New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
The psychology behind resistance to the vaccine
Vaccine resistance is not an American phenomenon. Attributing it to the usual suspects (conspiracy theories, misinformation) ignores the hidden forces impelling people worldwide to refuse vaccination. The true explanation may lie in human nature and our visceral response to danger. Government efforts to overcome vaccine resistance are floundering everywhere partly because their efforts overlook that basic cause.
If you were an opossum, when threatened, you might freeze, your body shutting down to such a degree that you appeared dead. A gazelle might run like the wind to escape, while a rhino might attack. These are unconscious, automatic responses to danger. Humans employ all three.
These responses happen in milliseconds, long before conscious awareness is possible. Once they are underway, our minds catch onto what we are doing and seek justifications for our actions.
We might freeze the instant we see a car hurtling toward us, our bodies and emotional responses arrested until the vehicle passes by. Afterward, we tell ourselves that it was the only way to prevent death. (This is also a common response in victims of domestic abuse.) If our visceral reaction to the pandemic is “freeze,” we might tell ourselves that the vaccines are harmful or not well researched, so doing nothing is safest.
The visceral “fight” response initiates an attack — verbal, physical or both. Once we become aware of our aggressive reaction, we tell ourselves the situation fully deserves our ire. In the pandemic, fighters are ready to take on all comers, defying the disease itself, as well as advice to mask or get vaccinated.
Freeze and fight responses repress fear
One thing the unvaccinated have in common is reporting less fear of COVID — despite being at vastly greater risk than the vaccinated. This is because freeze and fight responses repress awareness of fear, enabling us to hold our ground or confront the threat.
An example: Learning to drive a car is terrifying. Yet teenagers who speed recklessly don’t feel afraid. Instead, they feel euphoric and powerful as they flout speed limits designed to protect life and limb (as those who flout public health mandates might).
Rather than avoiding danger through caution, speeders overcome
the sensation of fear through the pleasure of driving aggressively. Awareness of vulnerability is replaced with intoxicating empowerment, and it feels good — far better than the terror it has supplanted.
Some people, therefore, repeatedly seek out confrontations with the things they fear most. Former President Trump’s behavior could be an example of this. He is a self-proclaimed germaphobe. But why would someone mortally terrified of germs deny the danger of COVID-19, refuse masks and host super-spreader events at the White House — despite having full knowledge that COVID-19 could kill him? The answer may lie in his predispositions. He prides himself on being a lifelong fighter, once writing, “Even in elementary school, I was a very assertive, aggressive kid.” He may have defaulted to “fight” mode.
Surviving each confrontation with deadly danger fuels a sense of invulnerability and, paradoxically, safety. But as every insurer knows, repetition increases risk — and indeed Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19 after repeated potential exposures.
This behavior, while apparently irrational, can stem from natural responses to danger. Yet instead of understanding a common reaction, defenders of public health condemn and attack those who refuse masks and vaccines. These attacks are counterproductive, since vilifying the maskless and unvaccinated increases their threat perception, fueling paralysis in those who freeze and defiant bravado in the fighters.
Disassociating vaccines from fear
We are failing to address one another’s fears productively. To achieve herd immunity, we must use tactics other than contempt, anger and frightening statistics.
Some people who refuse vaccination will never change their minds to save lives. This is because protecting themselves and others means acknowledging danger, which those who rely upon freeze or fight reactions cannot do.
We should instead disassociate the vaccines from fear. We should associate them with pleasure, empowerment, courage. The military used this approach to prevent suicide with a campaign emphasizing that “it takes the courage and strength of a warrior to ask for help.” The French use images of kissing couples to advertise the intimate, “desirable” benefits of vaccination.
Rather than simply protecting us, vaccines should be reframed as incredibly powerful weapons to attack the virus, and vaccination passports as credentials proving we are armed for the fight.
Emotions, not reason and science, govern much of human behavior. This is equally true for those of us whose instinctive flight reactions to COVID position us more in line with sciencebased guidance. Rather than congratulating ourselves on our superiority, we should recognize our good luck and sympathize with those whose visceral reactions are failing to protect them. To change behaviors that endanger us all, we need to understand, rather than dismiss or condemn, the powerful emotional forces behind self-defeating actions.
President Trump seemed to outplay his political rivals and the scientific community for months by harnessing these powerful responses. Failure to understand, respect and make use of the emotional drivers of human behavior has already cost us dearly.