Vaccine resistance comes from childhood legacies of mistrust

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DURHAM, North Carolina – Curious to know why some people have so passionately, often angrily, opposed vaccination against the COVID-19 virus, a team of researchers with access to rare and unusual information about the forces of childhood that shape our adult lives thought they’d try to find out.

“We had so many friends and family members who first said the pandemic was a hoax, then refused to wear a mask or social distance, and continued to sing in the choir and attend events,” said Terrie Moffitt, lead author of a new study published March 24 in PNAS Nexus, a new open-access journal.

“And then when the vaccines came, they said ‘over their corpses,’ they definitely wouldn’t get them,” said Moffitt, Nannerl O. Keohane University professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University. Duke. “These beliefs seem to be very passionate and deeply held, and close to the bone, so we wanted to know where they came from.

The researchers turned to their database, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which tracked all of the nearly 1,000 people born in 1972 and 1973 in a single New Zealand city. Since childhood, researchers have measured multiple social, psychological and health factors in each participant’s life, resulting in a steady stream of research publications offering in-depth insights into how childhood and its environment form the adult.

They conducted a special survey of their participants in mid-2021 to assess vaccination intentions shortly before vaccines became available in New Zealand. Then they compared each individual’s responses to what they knew about that person’s upbringing and personality style.

The Gallup organization estimated last year that about one in five Americans were resistant to vaccines. Data from Dunedin showed that 40 years ago, in childhood, many participants who now said they were vaccine-resistant or hesitant had experienced negative childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect, threats and deprivations.

“It suggests to us that they learned from an early age ‘don’t trust adults,'” Moffitt said. “If someone approaches you with authority, just trying to get something and doesn’t care about you, they will take advantage of it. This is what they learned in their childhood, from their experiences growing up at home. And this kind of learning at this age leaves you with a kind of legacy of mistrust. It’s so ingrained that it automatically stirs extreme emotions.

The survey also showed that “distrust was widespread, extending not only to institutions and influencers, but also to family, friends and colleagues”, according to the newspaper.

“You just think about what a long shadow that casts,” said co-author Stacy Wood, a distinguished professor of marketing at North Carolina State University at Langdon. “If your trust is abused in your childhood, later, four decades later, you still don’t trust it. It’s not trivial. I’m not going to get around that with a cool campaign or a celebrity endorser.

At ages 13 and 15, the vaccine-resistant group tended to believe that their health was a matter of external factors beyond their control.

At age 18, teens who became the vaccine-resistant and hesitant groups were also more likely to shut down under stress, more alienated, more aggressive. They also tended to value personal freedom over social norms and to be non-conformist.

The resistant and hesitant groups had lower scores in terms of mental processing speed, reading level and verbal ability in childhood. At age 45, before the pandemic, these individuals were also found to have less practical day-to-day health knowledge, suggesting that they may have been less equipped to make health decisions in the pandemic stress. None of these observations changed when the survey results were controlled for participants’ socioeconomic status.

Wood, a marketing professor who specializes in health messaging, said many healthcare workers who have invested themselves in the fight against the pandemic have taken vaccine resistance personally and literally cannot understand why patients are refusing if categorically. “Doctors and hospitals asked us, ‘Why would people be so resistant? Why can’t we convince them with data? »

Unfortunately, Wood said, the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic triggers a struggle for survival in some of these people, an age-old response that stretches back decades into their past and is firmly rooted in their own sense of self. “The root of this is that you can’t change this as a health care provider,” Wood said. “And it’s not about you. It is not a diminution of your service and your warm intention.

Moffitt points out that this study is limited by the fact that it is a self-report of the vaccination intentions of a single group of people and that any reassessment of health policy should include data from many countries. . However, researchers have some ideas on how to use this knowledge.

“The best investments we could make now would be to build children’s confidence and create stable environments, and ensure that if the individual caregiver fails them, society will take care of them,” Wood said.

“Preparing for the next pandemic must start with the children of today,” said co-author Avshalom Caspi, Edward M. Arnett Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke. “It is not a contemporary problem. You can’t fight the hesitation and reluctance of adults who have grown up resisting it all their lives.

“It’s also true that pro-vaccination messages don’t operate in a vacuum,” Moffitt added. “It competes with anti-vax posts on social media. Anti-vaxxers lead people into distrust, fear and anger. This creates a situation where their audience is very distressed and upset and then cannot think clearly. They manipulate emotions, which reduces cognitive processing.

This research was supported by US National Institute on Aging grant AG032282, UK Medical Research Council grant MR/P005918/1, Duke Center for Population Health and Aging P30 AG034424, and by the American Psychological Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Award # 6NU87PS004366-03-02). Dunedin’s Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit is supported by the New Zealand Health Research Council Program Grant (16-604) and the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

QUOTE: “Deep Psychological Stories of COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy and Resistance”, Terrie Moffitt, Avshalom Caspi, Anthony Ambler, Kyle Bourassa, HonaLee Harrington, Sean Hogan, Renate Houts, Sandhya Ramrakha, Stacy Wood, Richie Poulton . PNAS Nexus, March 24, 2022. DOI: 10.1093/pnasnexus/pgac034

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