Nova Scotia·Q&A

Psychologist explains vaccine hesitancy and how reluctant minds might be changed

Joseph Hayes, a behavioural psychologist at Acadia University, explains why some people are hesitant and whether it’s possible to motivate them to get vaccinated.

About 73% of Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated, but some remain hesitant

A person received a COVID-19 vaccine in this file photo. Joseph Hayes, a psychology professor at Acadia University, says there are many reasons why people are hesitant to get vaccinated. (Haley Ryan/CBC)

About 73 per cent of Nova Scotians are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but there are still some people who remain reluctant to get their shot.

Portia Clark of CBC Radio's Information Morning spoke with Joseph Hayes, a behavioural psychologist at Acadia University, about why some people are hesitant and whether it's possible to motivate them to get vaccinated.

This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

Why would someone rather risk death from COVID-19 than get vaccinated?

It's a really complicated issue, but I study how people cope with threats that remind us of their mortality and certainly COVID-19 is one of those threats.

One theoretical perspective I think really helps to make sense of this is terror management theory, which focuses on how we manage the anxieties associated with the threat, more so than how we manage the threat, per se.

When people are faced with these sorts of mortal threats or mortal dangers, there's a two-step process that we undertake to manage this anxiety. The first step is just to minimize the perceived risk, so people might downplay the problem and say, 'Well, nobody gets this,' or 'It's a hoax,' or they're likely to survive it anyway.

But the issue then becomes that you've also been reminded of the fact that you're mortal, and so that anxiety also needs to be managed. The way in which people manage this deeper existential anxiety is by investing themselves in a world of meaning and trying to derive personal value from that meaning.

Freedom seems to be a big value for people ... something that makes their life meaningful and worthy of living. They can feel like being forced into a vaccine is a threat to their freedom and part of the process through which they manage their existential anxiety is to try to defend that freedom at all costs.

Why are conspiracy theories so attractive to some people? 

I think in a lot of cases — perhaps from a terror management perspective — is it helps to make meaning of the uncertainty that we're all dealing with.

Certain people enjoy or feel more comfortable when things feel a little more black and white, and a conspiracy theory helps to make meaning of seemingly unrelated events.

They can be compelling to somebody who's searching for meaning and is wallowing in uncertainty, especially if this provides them with an avenue for attaining personal value, the feeling that, 'You know what? I know the truth, even though everybody else doesn't. Think about how special I must be to know the truth when everybody else is deceived.'

For the people who aren't committed anti-vaxxers, but are hesitant, what is their motivation, generally? 

There's lots of reasons for why somebody can be hesitant.

Certainly some people have had bad experiences with vaccines and they may feel that the threat associated with the virus is less detrimental to them than the threat associated with the vaccine, so deciding to take a vaccine is sort of like deciding to put yourself in harm's way, or at least potential harm's way, if you're convinced that the vaccine is going to be a problem for you.

Whereas if you do nothing, then you may be able to convince yourself that, 'Well, I might be able to get away with this. Certainly, I've come this far.' But to make the decision to do something that could potentially produce some ill effects, it's sort of a departure from doing nothing. 

You can feel like it's easier to do nothing and convince yourself that, 'Oh, there was nothing I could do,' than to take the extra step and then create negative consequences for yourself. 

You could feel like, 'Well, then I would be responsible for my own fate, essentially, if something bad were to happen to me from the vaccine,' whereas if something bad happens from the virus, they feel less responsible because it's not a direct course of action that they took.

If you were in charge of selling the vaccine program to the hesitant, what would you say to convince them?

In order to get those who are hesitant to get over that, is to really tie getting vaccinated with personal value rather than holding out with personal values.

We would want to do what we can to diminish the sense of value that you would get from [not getting it] and promote the sense of value that you would get from being vaccinated.

We could present — and I've heard this somewhat, though perhaps we could do more — present this as as a historic moment. 

This is a time that will be remembered for generations and we can stand as heroes essentially for vanquishing this threat by getting vaccinated.

Even if there is some risk involved in getting vaccinated — which I would say is overblown — but even if there is such risk, if you think about our fathers or grandfathers who fought in World War II or any other war, to promote personal freedoms even, this could be seen as an act of heroism that will transcend our lives for generations.