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Why COVID Vaccination Rates Are So Low in College Students

Understanding the psychology of risky behavior in young adults is essential.

Key points

  • Just over one-third of American adults ages 18 to 39 report being vaccinated, despite free access to the COVID vaccine across the country.
  • One factor that contributes to low vaccination rates is young adults' belief that they are impervious to the consequences of their actions.
  • Young adults' high need to conform to social norms can include failing to get vaccinated or wear a mask.
  • Creating empathy may be an effective strategy for increasing prosocial pandemic behaviors, including vaccination, among young adults.

Co-authored by Jenna Wyman

As we move into the sixth month of vaccine access in the United States, we have an opportunity to reflect on the respective successes and shortcomings of the country’s vaccination campaign. These past few months have seen a considerable amount of positive change back to normalcy in states where vaccine rates are high. And yet, we are ultimately still failing to meet the benchmark goals of herd immunity such as President Biden’s plan to have 70% of adults with one-dose administered by July 4th. Despite increased access to vaccines across the country, rollout across states has slowed down and doses continue to go unused.

While skepticism in older generations largely contributes to our country’s failure to meet goal deadlines, it’s also important to consider how young adults are responding to public health and safety demands. In a federal report released last week, just over one-third of adults ages 18 to 39 reported being vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a false belief that young adults are less likely to contract COVID-19 and less likely to experience severe cases. These incorrect assumptions attribute to the large role high school and college students play in the spread and severity of the pandemic in the United States. According to reports by The New York Times, more than 260,000 cases have been linked to American colleges and universities since the start of 2021. Furthermore, at least 50 colleges have already reported more than 1,000 cases this year alone.

Factors Increasing COVID Risk Among College Students

So, why are college kids still out partying? And why are so many against getting a vaccine? Although many factors may contribute (including the nation’s gross mishandling of pandemic policies and alarmist information spread about the potential side effects of the vaccine), young adults’ unique cognitive processes clearly play a role.

The high levels of naivety and egocentricity seen in college students are rooted in their specific psychological stage of development. Essentially, college kids continue to party in the pandemic due to an overinflated sense of invincibility and a self-centered view of the world. It’s why the country has seen an immense increase in infection rates in college towns like Boulder, CO, Lincoln, NE, and Madison, WI. Peer pressure undoubtedly plays a role in their inability to abstain from going out during an international crisis; however, the mental processes that result in succumbing to peer pressure are rooted in young adults’ stage of development.

Jonah Brown/Unsplash
Source: Jonah Brown/Unsplash

First and foremost, young adults have the false belief that they are impervious to the consequences of their actions. Developmental psychologists label this form of adolescent egocentrism as the personal fable. It can be defined as the belief that they are inherently unique and distinct from their peers, and therefore not susceptible to the same risks as the rest of their age group. The personal fable is the result of young adults’ need to claim autonomy and independence as they separate from their childhood caregivers. Thus, they develop an inflated sense of confidence and security to cope with this new life stage. This developmental phenomenon contributes to a large number of self-harming behaviors such as binge drinking, unprotected sex, and drug use. Young adults have the perception that they are invincible against the negative outcomes attached to these actions. This same line of thinking is found in their choice to continue to go out in the pandemic as they believe they are unaffected by the increasing infection rates and fatality of the virus. This all goes against the statistics that show that young adults are just as likely to be infected by COVID and can experience severe cases of it.

Another factor contributing to college students’ risky COVID behavior is their belief of an imaginary audience. Young adults believe that they are constantly under the observation of others, as if they are an actor on stage, thus resulting in a heightened preoccupation with their appearance and behavior. The belief in an imaginary audience leads young adults to conform to peer pressure, negative or positive. In certain youth social circles, this form of egocentrism can be beneficial pandemic-wise as a young person may believe they will be judged or criticized for continuing to go out during a universal health crisis. However, in a group where the majority lean towards looser behavior around COVID safety, it is astonishingly easy for adolescents to succumb to their friends’ pandemic morals.

The belief in an imaginary audience leads to a high need to conform to social norms, as they will do whatever it takes to feel accepted. So even when a young adult may believe it is a better idea to stay home, the moment enough of their friends decide to go out, they will follow suit to avoid the feeling of abnormality. The same thought processes that drive peer pressure around underage drinking, drug use, and unprotected sex are the same driving forces for skyrocketing COVID rates in high school and college communities.

Hillary Peralta/Unsplash
Source: Hillary Peralta/Unsplash

Strategies for Creating Behavior Change

Now all of this begs the question: How can college administrators better reflect the unique psychology of young adults in their campus COVID policies?

When considering the personal fable and imaginary audience, policies should be less centered around fear of consequences and more centered around positive peer pressure and empathy. It is apparent that young adults generally do not respond to punishment-based COVID campus policies; their high levels of egocentrism make it innately difficult to comply to rules and regulations so they continue on without fear of repercussions.

Therefore, the public approach must shift over to something that is more impactful in inciting safe behavior: empathy. Forcing college students to look at the impact of their reckless actions on their grandparents, their professors, or other members of campus staff will result in more conscientious behaviors. Preliminary research already suggests that empathy is a powerful tool to increase prosocial pandemic behaviors such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Thus, this approach is likely to have similarly positive outcomes for young adults. Even as the national infection rate starts to decline with the distribution of COVID vaccines, it is still critical that college students start to act in a way that promotes public health and safety; if administrators and public policy officials start to employ empathy as the tool to improve student behavior, the spread of COVID in young adult communities can be considerably diminished.


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