New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

The psychology behind resistance to the vaccine

- By Ruth Bettelheim Ruth Bettelheim is a life coach and writer. She wrote this for Psychology Today.

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.

 ?? Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticu­t Media ?? A nurse prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Stamford earlier this year.
Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticu­t Media A nurse prepares the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Stamford earlier this year.

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