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Strong reassurances about vaccines can backfire
In the March issue of Health Psychology

Unwarranted public anxiety about vaccinations can have deadly consequences. Unfortunately, the challenge of communicating health risks is full of psychological complexity. A new German study brings this home, showing how messages that deny vaccination health risks in unequivocal terms can backfire, actually increasing concern among parents.

Cornelia Betsch (University of Erfurt) and Katharina Sachse (Technical University Berlin) recruited 115 participants online (mean age 34; 34 per cent were male; 43 per cent had one or more children). The participants were asked to imagine they were a parent of an eight-month-old and to read an account of a fictitious illness phyxolitis pulmonis. They were further told that their paediatrician had advised vaccinating their child against this condition. Next, the participants were presented with anti-vaccine statements that they’d ostensibly found on the internet (e.g. ‘Multiple vaccines overwhelm the infant’s immune system’). Finally, they read statements of reassurance about the vaccine, which claimed any risks were low– half the participants read weak versions (e.g. ‘There is only sporadic evidence that repeated vaccinations overwhelm the immune system’) and half read strong versions of these statements (e.g. ‘There is no evidence that repeated vaccinations overwhelm the immune system’).

The key finding here was that participants who read the strong statements of reassurance actually reported greater perceptions of risk afterwards, and lower intentions to vaccinate their child. This effect was heightened among participants who had a preference for complementary medicine. Results didn’t vary according to whether participants were a parent in real life or not.

A second study with a further 119 participants was similar, but this time the source of the reassuring statements was varied, either being from a pharmaceutical company (untrusted) or from a government health department (a trusted source). Again, strong statements of reassurance backfired, increasing risk perception and reducing vaccination intentions, but only if those statements came from an untrusted source. Again, this paradoxical effect was stronger among participants who favoured complementary medicine.

This study can’t reveal why the paradoxical effect occurs. However, one possibility proposed by Betsch and Sachse is that an extreme statement of no risk is more attention-grabbing, which only serves to highlight the possibility that risk is an issue. Another potential explanation is that people look for ways to combat claims they disagree with, and if those claims are stated more strongly then that encourages people to marshal even stronger counter-claims of their own.

The results have obvious implications for real-life risk communication. ‘Especially when organisations lack complete knowledge about how much trust the public puts in them, optimal risk negation is likely to profit from moderate rather than extreme formulations,’ the researchers said. 

Creating non-believed memories in the lab

Most of the time our autobiographical memories and beliefs match up – we remember last week’s journey to a conference and believe that journey really took place. Other times, we believe an event happened – we know we travelled to that conference – but our memory for the event eludes us.

Recently, psychologists have begun to examine the rarer reverse scenario, in which we have what feels like a memory for an event, but we know (or believe) that the event never happened. A recent survey of over 1500 undergrads found that nearly a quarter reported having a non-believed memory of this kind. Now Andrew Clark and his colleagues have gone further – for the first time actually provoking non-believed memories in the lab.

Participants were invited to a psychology lab for what they thought was a study into mimicry. Each was filmed as they watched and then mimicked 26 different actions of a researcher, including clapping their hands, rubbing the table, and clicking their fingers.

The clever bit came two days later when the participants were shown clips taken from the earlier footage. These clips showed them sitting passively, watching the researcher perform 12 different actions. In each case, the participant now had to say whether they remembered performing each action, and how strong their belief was that they’d performed each action. Crucially, two of the clips had been doctored – footage of the watching participant had been superimposed over a separate video of the researcher performing two actions that were never part of the original mimicry sessions. Because the participants had earlier mimicked all the actions that they’d witnessed, the doctored footage gave the strong impression that they must have mimicked those two new actions even though they hadn’t. This set-up provided a powerful means of inducing false memories – 68 per cent of the participants’ memory ratings for the fake actions suggested they ‘remembered’ performing the actions. Their belief that they’d performed these actions was similar in strength to their memories.

Four hours later, the participants returned for a final session in which they were told about the trickery. They were then asked again to provide ‘memory’ and ‘belief’ ratings for the different actions. The take-home finding is that for 25 per cent of the fake actions, the participants now reported significantly stronger memory scores than belief scores – their (false) memory of having performed the fake actions persisted even though they often no longer believed they’d performed the actions.

The authors said that their findings raised questions about memory research: ‘debriefing might not always completely “undo” the effects of suggestive manipulation… Is it ethical for participants to leave research labs with remnants of non-believed false memory content in the forefront of their minds?’

How your ‘alternative self’ could shape your identity
In Academy of Management Review

Carter is at a formal drinks for a colleague back from secondment, part of a fast-track management scheme. He remembers opting not to apply for the scheme five years ago and wonders how things would be now had he taken that plunge: the overseas experiences, the pressures, the opportunities. What would that Carter be like? In subsequent months he finds himself returning to this idea, finally setting up a meeting with his manager, who is surprised to hear him reveal that he feels dissatisfied and wants to reinvigorate his career.

Carter has encountered an alternative self: a version of him that could have been. This concept, unpacked by Otilia Obodaru in a recent Academy of Management Review article, can be contrasted with most theories of self that work within a temporal framework – the actual past and present, extrapolating the future from an actual now. The idea of an alternative self integrates research on counterfactual thinking – ‘if I had gotten that bus, I would be there by now’– into the psychology of self.

Developing an alternative self and integrating it with identity requires a few steps. First, you need a turning point, a fork in your life where you took one road over another. As the ‘job for life’ has given way
to more boundaryless careers, there are more work-related turning points to reflect on than ever. Secondly, you must undo that turning point, imagining ‘what if?’, easiest to do when the event was controllable. Finally, the alternative self must have opportunity and motive to be rehearsed mentally or to an audience. Identity research suggests a self-narrative tends to be taken up when relevant to ongoing desires or fears; perhaps Carter has been wondering if he will ever get
out of the city.

Not everyone has an alternative self, the article quoting one interviewee from previous research, confessing ‘I’m a priest... I can’t imagine not being one.’ But many do: Obodaru cites research that reports of long-term regrets have increased fairly linearly decade on decade from around 40 per cent of people in the 1950s to close to 100 per cent in the last decade. Note that this measures only ‘better alternative selves’; worse ones are also possible, such as those that Alcoholics Anonymous encourage their members to reflect on – the active alcoholic they chose not to be. Having an alternative self means you can compare it to your actual self, generating emotional responses, affecting satisfaction, and leading to better self-knowledge about strengths or weaknesses.

As the AA example makes clear, organisations can encourage or dampen the formation of alternative selves, by drawing attention to turning points, inviting the undoing, or giving space for rehearsing what that alternative would look like. At its best, this can lead to insight and greater resolve, such as collectively considering ‘what if we had never dared to start the business together?’ It can also lead to the ‘crystallisation of discontent’ and a motivation to change circumstances. In this sense, the road not taken doesn’t always vanish: it can live on in our minds, affecting our present and shaping our future.
I Written by Alex Fradera, for www.occdigest.org.uk

The material in this section is taken from the Society’s Research Digest blog at www.researchdigest.org.uk/blog, and is written by its editor Dr Christian Jarrett. Visit the blog for full coverage including references and links, additional current reports, an archive, comment and more.

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