelings about how to accomplish it.

This person also made a point that was the driving reason behind writing this article. She said something about how being “right” isn’t a strategy if you want to change the hearts of people that disagree with you.  I’ll admit, that’s all I have ever been trying to do: be right. The need to be right comes from a real and raw place deep down in my heart. I watched my daughter fight a chronic auto-inflammatory disease that was triggered by vaccinations. I held her while she suffered. I fought for her when doctors couldn’t figure it out. I’m the one who read hundreds of scientific articles, pored over her lab results, tracked every symptom, found the patterns, and put the puzzle pieces together. I demanded the referrals, I found her cure, and she’s currently in remission–not because of what her doctors knew but because of what I KNEW.  When you experience something like that, it’s really hard to hold on to the age-old notion that “doctors know best.”

When the vaccine debate emerges and I tell people our story, at best I will get “I’m sorry for what happened to your daughter, but that is rare” and at worst, “I highly doubt your daughter’s condition was triggered by vaccines, vaccines are a scapegoat for the onset of many genetic conditions”.  Neither of those responses is empathetic. I consider myself lucky that my daughter is in remission, but my heart breaks knowing that there are parents out there whose children are severely disabled or have died as a result of vaccines, and those are the responses they get from others.

On the other hand, I need to take a moment and practice what I’m preaching here. I need to show some empathy those folks who so valiantly defend vaccines, and I’m going to ask my vaccine-questioning friends to try and do the same. I understand why people defend vaccines. I really do. I understand the fear of a tiny little baby contracting a horrible disease that could end in their death and being angry thinking that some kid who could have been protected from that disease could be the culprit that led to your child’s death. That is absolutely terrifying and a real phenomenon that has happened in this world. I mean, all you have to do is go to the mall and see that people are coughing and sneezing, EVERYWHERE. The risk is real. I understand because I, too, share that fear. I have been exposed to information that has lessened that fear to some degree, but I still have it.  I understand that the rational and logical thing to do is adopt the mainstream position of highly respected doctors, scientists and health organizations who have had intense training in science and medicine. I can understand how ridiculous it sounds to think that all of these experts are somehow wrong or involved in some kind of grand conspiracy to cover up the idea that vaccines are highly dangerous or ineffective. In fact, I’m willing to say that this position is the logical position. I’m not going to tell anyone that believes this that they are wrong. I’m going to tell them that I understand. I not only understand, but I want to have faith in doctors and research and the CDC, too.

Some Things You Cannot Un-Know: The Corruption Runs High, But Not Necessarily Deep

Now, my vaccine defenders, it’s your turn. There is only one thing that has separated your position from my own: life experience. I cannot have faith in these doctors and organizations because they have failed me and they failed my daughter in very real, life-changing ways. When you or your child has been injured by something that you were told was safe, you can’t just shrug your shoulders and say, “Well I guess everything has risks and my child was one of the rare ones.” Nope. You say “How could this have possibly happened?” You start digging. You quickly find out there are thousands of research articles that contradict the mainstream opinion, even entire textbooks. You find out that there are thousands of doctors and scientists shouting from the rooftops about how the risk of what happened to your child is not uncommon. You find out that there has been so much corruption and cover-up in organizations like the FDA and CDC that congressmen are shouting on the congressional floor for our government to do something about it—but nothing ever gets done. You find out that pharmaceutical companies have all the money and the power and that they own the media and that’s why these dissenting scientists aren’t featured on the news. You find out the pharmaceutical companies also fund the research, pay the editors of the journals, pay doctors money to speak about their products, and even influence the head of the FDA.

Suddenly the once illogical argument that the mainstream is wrong is not so illogical after all. It’s not a grand conspiracy, it’s the influence of money and greed forcing the direction of science and medical opinion at the very top of the chain, and all those underneath that aren’t being funded simply go along with the “respected” opinion of those at the top. For those underneath who have discovered the truth, they have figured out that publicizing dissenting opinions runs the risk of destroying both their careers and reputation. The safe choice is to continue with the status quo. That’s how it happens. That’s how thousands of children and adults can be injured by pharmaceuticals, and the rest of us stand back and let it happen. Once you know this information, you can’t un-know it. It changes you.

Go Beyond the Feedback Loops: Walk in Another’s Shoes

In many ways experiences hand us our reality, but in many ways we also create it. The things we Google appear on our Facebook feed; the things we like on Facebook are tracked and used to send us similar material. It’s easy to see how once we adopt a position it’s constantly being reinforced by more and more exposure to the same information. It’s unlikely that we ever truly expose ourselves to the other side of any argument—but that may be the key in fostering the empathy we need to drive the change we seek in the vaccine debate. Psychological science has demonstrated the social influence of reciprocity, where one concession leads to the concession of the other side. This is a powerful psychological phenomenon. So, I’m conceding. Instead of begging vaccine-defenders to listen to us and focusing on trying to be right, let’s for one second, focus on their position. Put yourself in their shoes. Show them that you understand that they have fears for their children, too. Showing empathy is the only way they will show us that in return. Being right cannot be our strategy, because it’s not their minds we need to change—it’s their hearts.

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Dr. Sarah Flynn received her Ph.D. in experimental psychology with a concentration in health psychology from the University of Kentucky in 2010, her Master’s in psychology from the University of Kentucky in 2007, and her Bachelor’s in psychology with a minor in criminology from Miami University in 2004. While at UK, Dr. Flynn taught Research Methods in the Department of Psychology and was granted research assistantships at the Kentucky Behavioral Oncology Research Group (KYBORG) and the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR). Dr. Flynn has published research in the areas of stress and immunity, cancer prevention and substance abuse. Dr. Flynn is currently holds a faculty appointment as an Associate Professor and Program Director for the Ph.D and Psy.D. programs in Clinical Psychology at a local University in Kentucky.


  1. And to research about peanut oil being used as an adjuvant in vaccines and also in antibiotics, beginning in the 1950’s..(therefore the potential cause of peanut allergies)…..really helps tie this piece together in an ironic way…Thanks for being a calm voice in the storm. Like you, all I want is for kids to be healthier, and if some constantly deny the possibility that vaccines could be responsible for their or their child’s symptoms, than one misses a chance to detox and experience healing.

  2. I don’t think the vaccination issue is about empathy or a lack thereof. I understand your thesis here and the response from Julie above; however, science shows unquestionably that vaccinations prevent deadly diseases. Ninety-seven percent of scientists polled worldwide believe in global warming. Ninety-six percent believe that vaccines we now have and those to come can and do prevent worldwide pandemics. It’s hard to empathize with those who believe the four percent who don’t must be right and are not employed by Big Pharma (while the other 96 percent are), it’s a vast governmental conspiracy with doctors and the pharmaceutical companies and science is just, well, WRONG. I’m not unsympathetic to those those children suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or other similar disorders, but a lack of empathy goes both ways, and we are talking about their unvaccinated children potentially spreading diseases to perfectly healthy children who could die from them, simply because of largely unfounded fears based on junk science and the rantings of celebrity parents whose kids have ASD. I don’t think there is any mutual ground here. We are talking about the lives of potentially thousands of children here should there be an epidemic. Until they’re old enough to obtain vaccinations, they are vulnerable.

    My son had a bad reaction to his second DPT shot in 1986. His temperature shot up to 105.5 degrees within 12 hours and it was climbing rapidly. Thanks to a fabulous pediatrician and her immediate response to bring him to the hospital (she took him out of my arms outside in the car and literally flew with him back to a prepared room to get his fever down within 15 minutes), he was fine. She left out the third pertussis dosage out of the next “DPT” shot since it is the pertussis that causes the reaction in children, and his having two shots would give him nearly the same amount of immunity. The rate of reaction to the pertussis shot in infants is 1 in 1600 in children under six months of age. He, his father and I all had booster DPT shots three years ago, because there were two counties in the metro Atlanta area where we now live that were forced to close their schools for nearly three weeks due to a serious outbreak of pertussis. Since the efficacy of the vaccination is only 10-20 years, all adults other than those medically unable to receive the booster vaccinations should get one.

    Now, that 1 in 1600 chance may sound high, but in reality, it’s very rare. I could have overreacted and never have given him another vaccination. But I did a lot of reading and held a frank conversation with my pediatrician over several months concerning the dangers of the diseases he could contract without being vaccinated, and decided that it was not worth risking his life to expose him to diseases that we KNOW kill young children and immunocompromised individuals. Thousands of years of history has well documented the fact that millions of people died from diseases like smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and polio. Operating on the assumption that that most people will vaccinate their children so if your unvaccinated child does get the disease and is contagious at school or daycare, it’s less likely that any member of the larger vaccinated group will get the disease than it is your child will get a life altering or life threatening disorder from the vaccination is not showing empathy for the plight of others. It’s herd mentality and worrying about your own child more than the welfare of other children, based largely on unproven science (or worse still “science” that was based on proven fraud), or believing that your child has ASD because he or she received a series of vaccinations starting at 18 months.

    It is difficult to empathize with people who, because they feel “in their gut” that a vaccination was responsible for their child’s ASD or other disability, when science shows the risk is so rare that it is not even remotely statistically significant. They see articles written by parents who feel guilty about what happened to their child (they could have prevented it if they had just not allowed their child to get that shot), that they are convinced that it’s better to take a risk with others’ children who could potentially get a completely preventable disease without even asking (or even informing) those parents whose children are at risk if they might have a problem with that. Where is their empathy for a child who could contract measles from their unvaccinated children and who could potentially die from it? Yes, I know that many people born before 1957 contracted measles and many had immune systems which allowed them to recover. My parents got them and got well, so did my husband and his siblings. But so many others did not. My great-grandmother lost three of her thirteen children to measles (2) and diphtheria before they reached the age of two. Take a walk through an old cemetery and see how many little graves with lambs and angels on their headstones with heart wrenching verses carved on them show that they died within a year or two of birth. Most of these children died from completely preventable diseases that there were no vaccinations for prior to the late 1950’s.

    Your right to decide whether or not to vaccinate your child stops where that decision could potentially affect the rights and lives of others not yet vaccinated or who are immunocompromised. Those individuals have just as much right to live disease free as your child does not to have a shot to prevent disease. This isn’t about empathy for another viewpoint. It’s similar to having empathy and trying to understand people who promote unvarnished racism and point to unfounded articles that show, in their minds, beyond a doubt that black men and women are intellectually inferior to whites (check any white supremacist website for these “studies;” there are dozens of them). I understand the fear, because my child had a reaction to a pertussis vaccination and was fortunate that he suffered no ill effects from the experience; however, I think that a good deal of that fear is unfounded and largely fueled by false science and conspiracy theories that make the ones still swirling about the assassination of President Kennedy 53 years ago look mild by comparison. The Internet is a wonderful thing in many cases, but it, in conjunction with social media (which, in combination with a populace which bases opinions on soundbites and not real research) is the basis of nearly one hundred percent of the disinformation in the world), is fueling the fears of a lot of parents who are willing to compromise the health of others who have no choice because they either aren’t old enough to receive the vaccinations or have other health issues.

    I’ve had the shoe on both feet with this issue. My son was fortunate. He is 30 years old today, has a great career, is responsible and loving life. He also has ADHD and still is dealing with it and has been since he was six years old. But do I think he has the disorder because of the vaccine he had a reaction to? Absolutely not. He could have it for any number of reasons; doctors and psychiatrists know what the disorder is, the physical neurological reasons for it and the problems it causes, but they do not know where the disorder originates. I will not spend my life second guessing if I had just not had him vaccinated, he’d be free from the trials of ADHD. At some point, we have to trust scientists and stop believing the internet and social media keyboard jockeys who are telling us to be afraid of everything, causing people to feed off of mistrust and paranoia, and telling us that we’re all going to die from modern medicine.

    • Unfortunately, it seems like you have missed the entire point of this article, as I have addressed every single one of your points therein. Not only have I acknowledged your points within the article and made it a point to say that I do understand them–I even agreed that it’s the more “logical” position. Your concerns are not invalid. However, refusal to acknowledge vaccine injury and our personal stories as valid and commonplace drives the point of the article home that empathy in this situation tends to be unachievable by many.

  3. Thank you for this thorough explanation. The lack of empathy surrounding the vaccine discussion has been on my heart as well. Very well said demonstrating empathy for both sides and that the common ground is both sides want health. Since there is no genuine discussion amongst leaders to solve this problem, the black and white extremes exist. But the reason we are in this situation is because there have not been options, like individual shots, rather than combination vaccines, or trying to make a better alternative for those who have significant concerns about numerous ingredients in the vaccines. The goal seems to be a one size fits all though nothing else that goes into our body is a one size fits all. Mutual solutions would be a good discussion rather than forcing the one size fits all protocol.

  4. Thought provoking and inspiring words Dr. Flynn
    It costs to speak the truth in a world were justice is for sale and so few ever pay the piper.
    There are the ignorant masses whose hearts might be reached if they can imagine them as us.
    And there is the power-abusing money-making, propaganda machine destroying the lives of anyone who speaks up. Despite the odd whistle-blower with a conscience, this is NOT the aforementioned group of frightened parents misguidedly protecting their children’s health.
    If awareness is the opposite of evil and they KNOW what they are doing and do it anyway, the question becomes, what is the cure for the disease of evil?
    The road is littered with lives that mean nothing to evil entities who we know, already factored the death toll as the cost of doing business. There is a fundamental difference between ignorance and evil.
    It WILL take everything we are to overcome not only our personal tragedies, to forge a meeting of hearts and minds with the mainstream masses and a whole different set of skills to address the crimes against humanity in courts of law; all of which must be done simultaneously, whole heatedly and immediately. If we fail to meet these challenges we risk losing everything. That’s how important it is. Unless and until everyone matters, nothing but money will ever matter.

  5. Great piece Sarah. I think you’re very right when you note that the parents pitched against eachother are really on the same side. All any parent wants is a happy healthy child. Bit I can’t help but suspect that it is rather convenient for the vax makers for the parent vs. parent in-fighting to distract energy from attacks on them. And I agree about the exercise in taking a moment to argue from the other side. I think I saw this done in the Brexit debate and people were better able to grasp the big picture by taking the opposite stance for a while. I also saw recently a documetary by Adam Curtis called A Century of The Self (in 4 parts on youtube). It explored the ideas of Freud about our deep animalistic irrational drives which we try to overlay with a veneer of rationalism and civility. Groups who bond closely with a charismatic leader have a sort of orgiastic libidinous feeling which when presented with another rival or contrary tribe unleashes a flood of animalistic hate towards them. All very complex and worthy of a Phd thesis or two. Wish I had the time!

  6. Thank you. I needed this today. Yesterday marked the 16th anniversary of my daughter’s near fatal vaccine reaction and I’m swimming in a sea of PTSD right now.

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