The Social Psychology of Vaccine Mandates

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Consider the great COVID irony: As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy noted recently, “Vaccinated people may overestimate their peril, just as unvaccinated people may underestimate it.”

Murthy could omit “may,” for we now have a string of national surveys (here, here, here, and here) showing that unvaccinated folks are much less likely to fear the virus. Moreover, those who are unvaccinated—and thus vastly more at risk of contracting and transmitting the virus—are also much less likely to protect themselves and others by wearing a mask. (If you see someone wearing a mask in your grocery store, they’re probably vaccinated.)

Unvaccinated people’s discounting the threat, distrusting science, and prioritizing their rights to be unvaccinated and unmasked provide us social psychologists with a gigantic case study of unrealistic optimism, motivated reasoning, and group polarization. But looking forward, we can offer a prediction: As vaccine mandates increase, inducing more people to accept vaccination rather than being excluded from events or flights or bothered with weekly testing, attitudes will follow behavior.

As every student of psychological science knows, two-way traffic flows between our attitudes and our behavior. We will often stand up for what we believe. But we also come to believe in what we stand up for. When people are induced to play a new role—perhaps their first days in the military or on a new job—their initial play-acting soon feels natural, as the new actions become internalized. When, in experiments, people are induced to support something about which they have doubts, they often come to accept their words. And in the laboratory, as in life, hurtful acts toward another foster disparagement, while helpful acts foster liking. In short, we not only can think ourselves into action, but also act ourselves into a new way of thinking. Behaving becomes believing.

The attitudes-follow-behavior phenomenon is strongest in situations where we feel some responsibility for our action, and thus some need to explain it to ourselves—resolving any dissonance between our prior thinking and our new behavior. But the federal mandate—get vaccinated or face weekly testing—does (smartly) preserve some choice.

What is more, we have ample historical evidence of mandates swaying public opinion. In the years following the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, White Americans—despite initial resistance—expressed steadily diminishing prejudice. Some resisted, and hate lingers. Yet as national anti-discrimination laws prompted Americans in different regions to act more alike, they also began to think more alike.

Seat belt mandates, which at first evoked an angry defense of personal liberty, provide another example of attitudes following actions. Here in Michigan, the state representative who introduced the state’s 1982 seat belt law received hate mail, some comparing him to Hitler—despite abundant evidence that, like today’s vaccines, seatbelts save lives. But time rolls on, and so did seat belt acceptance, with Michigander’s approval of the law rising to 85 percent by the end of 1985 and usage rising from 20 percent in 1984 to 93 percent by 2014. Ditto other government policies, such as Social Security and Medicare—once contentious, now cherished.

So amid the rampant information there is good news: Mandates can work. They can get people to protect themselves and others, as  have nearly all United Airlines employees and New York health care workers. And after doing so, people will tend to embrace the way things are.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see