Oct 27th 2021

Why do some people delay getting vaccinated or pretend COVID doesn’t exist? Paradoxically, denial of death

by Ross G. Menzies and Rachel E. Menzies

 

Ross G. Menzies Professor, Graduate School of Health, University of Technology Sydney

Rachel E. Menzies Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney

 

Vaccines save lives, and have been doing so since the development of the smallpox vaccine more than 200 years ago.

However, for vaccines to keep entire communities safe they need to be taken up by very large proportions of the population. Only then can the vaccinated offer protection to the unvaccinated, known as “herd immunity”.

Unfortunately, too often this doesn’t occur. Hesitancy around the measles vaccine, for example, contributed to a 30% increase in cases globally in 2019.

So, why does vaccine hesitancy occur? There are many reasons, and these will differ between people.

But, as clinical psychologists who study anxiety and avoidance, we think one big factor is fear - specifically the fear of death, and how we manage that fear.

Vaccination rates increasing, but fear still out there

According to the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy is one of the ten leading threats to global health.

In the case of COVID, refusing or delaying vaccination has been a significant problem, with anti-vax and freedom marches dominating news cycles over recent months.

In Australia, the issue of vaccine hesitancy remains significant, despite some reports to the contrary.

Vaccine rates are on track to reach 85% or even more than 90% in many parts of the country. And last month a Sydney Morning Herald survey showed only 9% of adults indicated they were unlikely to get vaccinated.

The article also claimed “vaccine fears have plunged to a record low”.

However, while the data were real, in our view, the interpretation of them was flawed.

Fear hasn’t substantially diminished. Instead, mandatory vaccination of certain groups in the community, and significant disadvantages for those who refuse to be vaccinated, is driving increases in vaccination uptake.

In several Australian states, mandatory vaccinations are in place for many professions, including quarantine workers, health workers, teachers, construction workers, aged-care workers and other groups. When you need to work to put food on the table, the decision to stay unvaccinated can become an impossible one.

What’s more, politicians have foreshadowed various freedoms for the vaccinated. For example, the freedoms currently afforded to fully vaccinated Sydneysiders, but not the unvaccinated, include: visitors to your home and access to gyms, pools, retail stores, hairdressers, nail salons, pubs, zoos, cinemas, theatres, museums and galleries.

If people weren’t vaccine hesitant, mandatory vaccinations and incentives wouldn’t be necessary. A substantial portion of the community don’t want to be vaccinated, and would choose not to be vaccinated, if it wasn’t for the strong arm of government.


Read more: Heroes help us cope with fears of dying – that's why we love them


So why do people delay or refuse to get vaccinated?

The WHO lists complacency among the leading reasons for vaccine hesitancy.

But how can this be the case? After all, COVID has already killed nearly five million people globally and infected over 240 million. In the face of these numbers, how could anyone remain complacent? Why do we see unmasked protesters, apparently oblivious to the threat?

The psychological theory that best explains these behaviours is “terror management theory”. According to this theory, humans are unable to face the stark reality of death, and often engage in various forms of denial.

We see ourselves as grander than the animals, immune to many of their problems, and destined for immortality with our gods. As one group of researchers put it, humans

could not function with equanimity if they believed that they were not inherently more significant and enduring than apes, lizards, or lima beans.

Hundreds of studies in social psychology laboratories have shown that subtle reminders of death (known as “death primes”) lead participants to vigorously defend their religious and cultural beliefs, and their freedoms.

When reminded of death, participants even show aggression towards those with different political or religious ideologies. We cling to our “rightness” and “specialness”, to help assuage our terror of death.

In the process, we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me.

This effect will be magnified even further if the social groups to which we belong also endorse similar views. Reminders of death lead people to fiercely defend the values and beliefs of their group. In the context of COVID, this means we may become more individualistic, more distrustful of science or government, or more trusting in our god’s ability to protect us, if these attitudes are valued and shared by our culture or subgroup.

Living in the times of COVID has made us all participants in a social psychology experiment. Daily death counts and case numbers are regular reminders of death that have produced all the behaviours we see in the laboratory.

These include denial of risk and aggression against those who are different from us. For example, the racism against people of Asian appearance when the pandemic began.

Early deaths associated with the vaccines themselves became another “death prime” that drove additional caution and avoidance.

Vaccine hesitancy will remain an urgent problem globally while we refuse to see ourselves for who we really are.

As COVID continues to mutate, the speedy uptake of vaccines may remain a pressing issue over coming years.

Vaccine hesitancy will continue to kill tens of thousands globally until its roots are fully understood and confronted.

 

Ross G. Menzies, Professor, Graduate School of Health, University of Technology Sydney and Rachel E. Menzies, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
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Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
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Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
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Oct 21st 2021
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Oct 10th 2021
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Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
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Sep 16th 2021
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Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
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Aug 10th 2021
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Aug 3rd 2021
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Jul 31st 2021
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Jul 22nd 2021
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