A survey spanning 51 countries has found that those who think they're “invincible” to COVID-19 are less likely to believe in preventative action against infection and are less willing to get vaccinated. In a bitter stroke of irony, it seems that not feeling the personal threat of the virus presents a massive threat to public health and herd immunity.
As previous research suggests, there are numerous individual and cultural factors impacting people’s feelings of concern and actions against the spread of COVID-19. Published today in the journal PLoS ONE, the study analyzed responses of over 200,000 people to determine whether perceived invincibility to COVID-19 could be one of these factors.
“Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, some people feel they are invincible to life-threatening diseases. In the context of the [COVID-19] pandemic, such feelings of invincibility pose challenges for suppressing the disease and achieving herd immunity at global scale,” the study authors, led by James M. Leonhardt of the University of Nevada, Reno, write.
The data comes from an ongoing survey by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Facebook’s Data for Good, which used targeted social media ads to recruit participants worldwide. Participants were asked to score how serious they thought having COVID-19 would be, plus how willing they were to get vaccinated or take action to reduce the spread, such as by social distancing or wearing a mask. The data included in the study is from between July and November 2020, and was controlled for participants’ overall health, age, sex, and level of education.
Participants who reported feeling more invincible to COVID-19 were less concerned about taking preventative measures to help curb the spread of disease. As well as being less likely to believe in the importance of individual actions to reduce transmission, those believing themselves to be more invincible were less willing to get vaccinated.
The location of the individuals also proved to be significant. Those with high perceived invincibility from countries lower in cultural collectivism – such as the US, UK, and Canada – were less willing to get vaccinated and take action than individuals with high perceived invincibility from countries that place more emphasis on collective action.
“[W]e find that in collectivistic cultures, which value interdependence and collective wellbeing, perceived invincibility is less threatening to prosocial concern and vaccination intentions. However, in less collectivistic cultures, which value personal freedoms and autonomy, perceived invincibility may threaten community efforts to suppress a pandemic,” the authors write.
We have seen throughout the pandemic that collective action is necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Studies claim to have proven that wearing a mask, for example, prevents transmission and protects others. Likewise, social distancing has been a vital tool in our arsenal against the virus. Even mathematics agrees that such preventative measures must be undertaken by almost the entire population to sufficiently halt the spread – and it’s no different for vaccinations. To achieve herd immunity, having as large a proportion of the population vaccinated as possible is essential.
Preventing perceived COVID-19 invincibility and individualistic ideologies from hindering this is therefore vital for public health. The authors suggest that efforts to encourage collective action be undertaken. They also call for future research to continue to explore perceived invincibility to COVID-19, to better inform policy and health communications.
“While feeling invincible may be beneficial in overcoming economic hardships or during periods of war, the results of our study suggest that it threatens the likelihood that people get vaccinated against COVID-19, and this is especially the case in individualistic countries, such as the USA, where people tend to focus on their own health rather than the collective health of their community,” they add in a statement.