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Steadfast by the data, vaccine skeptics often value freedom and purity

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For years, scientists and doctors have treated vaccine skepticism as a knowledge issue. If patients were hesitant to get the vaccine, the thought would go, they just needed more information.

But as public health officials now strive to convince Americans to get Covid-19 vaccines as quickly as possible, new social science research suggests that a deeply held set of beliefs is at the heart of the issue. resistance from many, complicating efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic. control.

“The instinct of the medical community was, ‘If only we could educate them,’ said Dr Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, which studies vaccine skepticism. “It was condescending and, in the end, not true.”

About a third of American adults are still resistant to vaccines. Polls show Republicans make up a substantial part of this group. Given how politically divided the country is, it might not come as a surprise that they’ve widened, especially with a Democrat in the White House. But political polarization is only part of the story.

In recent years, epidemiologists have teamed up with social psychologists to further examine the “why” of vaccine hesitancy. They wanted to know if there was anything that vaccine skeptics had in common, in order to better understand how to persuade them.

They borrowed a concept from social psychology – the idea that a small set of moral intuitions form the foundations upon which complex moral worldviews are built – and applied it to their study of skepticism towards vaccines.

What they found was a clear set of psychological traits offering a new lens through which to understand skepticism – and potentially new tools for public health officials struggling to persuade people to get vaccinated.

Dr Omer and a team of scientists found that skeptics were much more likely than non-skeptics to have a highly developed sensitivity for freedom – the rights of individuals – and to have less deference to those in occupations. positions of power.

Skeptics were also twice as likely to care a lot about the “purity” of their body and mind. They frown on things they find disgusting, and the mindset defies any clear categorization: it could be religious – halal or kosher – or entirely secular, like people who care deeply about toxins in food or in the world. ‘environment.

Scientists found similar trends among skeptics in Australia and Israel, and in a large sample of vaccine-hesitant people in 24 countries in 2018.

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“At the root are these moral intuitions – these instincts – and they’re very strong,” said Jeff Huntsinger, a social psychologist at Loyola University in Chicago, who studies emotions and decision-making and who has collaborated with the Dr Omer’s team. “It is very difficult to replace them with facts and information. You can’t reason with them that way.

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These qualities tend to predominate among conservatives, but they are also present among liberals. They are also present among people with no politics at all.

Kasheem Delesbore, a warehouse worker in northeastern Pennsylvania, is neither Conservative nor Liberal. He does not consider himself political and has never voted. But he is skeptical of vaccines – as well as of many institutions of American power.

Mr Delesbore, 26, saw reports online that a vaccine could harm his body. He doesn’t know what to think about it. But his faith in God gives him confidence: all that happens is the will of God. There isn’t much he can do to influence her. (The manufacturers of the three vaccines approved for emergency use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they are safe.)

Vaccines have also raised a fundamental question of power. There are many things in Mr. Delesbore’s life that he cannot control. Not the warehouse schedule where he works. Or the way he’s treated by customers at his other job, a Burger King. The decision to get vaccinated, he thinks, should be part of it.

“I have the choice to decide if I put something in my own body,” Mr. Delesbore said. “Everyone should.”

Mr. Delesbore has held a number of jobs, most of them through temp agencies – at a park dealership stand, auto parts warehouse, FedEx warehouse, and frozen food warehouse. He is sometimes overwhelmed by the feeling that he can never get past the stress of living paycheck for paycheck. He remembers his breakup with his parents.

“I told them, what am I supposed to do?” he said. “How are we supposed to make a living? Buy a house and start a family? How? ‘Or’ What?”

Like many of the people interviewed for this article, Mr. Delesbore spends a lot of time online. He is thirsty to make sense of the world, but he often seems rigged and things are hard to be trusted. He is particularly wary of the speed with which vaccines have been developed. He used to work in a factory of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi, so he knows a little more about the process. He thinks there are a lot of things Americans are not aware of. Vaccines are only a small part of the picture.

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Conspiratorial thinking is another predictor of vaccine reluctance, according to the 2018 study. Conspiracy theories can be heartwarming, a way to find your bearings during rapid changes in culture or economy, by offering narratives that bring order. They are finding fertile ground due to decades of declining trust in government and a sharp rise in inequality that has led to a feeling among many Americans that government is no longer working on their behalf.

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“There is a whole world of secrets and things that we don’t see in our daily lives,” Mr. Delesbore said. “It’s politics, it’s entertainment, it’s history. Everything is a facade.

The moral preference for freedom and individual rights that social psychologists deemed common among skeptics has been reinforced by the country’s growing political polarization. Branden Mirro, a Republican from Nazareth, Pa., Has been skeptical of almost anything related to the pandemic. He believes the mask requirements infringe his rights and does not plan to be vaccinated. In fact, he considers the very moment of the virus to be suspect.

“It was all a sham,” he said. “They predicted it would cause mass panic and get Trump removed from office.”

Mr. Mirro, 30, grew up in a large Italian-American family in northeastern Pennsylvania. His father owned a landscaping business and later invested in real estate. Her mother struggled for years with her methamphetamine addiction. He said she passed away this year with fentanyl in her bloodstream.

From an early age, politics was an outlet that brought meaning and importance. He volunteered for presidential campaigns, watched inaugurations, and attended rallies for Donald J. Trump. He even visited Washington on January 6, the day of the riot at the United States Capitol.

He said he went because he wanted to defend his freedoms and he did not enter the Capitol or support the violence that had taken place. He also said he believed the Democrats had been hypocritical in the way they reacted to the event, compared to the unrest in the cities last summer following the murder of George Floyd.

Democrats, he said, were fighting for things that were good. He has a picture of John F. Kennedy on his wall. But they have become dangerous, he said, “canceling out” people and creating racial divisions with what he sees as a relentless emphasis on racial differences.

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“This is not the country I grew up in,” he said. “I have a love for this country, but it turns into something ugly.”

Vaccine skeptics are sometimes as suspicious of the medical establishment as they are of the government.

Brittany Richey, a tutor in Las Vegas, doesn’t want to get any of the vaccines because she doesn’t trust the drug companies that produced them. She pointed to studies which she said described drug companies paying doctors to suppress unfavorable test results. She keeps a record of it on her computer.

Ms Richey said that at the age of 19, she was placed in a queue of girls waiting for the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical and other cancers, after a date. routine medical. She said she didn’t fully understand what the shot was and why she was being asked to get it.

“It’s not informed consent, it’s coercion,” said Ms. Richey, now 33.

Ms. Richey is also concerned about the ingredients of vaccines. She is trying to get pregnant and she knows that pregnant women have been excluded from vaccine trials. She doesn’t want to risk it.

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Some of those who hesitate will end up getting vaccinated. Fewer people are uncertain about vaccines now than in the fall, according to Drew Linzer, director of polling company Civiqs, but the percentage of categorically no has remained fairly constant. As of last week, about 7% say they are not sure, he said, and about 24% say they will never take it.

Mary Beth Sefton, a retired nurse from Wyoming, Mich. Who is a moderate conservative, isn’t opposed to all vaccines – she usually gets the flu shot. But she fears that the Covid-19 vaccines have been developed so quickly that there could be side effects that have yet to manifest. She has therefore not yet received a vaccine although she has been eligible for several months.

Ms Sefton, who is 73 and describes herself as someone who ‘doesn’t like being told what to do’, says the politicization of the virus has made it difficult to find information she trusts.

“Polarization makes it much more difficult to understand what is real,” she said.

She thinks she could possibly get the vaccine. Her husband is bedridden and she is his primary caregiver. And she would be cut off from some of her family if she wasn’t vaccinated. But she’s nervous.

“I always feel extremely cautious,” she says. “It’s a basic instinctive feeling.”

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