A Psychological Perspective…
No-Vax reasons puzzle everyone I know.
We understand misinformation. We understand making decisions that harmonize with friends and family. And we understand saying “no” to vaccines as a protest against many other things that cause us despair and anger.
But we don’t understand COVID-19 “no-vax reasons” that endanger one’s own life and the lives of people whom they hold dear.
No-Vax Reasons: A Psychological View
Readers of this blog know that I look for research discoveries that can help our lives, and try to translate them into practical terms. However, once in a while I encounter an article that is so spectacular and unique that it stands on its own. I can’t make it better by comparing and contrasting because there are no comparables.
This is one of those instances, a discussion of COVID-19 vaccine refusal.
MedPageToday offers an ongoing podcast “Track the Vax.” On December 8, 2021 they published an interview with Prof Gretchen Chapman, head of the Psychology Department at Carnegie Mellon University. The interview host was Serena Marshall, journalist and creator of this podcast.
Here’s the title and the link: Psychological Barriers May Lead to COVID Vaccine Refusal
I don’t want to discourage you from reading the full interview linked above. But I hope to motivate you with a few nuggets that I took away from it:
Vaccine Acceptance Has Always Taken Time
Prof Chapman counsels us not to be impatient. “When a new vaccine is released …it takes a number of years for …buildup. …[T]he varicella vaccine …was introduced in 1996 and had uptake of … 15% that year. …by …2004, it’s in the high 80s, and by 2014, it’s in the low 90s.” She references a CDC chart that I believe is the one below: (source: page 353 of CDC MMWR 4-25-2014 page 353)
Omission Versus Commission
There is harm if you vaccinate: there are side effects, and you may also have a “breakthrough” infection. And there is harm if you don’t vaccinate: you could get sick. In either case, you could go to a hospital, you could die or you could have long-lasting impairments.
If a person thinks that these risks are equal, he will prefer not to take a vaccine. Either way something bad might happen. However, most people prefer not to feel responsible, so they would rather not take an action. That is, “omitting” (not getting vaccinated) feels psychologically safer than “committing” (getting vaccinated). As Prof Chapman says, we regret our actions more than our inactions.
Of course, if you believe the research results, the risks are not equal: it is much safer to vaccinate. But a person who counts only the number and passion of tweets might judge the risks to be equal.
Of course, Prof Chapman also discusses the effect of social norms on vax acceptance: people tend to do what friends and associates are doing. Our previous blogs have touched on polarization and group loyalty in politics and in attitudes toward Covid masking rules.
She also talks about research on “fear messaging,” that is, describing serious diseases to scare people into vaccinating against them. One possible reaction to such messages is the opposite of what’s desired: to discourage people from vaccinating. Because to get a vax, you have to think about the health risk if you don’t vaccinate, and many people do not want to think about the risk. By refusing the vax, they can emulate the proverbial ostrich and simply ignore the whole issue.
Health Mandates Are Effective
Health mandates do have an effect over time. For example, requiring the use of car seat belts was controversial at first. Not everyone uses seat belts today, however no one is loudly objecting to seat belt laws. Similarly, smoke-free offices were controversial some years ago. Some smokers find these rules inconvenient, but today you rarely hear complaints about no-smoking restrictions as an infringement of personal freedom.
Therefore, it may take many years, but eventually vaccination requirements may come to seem mundane.
I came away from Prof Chapman’s interview with a deeper appreciation of the no-vax reasons driving many Covid vax refusals. She helps me understand that any improvement in vaccine acceptance will be a long time in coming. Fortunately, my recent blog posits that in the US we will soon see national immunity, whether or not we deserve it, and whether or not we like it.
– Prof Chapman interview on https://www.medpagetoday.com/podcasts/trackthevax/96053
– Vaccine coverage graph from page 353 of https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm6316.pdf
– Antivax symbol by cyberscooty on openclipart
– Teenager with hand by ottawagraphics, person by stokpic, both on pixabay