Why we also need psychological solutions for COVID
A vaccine for COVID seems close but what if beliefs mean people refuse it?
We have had a lot of good news recently about a possible vaccine for COVID. Clearly a vaccine represents a huge leap forward out of the position we find ourselves in. However, a recent global Ipsos poll on this topic in August 2020, found that 26% of adults globally considered they would not take a vaccine for COVID-19 if it were available, with worry about side effects, followed by perception of effectiveness being key reasons for not getting a vaccine.
In a different but perhaps related case, many places have seen people gather to protest about lockdowns, arguing they breach human rights while also suggesting that 5G is causing the respiratory problems.
So why do some people so adamantly take positions and hold beliefs that may seem, to many of us at least, false? Understanding this is key if we are to properly tackle COVID. As my colleague Tamara Ansons pointed out in a recent report, vaccination is a fundamentally social activity because it affects the health of others as well as ourselves. We may have a vaccine but if people are unwilling to take it then it may not be as effective a solution as we hope. To help us answer this we need to explore the way in which we develop and maintain our beliefs about the world.
How we form beliefs
Humans are a social species, we work much better when we are not just reliant on ourselves for knowledge and well being but each other. If we were limited to our own understanding of the world then we would be much poorer for it. We intuitively divide up the cognitive labour: if your neighbour is an expert on pension investment and you need some advice then why not rely on them? If we do not rely on others, both informally such as neighbours, friends, family, or more formally such as doctors, lawyers and so on, then we would struggle to manage to navigate life effectively.
However, because knowledge is both something we individually hold and shared collectively then it can be hard to know where the boundaries lie. Think about how we work together, we all supply a little bit of information, which means it can be hard to know who owns what idea. Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman’s book, The Knowledge Illusion, is a great read on the way our cognitive processes are not only intertwined with everybody else’s but that we tend to over-estimate our own contribution.
We can see these mechanisms in action through the way we can struggle to explain how simple every day items of machinery (alarms, toilets, coffee machines) work. We assume we know how they work but, in reality, we generally have to accept their working as a given, relying on other people to explain them, fix them, create new versions of them and so on.
A nice illustration of the way we assume we know how things work (illusion of explanatory depth) can be found in what people know about bicycles. Rebecca Lawson, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, showed research participants a drawing of a bicycle that was missing several parts and asked them to fill in the missing parts. In Lawson’s study, about half the students were unable to complete the drawings correctly (some examples below):
And here this is the twist. Our reliance on others necessarily means that beliefs do not exist in a vacuum but have a significant social element to them. They are intertwined with shared cultural values, our identities as well as other related beliefs. Which means that if we are going to discard a belief then this is a not a simple reorganisation of the way we see the world but means we have to also dump other beliefs, turn our back on our communities, set ourselves against people close to us, and fundamentally start to rethink our identities. No wonder changing people’s minds is such hard work.
The other aspect of the social nature of belief is the way we share information. Sloman and Fernbach suggest that story telling is a strong part of this. They cite the famous Heider and Simell experiment where they asked people to view a film of simple abstract shapes roaming around; they found that in those simple shapes, viewers often read into them stories involving characters with emotions, motivations, and purpose:
What story telling facilitates is an understanding of the world’s causal mechanisms, how the world works. Metaphor is an important part of this; Despite the fact that we are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals, hesitancy around vaccines can often be accompanied by stories and metaphors relating to the contamination of the natural state of our bodies.
The power of stories is that they not only transmit causal information and lessons, but they are also used to illustrate and declare an attitude. The attitude declared by some of the stories relating to vaccination is negative, put this way, the thought of contaminating our child’s natural state feels an anathema to any parent.
This is where the social nature of our beliefs can cast us adrift. We do not understand how things work, we cannot possibly hope to, so we rely on others. We live socially embedded lives and with that, socially embedded beliefs which are conveyed through metaphor and story-telling. It’s not hard to see the way that the line between what makes a good story and how things actually work can become blurred, not least as what makes a good story will be shaped by the other beliefs, values and identities of the community.
So how do we tackle this?
It’s clear that just telling people they are mistaken and providing ‘accurate information’ will not cut it. At one level this requires teams become part of communities and insert themselves into the narratives. This is probably the best approach for a long-term robust response, albeit one which is neither a short-term fix nor is it cheap.
Another avenue is to think of ways to develop trust with different communities of belief. Telling groups with strongly held beliefs that they are wrong is unlikely to work very well. But perhaps a useful start may be to recognise that we all have different beliefs and that these are often borne of values that we can respect. For example, people that have beliefs that are anti-vaccination often have the best interests of their children and communities at heart. Creating trust by finding the values that are agreed upon is perhaps a first step in a conversation which can then lead to thinking through the consequences of those beliefs.
If we can arrive at consequential thinking about outcomes, there is some evidence that this can work to bring sides together and reduce polarisation.
For more on tackling polarisation I suggest Alex Chesterfield and to get more thoughts on vaccine hesitancy and the social nature of beliefs then this piece led by Tamara Ansons is a must read.