A new study published in Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that individuals who struggle with problem-solving and demonstrate absolutist thinking, political conservatism, and xenophobia are more likely to refuse to get vaccinated. These findings indicate that a focus on improving problem-solving skills may result in improvements in public health due to higher vaccination rates.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused over a million deaths in the United States in the past two years. The mass vaccination campaign that started in December 2020 contributed significantly to controlling the spread of the virus. However, vaccine skepticism and hesitancy continue to be hurdles in effectively managing COVID-19 infections.
The research team hypothesized that problem-solving skills and socio-cognitive polarization are two constructs associated with vaccine acceptance. Problem-solving skills involve the ability to generate new ideas and new methods to consider the problem at hand. Problem-solving may require individuals to think flexibly to expand their thinking beyond what they previously understood.
Socio-cognitive polarization includes measures of conservative political ideology, absolutist thinking, intolerance of ambiguity, and xenophobia. According to the research team, “people who score high on [socio-cognitive polarization] may be less likely to handle complexity and seek out alternative explanations when processing information.”
In order to develop new problem-solving strategies, an individual must demonstrate a capacity for flexible thinking. Flexibly adapting to new challenges has been the key to human success. Previous research has revealed that skilled problem solvers are more likely to identify fake news, accept diversity, and be more flexible politically. This suggests that excellent problem-solving skills may result in socially beneficial behaviors.
The study recruited 277 U.S. participants using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. Participants completed online surveys measuring problem-solving ability through a rebus puzzles task and socio-cognitive polarization through a composite measure of absolutist thinking, political conservatism, and xenophobia. They also took a survey measuring their vaccine acceptance.
The collected data showed that those with lower problem-solving ability and high socio-cognitive polarization were more likely to score low on measures of vaccine acceptance. Low problem-solving skills may represent a risk factor for vaccine refusal, with “cognitive and social rigidity playing a crucial role in undermining the decision to accept the COVID-19 vaccine.”
The data also revealed the close relationship between high socio-cognitive polarization and vaccine refusal. For example, those high in absolutist thinking or unable to consider situations as nuanced were more likely to be hesitant to vaccinate their children. In addition, those with very right-leaning political values were more likely to be anti-vaccination. Combined, these findings illuminate the potential connection between problem-solving ability, socio-cognitive rigidity, and vaccine hesitancy or refusal.
The research team acknowledged that their use of the internet prevented demographics without technological access from participating in the study. This may mean their results are slightly skewed. Additionally, the cross-sectional design of the study prevents direct cause-and-effect conclusions.
Despite these concerns, the study highlights the critical role of problem-solving skills and socio-cognitive polarization in COVID-19 vaccine acceptance. Individuals who are more flexible in their thinking and less rigid in their socio-cognitive orientation may be more likely to accept COVID-19 vaccines. The study’s findings indicate that cognitive and social rigidity may represent risk factors for COVID-19 vaccine refusal and may have significant implications for public health interventions aimed at promoting vaccines.
The study, “Not getting vaccinated? It Is a matter of problem‐solving abilities and socio‐cognitive polarization“, was authored by Alice Cancer, Carola Salvi, Alessandro Antonietti, and Paola Iannello.