Anti-vaccine protesters fueled by existential anxiety, psychologist says

·2 min read
Dr. Joseph Hayes says highlighting 'the personal value or heroic nature' of getting vaccinated could prove an effective method for convincing hesitant people to get the shot.  (Anis Heydari/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Joseph Hayes says highlighting 'the personal value or heroic nature' of getting vaccinated could prove an effective method for convincing hesitant people to get the shot. (Anis Heydari/CBC - image credit)

People refusing to get COVID-19 vaccine may be doing so as a result of a deep existential anxiety, a psychology professor says.

Dr. Joseph Hayes of Acadia University says vaccine skeptics such as the ones who organized demonstrations near Canada's hospitals earlier this month are looking for a sense of meaning.

"The way people manage this deeper existential anxiety is by investing in a world of meaning and try to live up to standards of value that would give us a sense of personal significance or personal value," he told CBC during an interview aired Monday on Island Morning.

"We want to believe that life is meaningful and worthy of meaning, essentially. So where you see some hesitancy or even some resistance to getting the vaccine, I think what you're seeing is people affirming the value of freedom. That the value of freedom is so important that we need to defend this. That life would be not worth living without it."

Hayes says that while it would be difficult to convince an anti-vaxxer to change his or her mind, one way to do it that could prove to be effective would be to highlight "the personal value or heroic nature" of getting vaccinated.

"This could be looked at [as] some historic moment in time," he said. "We want to feel something that is larger than ourselves, that transcends our personal lives. You could get that by taking part in protest movements that affirm the value of freedom. But you could also get that by feeling you're part of ridding the world of COVID."

Avoiding responsibility

Hayes says governments and organizations should promote the idea that getting vaccinated will help people regain the freedoms they had before the pandemic. But they also should be careful not to sound like they're trying to "trick" people into getting vaccinated.

As for those hesitant to get vaccinated because they believe the risks of the vaccine outweigh those of the virus, Hayes says they might be refusing to get the shot in order to avoid personal responsibility.

"If you're really concerned about side effects, it can feel a little daunting that you would be responsible, essentially, for your own fate or hardship," he said. "Whereas just sort of passively laying low and waiting for the whole thing to pass, you can feel less responsible… for anything that may happen."

As of Sept. 15, 84.5 per cent of Islanders over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated, and 92.5 per cent have received at least one dose.

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