Though almost 190 million people in the United States are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, that’s less than 60% of the country’s population. To increase that number, the federal government set in motion requirements that businesses with 100-plus employees mandate the vaccine.
Some headlines decried such a move, saying it would hamper, not help the effort. But new research from a University of Pennsylvania team shows that such fears are unfounded. Rather than causing a backlash, the mandates strengthen vaccination intentions, results the researchers published in the journal Scientific Reports.
“Our experiments show very clearly that these requirements do not have any negative effects on vaccination intentions,” says Dolores Albarracín, the Alexandra Heyman Nash Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor and director of the Science of Science Communication Division of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “And, actually, they have positive effects across various ethnic groups and for people who have a tendency to oppose anything seemingly forced on them,” what’s known as psychological reactance, she says.
Albarracín, a social psychologist who has appointments in the Annenberg School for Communication and the School of Nursing, is particularly interested in the psychological impact of science-relevant policies.
The research, from Albarracín and colleagues Andy Tan and Jessica Fishman, postdoc Haesung Jung, and data analyst Wen Song, started with two questions: Is mandating a COVID-19 shot likely to promote vaccine uptake or increase resistance to it? How would such a requirement compare to allowing people to freely choose the vaccine?
“Last winter, when these vaccines started getting distributed, there was a great deal of controversy over potential mandates in hospitals and throughout other industries,” says Fishman, who runs the Message Effects Lab at Penn. “Today, many leaders still worry that they could make a difficult situation worse if they mandate vaccination. We wanted to better understand the psychological effects of these policies.”
Much like Fishman’s lab, Albarracín’s Social Action Lab and Tan’s Health Communication & Equity Lab focus on this kind of analysis with an eye toward understanding which factors and communication types influence behavior change. With that in mind, the researchers constructed a series of studies, which included an initial survey and three experiments.
The survey provided about 300 people basic information about the vaccine, then asked them to answer two yes-or-no questions: “Will you get the COVID-19 vaccine if it is required to work, travel, or go to school?” and “If you could get the COVID-19 vaccine for free today, would you want to be vaccinated today?”
More participants responded “yes” to the first question than to the second. “In other words, people are more willing to get the vaccine if it’s required,” says Tan, an associate professor of communication at Annenberg. “That prompted the subsequent experiments, which were intended to help us replicate what we learned from the survey.”
About 1,300 people took part in the three experiments. Two of the experiments offered three conditions. In one, participants were asked to consider vaccine requirements for school, work, or travel. Another discussed the choice participants had to get vaccinated of their own accord, and the third emphasized the potential freedom people might gain from vaccination. The final experiment compared only two conditions: the requirement and the free-choice situation.
“If people who encounter a vaccine mandate experienced psychological reactance, either of the two freedom conditions would do better than the requirement,” Albarracín says. “The theory of psychological reactance assumes that requiring a behavior can be demotivating.” But the reality looked different. “We found that if vaccines were mandated, people would choose to get vaccinated versus a control condition where they’re not being forced,” Tan says. “This is good news.”
Read the full news release on the study of vaccine mandates at Penn Today.