Modeling and Leveraging Intuitive Theories to Improve Vaccine Attitudes

Derek Powell, Kara Weisman, Ellen M. Markman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Much of the richness of human thought is supported by people’s intuitive theories—mental frameworks capturing the perceived structure of the world. But intuitive theories can also contain and reinforce dangerous misconceptions. In this paper, we take up the case of misconceptions about vaccine safety that discourages vaccination. These misconceptions constitute a major public health risk that predates the coronavirus pandemic but that has become all the more dire in recent years. We argue that addressing such misconceptions requires awareness of the broader conceptual contexts in which they are embedded. To build this understanding, we examined the structure and revision of people’s intuitive theories of vaccination in five large survey studies (total N = 3,196). Based on these data, we present a cognitive model of the intuitive theory surrounding people’s decisions about whether to vaccinate young children against diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). Using this model, we were able to make accurate predictions about how people’s beliefs would be revised in light of educational interventions, design an effective new intervention encouraging vaccination, and understand how these beliefs were affected by real-world events (the measles outbreaks of 2019). In addition to presenting a promising way forward for promoting the MMR vaccine, this approach has clear implications for encouraging the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, especially among parents of young children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Belief Revision
  • Cognitive Modeling
  • Intuitive Theories
  • Vaccine Attitudes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Psychology(all)
  • Developmental Neuroscience


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