Distress leads to higher COVID vaccination rates, less adherence to distancing guidelines – The Source

People who were more distressed – showing signs of anxiety or depression – during the COVID-19 pandemic were less likely to follow some best practice recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a new study led by researchers. researchers at Washington University in St. Louis.

They found, however, that these same people were more likely than their non-distressed peers to get vaccinated. The authors call this differential distress: when people act safe in one aspect while neglecting safety in another, both in response to the same psychological distress. This creates a conundrum for those trying to determine how best to communicate risks and best practices to the public.


The research comes from the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department of Arts and Sciences. It was led by teachers Leonard Green and Joel Myerson. The team included professors Michael Strube and Sandra Hale and Bridget Bernstein, a research technician.

Their study of 810 people found that distress was less likely to affect older people in both cases, despite their higher risk of serious consequences if infected with SARS-CoV-2. The results, published on July 27 in the journal Frontiers in Psychologysuggest that fear messages, which aim to scare people and can increase their level of distress, may not be the most effective way to encourage people to change their behavior.

Joel Myerson on campus

“These findings do not indicate a simple public health messaging campaign,” Myerson said. “Instead, officials may need to consider more finely tuned messages for different populations in order to achieve the best results: more attention to CDC recommendations as well as more people vaccinated.”

This is the second study from this team to analyze the ways people have changed their behavior during the pandemic. The first study, published in November in the journal PLoS One, examined social distancing and hygiene behaviors across a range of demographics. The results suggest that distress is closely linked to how people respond to social distancing recommendations. Those most distressed were less likely to observe social distancing recommendations, perhaps as a way to maintain social connections that can alleviate anxiety and depression.

In the latest work, the researchers again asked people about their adherence to the CDC’s latest recommendations, including new recommendations for when to wear a mask and suggesting that people avoid spending a lot of time indoors with others. . The results showed similar correlations to the previous study between age, distress and behavioral changes.

In terms of public health and effective messaging, one of the most pressing issues to arise after the first study was published was the introduction of vaccines – and the myriad feelings people have about them. Looking at four categories – fully vaccinated; partially vaccinated; not vaccinated but likely to receive one; unvaccinated and unlikely to get one – several outcomes stood out:

  • People who had been fully vaccinated were more likely than those who had been partially vaccinated to have close interactions with others after being vaccinated.
  • Compared with those who said they were unlikely to get vaccinated, those who said they probably would thought their risk of infection was higher.
  • Depending on the age of the person, they react differently to the same level of stress. Overall, for example, the higher a person’s level of distress, the less likely they were to socially distance, but the more likely they were to get vaccinated. However, both of these correlations weaken as people age.

Fear messages that try to scare people into following the guidelines tend to only be useful for a one-time event, Green said. “Apparently getting vaccinated should count as such an event.” But as breakthrough cases mount and boosters add up, vaccinations are no longer one and done; rather, it is a series of events, spread over more than a year.

While fear-based messaging can encourage young people to get vaccinated, it also diminishes their resolve to stick with mitigating behaviors like social distancing. Without doing both, the risk of infectious breakthroughs could continue to increase.

And, research shows the messages become less effective as people get older – and become more likely to get a serious illness if they become infected.

“Part of the solution to the problem of differential distress may be to avoid distress altogether,” Green said, giving up on the fear campaign. Instead, a softer approach may be warranted. “Our previous work suggests that what really motivates many people to change their behaviors for the better is considering how their actions may benefit or harm other people.”

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award number RO1AG058885.

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