Arts & Sciences COVID-19

Distress leads to higher COVID vaccine rates, less adherence to distancing guidelines

People who were more distressed — showing signs of anxiety or depression — during the COVID-19 pandemic were less likely to follow some best practice recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a new study by Washington University in St. Louis researchers. 

They found, however, that those same people were more likely than their non-distressed peers to get vaccinated. The authors refer to this as differential distress: when people act safely in one aspect while disregarding safety in another, both in response to the same psychological distress. This creates a conundrum for those trying to determine how best to communicate risks and best practices to the public.

The research comes from the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences. It was led by professors Leonard Green, PhD and Joel Myerson, PhD. The team included professors Michael Strube and Sandra Hale and Bridget Bernstein, a research technician. 

Their study of 810 people revealed that distress was less likely to affect older people either way, despite their higher risk for severe outcomes if infected with SARS-CoV-2. The findings, published July 27 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, suggest that fear messaging, which is intended to scare people and can increase their levels of distress, may not be the most effective way to encourage people to change behaviors.

“These findings do not point to a straightforward public health messaging campaign,” Myerson said. “Instead, officials may have to consider more finely tailored messages for different populations in order to achieve best outcomes: more attention to CDC recommendations as well as more people getting vaccinated.”

This is the second study from this team to analyze the ways people changed behaviors during the pandemic. The first study, published in November in the journal PLoS One, looked at social distancing and hygiene behaviors across a range of demographics. The results suggested that distress was closely tied to the way people responded to recommendations about social distancing. People who were more distressed were less likely to observe social distancing recommendations, perhaps as a way to maintain social connections that can ease anxiety and depression.

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