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The Psychology of Vaccine Hesitancy

Political ideology helps to explain COVID vaccine hesitancy, but not all of it.

Key points

  • Conservatives are more likely than liberals to be hesitant about getting the COVID vaccine, yet many are fully vaccinated.
  • The distinction between right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation helps explain why this is the case.

If, just a few years ago, someone had written a sci-fi story about a global pandemic in which a significant portion of the population refused to take the vaccine that would save their lives, it would’ve been dismissed as too far-fetched. And yet, here we are, well into that dystopian future.

As of this writing (mid-January 2022), the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has exceeded 800,000, with no sign of the virus abating. Despite the ready availability of effective vaccines, nearly a third of Americans still haven’t gotten inoculated. What accounts for this vaccine hesitancy?

In part, it’s due to “anti-vaxxer” conspiracy theories. False claims, such as the notion that childhood vaccines cause autism, have been rampant on social media. If you’ve bought into this misinformation and already have doubts about vaccine safety, it’s understandable why you’d have misgivings about the COVID shot as well.

However, there are plenty of people who are fully vaccinated against childhood diseases but still hesitant about the COVID vaccine. Furthermore, COVID vaccine hesitancy isn’t just a North American phenomenon but rather is common in many other countries as well. To gain insights into the psychology of vaccine hesitancy, University of Warsaw psychologists Michal Bilewicz and Wiktor Soral conducted large-scale surveys in Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social-Dominance Orientation

Bilewicz and Soral began with the observation that vaccine hesitancy tends to correlate with political ideology, with conservatives far more likely to shun the COVID shot than liberals. Nevertheless, plenty of conservatives are fully vaccinated, suggesting that a simple left-right political distinction is insufficient to explain vaccine hesitancy.

In recent decades, political psychologists have noted that conservative attitudes come in two forms. One form of political conservatism is known as right-wing authoritarianism, which highly values social conformity, adherence to tradition, and obedience to authorities. (It’s called “right-wing” because there’s also a “left-wing” version, which insists on conformity to liberal, as opposed to conservative, social norms.)

Moreover, right-wing authoritarians tend to view the world as a dangerous place that’s full of threats. They feel the need to defend themselves—for example, by owning guns or living in gated communities. They’re also fearful of unconventional people or situations, which is why they emphasize the need for conformity.

The other form of political conservatism is called social-dominance orientation. This ideology views humanity as organized according to a strict hierarchy. Naturally, those who subscribe to this worldview see themselves as members of the dominant group. As practiced in North America, for example, it’s the view that White straight men are inherently superior to women, LGBTQ persons, and non-Whites. Any attempt to level the playing field for discriminated groups is seen as a violation of the natural order.

In addition, those who buy into a social-dominance orientation see society as unavoidably competitive: “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Since life is seen as a zero-sum game, any gain by an out-group is counted as a loss for the in-group. This is why they oppose social welfare programs—because they see helping outsiders as hurting themselves. Such people are also fiercely devoted to authority figures, but only as long as those authorities push policies that benefit the dominant group and maintain the social hierarchy.

Political Ideology and Vaccine Hesitancy

Bilewicz and Soral proposed that this ideological distinction between right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation could help explain differences in vaccine hesitancy among political conservatives. Since those who subscribe to right-wing authoritarianism view the world as a dangerous place, they should be more likely to want to protect themselves and their families from the COVID threat. They’re also more likely to obey authorities and accept governmental claims that the vaccines are safe and effective.

In contrast, those who display a social-dominance orientation see the world as inherently competitive and unequal. They’re likely to be skeptical about claims of a disease that strikes all people with equal probability, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or race. They should also oppose any government program that distributes the vaccine for free to all people, as opposed, for example, to one that takes care of the “more deserving” first.

To test this hypothesis, Bilewicz and Soral surveyed representative national samples of more than 1,200 people each in Poland, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The survey assessed right-wing authoritarianism by asking respondents to indicate their level of agreement (from “definitely disagree” to “definitely agree”) to statements such as: “Rules in society should be enforced without pity.” Likewise, social-dominance orientation was measured with statements such as “Groups on the top should dominate groups at the bottom.” Finally, respondents indicated their willingness to get the COVID vaccine. (It should be noted that this survey was conducted just as vaccines were becoming available.)

As expected, both right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation predicted intention to get vaccinated, but in opposite directions—that is, right-wing authoritarians were more likely to say they were going to get vaccinated, while those with social-dominance orientation were more likely to say they would not.

Differing Worldviews and Social Agendas

The results of this study show once again the danger of lumping people into broad categories. While the left-right distinction in politics has some usefulness, political psychologists have long argued for the importance of recognizing that people are conservative or liberal for various reasons. Both right-wing authoritarianism and social-dominance orientation are conservative ideologies, but those who subscribe to them have different worldviews and social agendas.

Finally, it’s important to point out that political ideology isn’t the only explanation for COVID vaccine hesitancy. Just as in all human affairs, the reasons why some people are hesitant to get vaccinated are complex. However, this study by Bilewicz and Soral helps solve one piece of that puzzle.

References

Bilewicz, M. & Soral, W. (2021). The politics of vaccine hesitancy: An ideological dual-process approach. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/19485506211055295

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