If I were (like) you: Some reflections on vaccine hesitancy

Vaccine hesitancy is a hot topic lately. I’ve been listening to people vent about how the willfully unvaccinated are making ill-informed decisions that are putting themselves and others at risk. While I agree, I have been reflecting on why I’m not getting angry about it. Is it just that I’m slow to anger in general? Am I not paying enough attention? Or is there something about my perspective that would be useful to share, if I were to put my thoughts and feelings into writing? The more I think, talk, listen, and write about this, the more complex and many-layered it appears. Here are a few of my thoughts.

There is a Buddhist teaching story that goes something like this: A man complains to his teacher that another man hit him with a stick. 

“Are you angry at the stick?” asks the teacher.

“No, of course not!” says the man. “It’s not the stick’s fault, the man was the one wielding the stick.” 

“Just so,” says the teacher, “You should also not be angry with the man, for his stick-wielding was caused by his anger. He was no more in control than the stick was.”

Part of why this story appeals to me is that I am a sociologist through and through. This means that I rarely think individuals should be blamed for their beliefs and resulting behavior. We are all products of our histories, cultures, and environments, and it takes very particular circumstances and processes for us to change how we are shaped. I highly recommend “Yes, We Should Have Seen This Coming” by Tara Haelle for an informative take on the sociology of vaccine hesitancy and the problems with ignoring social science research in this domain.

A large part of the environmental influence that shapes our beliefs and behavior is the views and actions of our “reference groups” – the people we compare ourselves to. If a bunch of people in our peer group or a group we would like to be part of hold a particular view, we’re likely to hold it too, even if that view lacks (other kinds of) evidence to support it.

Of course, we vary on how easily influenced we are by our reference groups, and the main point of the scientific method is to work diligently to discover truths that are more independent of the various distorted lenses we all wear. Peer review is part of that method, and perhaps can be seen as a more careful and deliberate, though not error-free, kind of reference group. 

My own reference group includes a lot of people who are scientists and doctors, including some highly recognized ones (my sister-in-law Margot Kushel, MD, my brother-in-law Andrew Fire, PhD). This reference group has increased my trust in the COVID-19 vaccines. In early 2020, I was scared about the vaccine – especially when I had to drive Sarah, my cognitively disabled adult stepdaughter, to Janesville Wisconsin to get her shots. What if she had an allergic reaction to it when we were an hour from home?! But the bottom line was, my fears of my family getting COVID far outweighed my fears of the vaccine.

I used to be vaccine-hesitant when it came to the flu. I didn’t get a flu shot for years, because I was more scared of the vaccine than I was of getting the flu. I’d had the flu before and knew I’d survive. It wasn’t until I had a new reference group (my soon-to-be husband and stepchildren) who routinely got flu shots that I seriously considered it. And it wasn’t until the Anthrax scare that I actually did it, because I was afraid that if I had flu-like symptoms, I’d be terrified it was Anthrax. So it was my fear of my fear of Anthrax that got me to overcome my fear of an allergic reaction to the vaccine. (And as I recall, I had to do a lot of deep breathing in the first few minutes after getting that first shot, to not have an anxiety attack about whether I was having an allergic reaction).

Some anti-vax sentiment seems to me like oppositional behavior. It is common for people to push back when we are pushed, and what’s intended as encouragement can feel like being pushed if it’s something we’re not ready to do. Some of us have been shaped to be especially contrarian; rather than going along with a reference group or an authority figure, we are more likely to do the opposite. I have some personal experience with this sort of oppositional pattern, and have been learning to back off, center myself, do an aikido “blend,” and sometimes even use reverse psychology to help people with strong habits of oppositional reactivity get to a place where they can actually choose what is best for them.

One of my most successful ways to cajole my intensely oppositional stepdaughter Sarah to do something is to say “if I were you….” She likes this and even asks me sometimes, “what would you do if you were me?” But here’s the lie built into that strategy. If I were truly you, I would see the world through your eyes, not my own. This is not something she understands, since her cognitive disability limits her capacity to take the perspective of others.

This ability, what social psychologists call “perspective-taking,” varies for all of us. My father recently told me that he and my mother were amazed at how good I was at it when I was very young. I’ve come to see that this ability is part of what made me a good meeting facilitator. I see both sides of a story, and quickly pick up on where two people are misunderstanding each other. However, our greatest strengths are also often our greatest weaknesses when we rely too heavily on them, and this one is no exception. I am easily convinced of others’ perspectives, and can sometimes be gullible as a result. I can be indecisive, and easily overwhelmed in the face of conflict.

I am like a story of the Persian folk hero/holy fool Nasruddin:

Nasruddin heard one side of an argument and said “You’re right!”

He heard the other side of the argument, and said, “You’re right!”

His wife told him that both couldn’t be right, and he said, “You’re right!”

I guess this is why I’ve been reflecting on my own vaccine hesitancy; I am shaped to seek common ground with people who seem to view things very differently from me (though as my husband will tell you, I also have a contrarian streak!) While I’ve been working on this piece, I’ve written about my own mistrust of “big pharma,” of science, and of government (for instance, the CDC’s approach to the pandemic has not inspired trust; I highly recommend reading Premonition by Michael Lewis to understand some of the historical causes of this).

I think this kind of internal reflection on how we are like those we disagree with can be useful. But to truly understand others also takes deep listening. It takes time. It takes, perhaps, willingness to have one’s own views changed by the encounter.

I have an impressive young friend who has recently been doing this very challenging work while living in another country. Listening, day after day, (in his second language!) to a vociferously anti-vax person he is living with. Listening with some genuine curiosity, and, when necessary, feigned curiosity. Gently offering other ideas. Gradually building trust. His efforts, combined with those of some of her loved ones who are pro-vaccine and with the Omicron surge itself, have begun to shift her view and choices. 

Perhaps my pro-vaccine friend has become part of this formerly anti-vaxxer’s reference group. 

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