The Anti-Vaccination Debate: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Emotions and Epistemic Cognition

  • Ayano Tsuda McGill University
  • Krista Renee Muis McGill University
Keywords: emotion, epistemic cognition, anti-vaccines, pro-vaccines, cross-cultural comparison


Do vaccines cause autism? Answers to this question have become hotly debated since Web 2.0, where self-authored content continues to grow. If individuals do not have the skills to judge the veracity of information, this can have negative health consequences. Equally troubling is the negative emotions that arise due to the content on vaccination websites, which can be detrimental for learning . We examined source and justification strategies authors used in vaccine websites from USA, Canada, Japan and Chile, and the epistemic strategies and emotions individuals used or expressed while reacting to website content. Analyses revealed that pro-vaccination websites justified claims using quotes from experts. In contrast, anti-vaccination websites relied on sources from personal experience. Results also indicated that anger was prominent in websites that included a balanced or pro-vaccine view, which was consistent across cultures. These results provide insight into the importance of emotions in learning about controversial topics, and shed light into possible cultural differences in formatting arguments. Results may be used to develop interventions designed to change misconceptions about controversial topics that are emotionally driven.

Author Biography

Krista Renee Muis, McGill University
Dr. Krista R. Muis is a Canada Research Chair in epistemic cognition and self-regualted learning. Her research interests are in the areas of epistemic cognition, emotion, self-regulated learning and achievement motivation in the context of mathematics and science learning. She is interested in how students’ epistemic cognition and emotions influence various facets of learning, motivation, and academic performance. She also explores how individuals process complex, contradictory content on socio-scientific issues such as climate change, genetically modified foods, and vaccinations. She examines what role misconceptions play when learning about these topics, and how beliefs and emotions facilitate or constrain learning under these conditions. Her research is conducted in the lab as well as in classroom contexts with students ranging from kindergarten to adult learners.


Kata, A. (2012). Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm: An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine, 30(25), 3778–3789. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2011.11.112

Kortum, P., Edwards, C., & Richards-Kortum, R. (2008). The impact of inaccurate Internet health information in a secondary school learning environment. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 10(2), 1–11. doi: 10.2196/jmir.986

Barzilai, S., & Zohar, A. (2014). Reconsidering personal epistemology as metacognition: A multifaceted approach to the analysis of epistemic thinking. Educational Psychologist, 49(1), 13-35. doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.863265

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Daniels, L. M., Stupnisky, R. H., & Perry, R. P. (2010). Boredom in achievement settings: Exploring control-value antecedents and performance outcomes of a neglected emotion. Journal of Educational Psychology, 102, 531-549.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Frenzel, A. C., Barchfeld, P., & Perry, R.P. (2011). Measuring emotions in students' learning and performance : The Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ), 36.

Pekrun, R., & Stephens, E. J. (2012). Academic emotions. In K. R. Harris (Ed.), APA educational psychology handbook, Vol. 2: Individual differences and cultural and contextual factors (pp. 3-31). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research, 67(1), 88–140. doi: 10.3102/00346543067001088

Hofer, B.K. (2008). Personal epistemology and culture. In M.S., Khine (Ed.), Knowing, knowledge and beliefs: epistemological studies across diverse cultures (pp. 3-22). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Strømsø, H. I., & Kammerer, Y. (2016). Epistemic cognition and reading for understanding in the internet age. Handbook of epistemic cognition (pp 230-246). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational Psychology Review, 18, 315-341.

Pekrun, R., & Perry, R. P. (2014). Control value theory of achievement emotions. In R. Pekrun & L. Linnenbrink-Garcia (Eds.), International handbook of emotions in education (pp. 120-141). New York,NY: Taylor & Francis.

Betsch, C., Brewer, N. T., Brocard, P., Davies, P., Gaissmaier, W., Haase, N., … Stryk, M. (2012). Opportunities and challenges of Web 2.0 for vaccination decisions. Vaccine, 30(25), 3727–3733. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2012.02.025

Sinatra, G.M., Kienhues, D., & Hofer, B.K. (2014a). Addressing challenges to public understanding of science: Epistemic cognition, motivated reasoning, and conceptual change. Educational Psychologist, 49(2), 123-138. doi:10.1080/00461520.2014.916216.

Wakefield, A., Murch, S., Anthony, A., Linnell, J., Casson, D., Malik, M., Berelowitz, M., Dhillon, A., Thomson, M., Harvey, P., Valentine, A., Davies, S. & Walker-Smith, J. (1998). Ileallymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637–641. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0

Kata, A. (2010). A postmodern Pandora’s box: Anti-vaccination misinformation on the Internet. Vaccine, 28(7), 1709–1716. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2009.12.022

Betsch, C., Renkewitz, F., Betsch, T., & Ulshöfer, C. (2010). The influence of vaccine-critical websites on perceiving vaccination risks. Journal of Health Psychology, 15, 446–455. doi: 10.1177/1359105309353647

Betsch C, Ulshöfer C, Renkewitz F, & Betsch T. (2011). The influence of narrative vs. statistical information on perceiving vaccination risks. Medical Decision Making, 31(5),742–53.

Kleinginna, P. R., & Kleinginna, A. M. (1981). A categorized list of emotion definitions, with suggestions for a consensual definition, Motivation and Emotion, 5(3), pp 263–291. doi:10.1007/BF00993889

Scherer, K. R. (2000). Psychological models of emotion. The Neuropsychology of Emotion, 6, 137-162.

Pekrun, R., & Linnenbrink-Garcia, L. (2014). International handbook of emotions in education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Muis, R. R., Chevrier, M., & Singh, C. (2018). The role of epistemic emotions in personal

epistemology and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychologist.

Sinatra, G.M., Broughton, S.H., & Lombardi, D. (2014b). Emotions in science education. In R. Pekrun & L. Linnenbrink-Garcia (Eds.), International handbook of emotions in education (pp. 415-436). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Mason, L., & Boldrin, A. (2008). Epistemic metacognition in the context of information searching on the Web. In M.S., Khine (Ed.), Knowing, knowledge and beliefs: epistemological studies across diverse cultures (pp. 377-404). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Linnenbrink-Garcia, L., Rogat, T. K., & Koskey, K. L. K. (2011). Affect and engagement during small group instruction. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 36, 13-24.

D’Mello, S. & Graesser, A. (2012). Dynamic affective states during complex learning. Learning and Instruction, 22, 145-157.

Trevors, G., Muis, K. R., Pekrun, R., Sinatra, G., & Winne, P. H. (2016). Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision : A potential account for the backfire effect. Discourse Processes, 53, 339-370. doi: 10.1080/0163853X.2015.1136507

Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), e835–e842. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-2365

Hofer, B. K., & Bendixen, L. D. (2012). Personal epistemology: Theory, research, and future directions. In K. R. Harris, S. Graham, T. Urdan, C. B. McCormick, G. M. Sinatra, & J. Sweller (Eds.), APA educational psychology handbook, Vol. 1: Theories, constructs, and critical issues (pp. 227-256). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Mason, L., Ariasi, N., & Boldrin, A. (2011). Epistemic beliefs in action: Spontaneous reflections about knowledge and knowing during online information searching and their influence on learning. Learning and Instruction, 21(1), 137–151. doi: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2010.01.001

Mason, L., Boldrin, A., & Ariasi, N. (2010). Searching the Web to learn about a controversial topic: Are students epistemically active? Instructional Science, 38(6), 607–633. doi: 10.1007/s11251-008-9089-y

Mason, L., Pluchino, P., & Ariasi, N. (2014). Reading information about a scientific phenomenon on webpages varying for reliability: An eye-movement analysis. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(6), 663-685. doi:10.1007/s11423-014-9356-3

Yang, F.-Y., Chen, Y. H. & Tsai, M.-J. (2013). How university students evaluate online information about a socio-scientific issue and the relationship with their epistemic beliefs. Educational Technology & Society, 16(3), 385–399.

Heddy, B. C., Danielson, R. W., Sinatra, G. M., & Graham, J. (2017). Modifying Knowledge, Emotions, and Attitudes Regarding Genetically Modified Foods. The Journal of Experimental Education, 85(3), 513-533. doi: 10.1080/00220973.2016.1260523

Southerland, S.A., Sinatra, G.M. & Matthews, M.R. (2001). Belief, knowledge, and science education. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 325-351. doi:10.1023/A:1011913813847

Sinatra, G.M., & Seyranian, V. (2016). Warm change about hot topics: The role of motivation and emotion in attitude and conceptual change about controversial science topics. In L. Corno & E. Anderman (Eds.), APA handbook of educational psychology (3rd ed., pp. 245-256). New York, NY: Routledge.

Eagly, A.H., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Bråten, I. (2008). Personal epistemology, understanding of multiple texts, and learning within internet technologies. In M.S., Khine (Ed.), Knowing, knowledge and beliefs: Epistemological studies across diverse cultures (pp. 351-376). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Tsai, J. L., Levenson, R. W., & McCoy, K. (2006). Cultural and temperamental variation in emotional response. Emotion, 6(3), 484–497. doi: 10.1037/1528-3542.6.3.484

Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological review, 98(2), 224.

Frenzel, A. C., Thrash, T. M., Pekrun, R., & Goetz, T. (2007). Achievement emotions in Germany and China: A cross-cultural validation of the Academic Emotions Questionnaire--Mathematics. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 38(3), 302–309. doi: 10.1177/0022022107300276

DeCuir-Gunby, J.T., & Williams-Johnson, M.R. (2014). The influence of culture on emotions: Implications for education. In R. Pekrun & L. Linnenbrink-Garcia (Eds.), International handbook of emotions in education (pp. 539-557). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Muis, K. R., Bendixen, L. D., & Haerle, F. C. (2006). Domain-generality and domain-specificity in personal epistemology research: Philosophical and empirical reflections in the development of a theoretical framework. Educational Psychology Review, 18(1), 3–54. doi: 10.1007/s10648-006-9003-6

Chan, K., & Elliott, R. G. (2004). Epistemological beliefs across cultures: Critique and analysis of beliefs structure studies. Educational Psychology, 24(2), 123–142. doi: 10.1080/0144341032000160100

Hofer, B. K. (2001). Personal epistemology research : Implications for learning and teaching. Journal of Educational Psychology, 13(4), 353–383. doi: 10.1023/A:1011965830686

Hofer, B.K. (2010). Personal epistemology, learning, and cultural context: Japan and the United States. In M. Baxter Magolda, E. G. Credmer, & P. S. Meszaros (Eds.), Development and assessment of self-authorship: Exploring the concept across cultures (pp. 133-148). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Strømsø, H. I., Bråten, I., Anmarkrud, Ø., & Ferguson, L. E. (2016). Beliefs about justification for knowing when ethnic majority and ethnic minority students read multiple conflicting documents. Educational Psychology, 36, 638–657.

Ekman, P. (1999). Facial expressions. In T. Dalgleish, & T. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotion (pp. 301–320). Chichester, UK: Wiley

Triandis, H. C. (2001). Individualism-Collectivism and Personality. Journal of Personality, 696.

Muis, K.R., & Sinatra, G.M. (2008). University cultures and epistemic beliefs: Examining differences between two academic environments. In M.S., Khine (Ed.), Knowing, knowledge and beliefs: epistemological studies across diverse cultures (pp. 137-150). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Wolfe, R. M., & Sharp, L. K. (2005). Vaccination or immunization? The impact of search terms on the internet. Journal of Health Communication, 10(6), 537–51. doi: 10.1080/10810730500228847

The Top 6 Reasons Why Parents Are Choosing Not To Vaccinate Their Kids. (2015, February 15). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Six Reasons to Say NO to Vaccination. (2015, January 01). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Ten Vaccine Myths-Busted. (2014, July 11). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Sekai no uragawa news [News from the other side of the world]. (2014, April 26). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Are you against or pro-vaccines? (2014, December 11). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Vacunas Infantiles: Peligrosas e Innecesarias. [Infant vaccines: Dangerous and unnecessary]. (2011, October 26). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Paremos la locura anti-vacunación infantil. [Let's stop the insanity of infant anti-vaccination]. (2013, April 30). Retrieved March 07, 2016, from

Pekrun, R., Meier, E., Muis, K. R., & Sinatra, G. M. (2017). Measuring emotions during epistemic activities: The Epistemically-Related Emotions Scales (EES). Cognition and Emotion.

Chinn, C. A., Buckland, L. A., & Samarapungavan, A. L. A. (2011). Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist, 46, 141-167.

Broughton, S.H., Pekrun, R., & Sinatra, G.M. (2012). Climate change, genetically modified foods, airport body scanners: Investigating students' emotions related to science topics. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Vancouver, CA.

Tu, Y. W., Shih, M., & Tsai, C. C. (2008). Eighth graders’ web searching strategies and outcomes: The role of task types, web experiences and epistemological beliefs. Computers and Education, 51(3), 1142–1153. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2007.11.003

McKinley, J. (2013). Displaying critical thinking in EFL academic writing: A discussion of Japanese to English contrastive rhetoric. RELC Journal, 44(2), 195-208.

Hirose, K. (2003). Comparing L1 and L2 organizational patterns in the argumentative writing of Japanese EFL students. Journal of second language writing, 12(2), 181-209.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The case for motivated reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 108, 480-498. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480

How to Cite
Tsuda, A., & Muis, K. R. (2018). The Anti-Vaccination Debate: A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Emotions and Epistemic Cognition. Advances in Social Sciences Research Journal, 5(9).