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Unlock Altruism to Conquer Fear-Based Responses to Covid-19

How to avoid unintended consequences of vaccination certificates.

  • Some people are now grappling with the fear of not being vaccinated while others fear the vaccine itself.
  • Fear can be paralyzing and trigger anti-social behavior.
  • Vaccine certificates and other measures may trigger fear-based responses.
  • To avoid fear: focus on rewards for individuals who comply with public health directives.
  • Leaders should encourage community caring and cohesiveness.

The dominant emotion of the coronavirus pandemic has been fear: fear of illness or death, vanishing employment, social loss, and more. Some people are now grappling with the fear of not being vaccinated while others fear the vaccine itself. As leaders consider the vaccination phase of the current pandemic, the prevalence of fear should be of great concern. Fear is a powerful motivator—yet not always one that stimulates prosocial behavior.

The Benefits of Fear

Feeling fear is an essential human survival tool. Fear signals run between the stomach and the brain along the vagus nerve. This pathway is an essential early warning system that operates constantly and at speeds faster than conscious thought.

The well-documented “freeze-flight-fight” response is an instinctual mechanism through which fear becomes instant, potentially life-saving, action. The ability to sense a threat and react quickly is how prey escapes predators. Your progenitors were fast enough, which explains why you are here today.

Image by CDC on Unsplash
Vaccination certificates deserve nuanced consideration.
Source: Image by CDC on Unsplash

Moving Beyond Fear

Fear, however, can also be paralyzing and trigger anti-social behavior, exactly what leaders should seek to avoid at a time when someone may feel trapped or without hope. Fear of a positive Covid-19 test may dissuade people from taking a test at all. Our colleague, Dr. Brian Spisak, argued in a recent research article that vaccine certificates and other well-meaning measures currently under consideration may trigger fear-based responses that mute their effectiveness. Spisak’s piece, co-authored with Eric McNulty, noted that vaccination-based approaches may “set a precedent for distinct classes of people based on their perceived health risk and access to vaccination.” Failure to get a certificate could even become a “badge of shame.”

The route to avoiding the fear trap is to focus on rewards while minimizing penalties for individuals who comply with public health directives. Imagine if a positive Covid-19 test resulted not in job loss or banishment from campus but rather comfortable isolation, access to healthcare, wage guarantees, and other measures. This approach diminishes the fear of testing by rewarding taking the test while removing the costs of “failing” it. It taps into an individual’s natural human altruism toward their community—a powerful intrinsic motivator. It is well-documented that intrinsic motivators have greater effect and durability than extrinsic motivators such as vaccination certificates.

Vaccine certificates may have benefits in limited situations such as international travel. They would affect relatively few people and would help smooth the transition as the traveler passes from one country’s public health and healthcare system into another. However, if they are extended to public transit and workplaces, they may result in the inability to get to work, school, shop, or to care for loved ones. Vaccine access issues may spur an illicit market in forged vaccination certificates. It has already been shown that the racial disparities seen in the impact of the virus are persisting in the vaccine rollout in the U.S. Widespread requirements for vaccination certificates will only amplify these inequities and the resulting consequences.

A Positive Way Forward

Public officials and other leaders should emphasize policies based on helping behaviors such as compassion and empathy over fear-inducing, penalty-based regulations. They should support people in what individuals can control—wearing masks, being tested, getting vaccinated—and avoid punishments for what individuals cannot control, such as the outcome of a test. In psychological terms, this increases personal agency to make the controllable behavior more motivating than the fear of uncontrollable outcomes.

The pandemic has been, and continues to be, a common threat. For leaders, the guiding principle should be stimulating unity of purpose and action. They should encourage community caring and cohesiveness rather than highlighting individual deviance. At the government, organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal levels, a systemic approach based on consistent reinforcement of and support for positive behaviors is critical to overcoming the virus. Every public policy choice comes with the possibility of unintended consequences. In the case of vaccination certificates, the downside costs are both visible and avoidable. Leaders should proceed with masks on—and eyes wide open—to get the benefits they are trying to achieve.


Spisak, B.R. & McNulty, E.J. (2021). Concerns regarding Covid-19 vaccine certificates and tips for lasting, equitable solutions: Leaders also need to trigger society’s intrinsic motivation to help. Politics and the Life Sciences, 1-3. Doi: 10.1017/pls.2020.29

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation development and wellness. Guilford Press.

Goetz, J.L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3): 351-374.

Caprara, G.V., & Streca, P. (2005). Self-efficacy beliefs as determinants of prosocial behavior conducive to life satisfaction across ages Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2): 191-217.

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