| Erfurt Laboratory for Empirical Research, Institute for Planetary Health Behaviour, Faculty of Philosophy, Education, School, and Behaviour, Knowledge, Spaces, and Media, Research

COVID-19: New study on the psychology behind vaccination discussions

Since the first vaccinations against COVID-19, the public discourse on the topic has clearly intensified. Against this background, psychologists from Germany and Austria have investigated how the polarisation between vaccinated and non-vaccinated citizens develops and what this polarisation is related to. The first results have now been published in the renowned journal Nature Human Behaviour. They show: Because there is a value attached to the vaccination status per se, the discussion often intensifies. For this reason, it is difficult to counteract with mere information campaigns. The researchers plead for an appreciative interaction.

The study by the Universities of Bonn, Erfurt and Vienna as well as the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) Hamburg was conducted as part of the COSMO Panel, which has been surveying people in Germany and Austria at regular intervals since December 2021. This includes more than 3,000 people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and more than 2,000 people who have so far decided not to be vaccinated. What sets this study apart from many others is the large number of unvaccinated people who regularly participate in the online survey, sharing their experience and behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic with the researchers. "We were able to show that identification with one's vaccination status plays a crucial role in polarisation," explains Luca Henkel from the University of Bonn. The more people identified themselves with being vaccinated (or unvaccinated), the more intense the polarisation.

The results also show that unvaccinated respondents overall perceive the debate about vaccination as significantly more unfair and experience more social exclusion than vaccinated respondents. The difference was particularly large when people strongly identified with their vaccination status, i.e. the greater the pride they felt in being vaccinated (or unvaccinated). This was also shown in very real terms in the study: "In one of our experiments, participants were able to divide 100 euros between themselves and another person. Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people put people with a different vaccination status at a disadvantage, and the more one identified with one's vaccination status, the more strongly one did so," explains psychologist Robert Böhm from the University of Vienna. The more people identified with their vaccination status, the more unfriendly and discriminatory they became towards the other group – this was true for both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated.

Furthermore, the researchers were able to show that the acceptance of measures to increase vaccination rates also depended on identification. Vaccinated people, for example, were in favour of compulsory vaccination – and more vehemently so if their status as "vaccinated" was important to them. "However, those who were unvaccinated and identified with it particularly strongly rejected compulsory vaccination," says Cornelia Betsch from the University of Erfurt.

"In the past, attempts were often made to change certain attitudes towards vaccination," explains Philipp Sprengholz from the University of Erfurt. "Low-threshold offers or targeted risk education were intended to convince the unvaccinated of the benefits of vaccination. However, little attention was paid to the fact that a strong identification with one's own 'unvaccinatedness' can lead to a value being ascribed to the vaccination status per se. As a consequence, unvaccinated people can hardly be reached by such classical formats or campaigns."

The researchers therefore recommend reducing polarisation between groups as quickly as possible. An appreciative mutual interaction, especially by public figures, could contribute to the two groups approaching each other again and entering into dialogue, so that vaccination can once again become a health decision and no longer an ideological value decision.

The publication:

Henkel, L., Sprengholz, P., Korn, L., Betsch, C., & Böhm, R. (2022). The association between vaccination status identification and societal polarization. Published in Nature Human Behaviour.

link to the online publication