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Don’t Be Angry with Unvaccinated Friends and Family

Be angry at rabbit holes, not people who fall into rabbit holes.

Key points

  • If you are doing your part to end the pandemic, you may feel angry at others who are not vaccinated or do not wear masks.
  • Being angry at individuals is not effective. Being angry won’t convince them to get vaccinated or correct misinformation.
  • Instead, anger and action should be directed toward the people and systems that create and spread misinformation.

I really want the pandemic to be over. I’ve done my part. I’m vaccinated and wear a mask. I’ve avoided high risk situations. We don’t eat inside at restaurants. We’ve seen our friends outside. And since we’ve done what we can, I find it easy to feel frustrated and angry with people who aren’t doing theirs — those who aren’t vaccinated and who refuse to wear a mask.

But we shouldn’t be angry with the unvaccinated.

Is Anger Justified?

Admittedly, some anger is justifiable. You want the pandemic to end. We want to protect vulnerable people, including young children who can’t be vaccinated. If you’ve done your part by being vaccinated and wearing a mask, you are allowed to be frustrated and angry.

If everyone would get vaccinated and wear a mask, the risk of spreading Covid would be reduced. This would also cut the likelihood of new variants. Every unvaccinated person is a virus petri dish. The coronavirus will move in, reproduce, and evolve into new variations. And each new variant prolongs the pandemic.

But while we can be angry about the situation, we probably shouldn’t be angry at individuals — at our friends and family members who are unvaccinated.

Why We Shouldn’t Be Angry at Friends and Family

I want to focus on two reasons why we shouldn’t be angry with friends and family. First, I hope to eventually convince a few more people in my extended family to get vaccinated. Maybe you’ve got some friends and family you hope will get the vaccine for Covid as well. Being angry with them probably isn’t our most effective communication strategy. When we express our anger, our friends and family are more likely to stop listening.

And there is plenty of good advice and information to help you communicate with family and friends. I recommend the Covid Vaccine Handbook. It has good basic information about vaccines and information to address people’s concerns. The vaccine handbook also has information to address many common disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories about the vaccines. This was developed as a large collaborative project of experts on the vaccines and experts in countering misinformation.

But sharing information and addressing concerns won’t always be effective. It hasn’t worked with some of my relatives. Almost everyone I know who studies misinformation has family members who refuse to get vaccinated — generally because of misinformation. And this leads to the second reason to not be angry with friends and family.

Vaccine Denial Is a Bigger Issue than One Person

Anyone who is still refusing to be vaccinated has reasons. For some people, there are legitimate limitations. The vaccines have been hard to get at various times and places — still are in large parts of the world. Many people are worried about feeling bad for a few days after being vaccinated and worried about whether they can take time off work. Others have longstanding fears of needles and injections. These friends and family members will need a lot of support to get their vaccines — support that our current systems may not be providing.

Vaccine Denials Based on Misinformation

But in places where vaccines are readily available, the larger group of unvaccinated people have adopted misinformation. They have been exposed to repeated disinformation campaigns about the vaccines. People they trust; whether political leaders, news media, or friends on social media; have led them to question the vaccines. They may rarely be exposed to accurate information about the vaccines or corrections to the misinformation they’ve seen.

Sure you could be angry at them for who they trust and how they search for information. But they are exposed to a coherent worldview. They have a set of friends and identity groups who all share this worldview based on misinformation (Maddie Jalbert and I wrote about the importance of this in a non-Covid context a few years ago). Instead of being angry at them, be angry at the people pushing the disinformation campaigns. That’s where to direct your anger. Many of the people pushing vaccine disinformation are vaccinated themselves. But they push out vaccine misinformation to the harm of our friends and family.

Some people have clearly gone down a rabbit hole of misinformation. Of course, we can be mad at them for following misinformation. But maybe we should focus on the problem of rabbit holes. Who created those rabbit holes and which systems allow the holes to flourish rather than filling in the nasty traps?

We have a strong tendency to blame the individual who has adopted misinformation. We ignore the fact that all they see in many cases is a coherent set of misinformation. Our few conversations with them in which we try to provide accurate information and correct the disinformation campaigns are rare. A few pieces of accurate information are not enough to help someone drowning in a sea of lies.

Where to Direct Your Anger

Being angry that the pandemic is entering its third year is reasonable. But where should we direct our anger and frustration? Being angry at friends and family is unlikely to change their minds. And being angry at friends and family is not healthy for maintaining relationships.

When I feel angry, I am angry at the systems that spread disinformation. I am angry at those who are misleading our friends and family.


Lewandowsky, S., Cook, J., Schmid, P., Holford, D. L., Finn, A., Leask, J., Thomson, A., Lombardi, D., Al-Rawi, A. K., Amazeen, M. A., Anderson, E. C., Armaos, K. D., Betsch, C., Bruns, H. H. B., Ecker, U. K. H., Gavaruzzi, T., Hahn, U., Herzog, S., Juanchich, M., Kendeou, P., Newman, E. J., Pennycook, G., Rapp, D. N., Sah, S., Sinatra, G. M., Tapper, K., Vraga, E. K (2021). The COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook. A practical guide for improving vaccine communication and fighting misinformation.

Hyman, I. E., Jr., Jalbert, M. C. (2017). Misinformation and worldviews in the post-truth information age: Commentary on Lewandowsky, Ecker, and Cook. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6, 377-381. DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.09.009

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