A longitudinal study among a Polish sample has uncovered a consistent, bidirectional relationship between prosociality and willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Toward the end of the study period, conspiracy mentality and right-wing authoritarianism emerged as negative predictors of willingness to receive the vaccine. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
Although COVID-19 vaccines have now been administered to billions of people around the world, a significant portion of the population remains wary of their safety and effectiveness. As COVID-19 variants continue to emerge, scientists say this distrust of vaccines presents a serious public health problem.
Study authors Tomasz Oleksy and team opted to conduct a longitudinal study to explore predictors of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Contrary to most previous studies, the analysis would allow researchers to explore causality by observing how different variables change across different time points. The study focused on Polish individuals, a population with particularly low confidence in vaccines.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has required various preventive measures, ranging from individual efforts, such as maintaining social distance and wearing masks, to complex collective policies, such as lockdowns,” said Oleksy. “While many of these measures are proven to be effective in slowing down the spread of the disease, increasing COVID-19 vaccination coverage remains the most effective way to achieve control of the pandemic. However, anti-vaccine movements are growing worldwide and considered one of the greatest threats to public health.”
“We were interested in testing what were social predictors of vaccine hesitancy (e.g. lack of prosocial motivation, authoritarianism and conspiracy thinking). Knowing what predicts anti-vaccine attitudes we can plan interventions that may help increase willingness to vaccinate.”
A representative sample of 1,130 Polish people completed an initial online survey roughly two months after the first COVID-19 case in Poland, between May 4 and 7, 2020. Participants were then invited to retake the survey at three additional time points: between June 4 and 17, 2020, between July 7 and 17, 2020, and between December 3 and 22, 2020. Notably, COVID-19 vaccines were not yet available during the study period, although the Polish government was beginning to create a vaccination plan during the final time point.
The surveys assessed willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine with the question, ‘If there was a possibility to get vaccinated against the coronavirus now, would you do it?’. There was also a measure of prosociality, which included items related to the pandemic like, ‘I have helped those around me to deal with the difficulties and obstacles associated with the pandemic.’ Conspiracy mentality and right-wing authoritarianism were also assessed.
The researchers used an approach called a random-intercept cross-lagged panel model (RI-CLPM) to see how changes in a person’s typical level of one variable would predict future changes in other variables. The analysis revealed a consistent, positive within-subject association between prosociality and willingness to get vaccinated at every wave.
For the first three waves, this association was bidirectional, meaning that increases in a person’s level of prosociality were followed by increases in their willingness to be vaccinated and vice versa. At the fourth wave, the relationship was only significant in one direction — willingness to receive the vaccine positively predicted prosociality.
From the third to the fourth wave, right-wing authoritarianism negatively predicted willingness to get the vaccine. This may reflect the relation between right-wing authoritarianism — a construct that involves submission to authority and the endorsement of traditional values — and conservatism, which is linked to vaccine skepticism. Also from the third to fourth wave, conspiracy mentality negatively predicted willingness to get vaccinated. This may reflect the growing circulation of conspiracy theories at this time.
In general, willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine decreased over time. The researchers suggested that fears about the vaccine may have increased as the prospect of getting vaccinated became more real. People may have also grown fearful and uncertain due to the speed with which the vaccines were developed and the increasing amount of misinformation online.
As the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate, scientists say encouraging people to take booster doses will be important. “Eliciting prosocial motivation to vaccinate can be vital in overcoming vaccine hesitancy,” Oleksy told PsyPost. “Appealing to prosocial motivations can also more efficiently combat vaccine hesitancy than appealing to social norms or authorities as our research shows that there was no evidence of a direct relationship between submission to authorities and vaccination intention.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats. “Our study was limited to only one country, it is worth comparing these results with reports from other countries even though the pandemic situation in most European countries was, to some extent, similar,” Oleksy said. “And actual behavior, not only declarative opinions should be measured in future studies.”
The study, “Barriers and facilitators of willingness to vaccinate against COVID-19: Role of prosociality, authoritarianism and conspiracy mentality. A four-wave longitudinal study”, was authored by Tomasz Oleksy, Anna Wnuk, Małgorzata Gambin, Agnieszka Łyś, Kamilla Bargiel-Matusiewicz, and Ewa Pisula.