Despite being heralded as a major public health breakthrough, the HPV vaccine has seen its fair share of controversy. Most recently, 24 U.S. states tried to pass a bill to make the vaccine mandatory for school-age girls.
But the bill did not make it past the introductory stages in all but one state for the reasons, both scientific and cultural, that have plagued the HPV vaccine from the start: The vaccine fails to protect against 30% of the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer; there is not enough known about possible adverse events; vaccination may lull young women into a false sense of security, leading to risky sexual behavior.
Legal researchers, led by Dan Kahan, JD, from Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., conducted a study to assess the factors that influence the perceptions of the risks and benefits of the HPV vaccine among the general public. They surveyed 1,538 U.S. adults and found that two factors influenced how their respondents viewed the HPV vaccination: biased assimilation and cultural credibility.
“Biased assimilation refers to the tendency of individuals selectively to credit and dismiss information in a manner that confirms their prior beliefs,” the authors explained. With regard to cultural credibility, “the results of this [study] suggest that polarization grows where culturally diverse subjects see the argument they are disposed to accept being made by the advocate whose values they share, and the argument they are predisposed to reject being made by the advocate whose values they repudiate”( Law Hum Behav online, January 14, 2010).
Individuals who have cultural values that favor authority and individualism perceive the vaccine as risky while individuals with cultural values that favor gender equality and pro-community/government involvement in basic healthcare are more likely to see the vaccine as low risk and high benefit.
The authors suggested that policymakers avoid creating the impression that a scientific debate trumps cultural standards, and consider cultural norms and biases.