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Living for the moment: Study points to cognitive differences in people who are vaccine hesitant


Researchers concluded vaccine hesitancy is associated with being less oriented toward the future, and more likely to choose a smaller reward today than wait for a better one later

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For fully-vaccinated Canadians, one of the pandemic’s most perplexing aspects is the reluctance of some people to get their COVID-19 shot or take preventive measures like wearing a mask.

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A fascinating new study offers some clues, adding to evidence that people who accept or reject COVID precautions actually think in different ways.

The research concluded that vaccine hesitancy is associated with being less oriented toward the future, and more likely to choose a smaller reward today than wait for a better one down the road. Eschewing masks or hand washing was linked to relatively impulsive behaviour.

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Insight into such cognitive characteristics could be used to craft more effective public-health communications, say the authors at the University of Waterloo, Toronto and Zurich.

To further test what approaches might work, in fact, they’re now using brain scans of study subjects to evaluate the effectiveness of different COVID-19 messages.

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That might mean focusing on an immediate advantage to getting a COVID shot, says co-author Peter Hall, a Waterloo public-health professor and specialist in the “social neurobiology” of disease prevention.

“People are pretty entrenched at this stage and unlikely to pay much attention to messaging that doesn’t fit their view,” he said. “So it might be that the best approach is to identify an overlooked near-term benefit to getting vaccinated. It may also be that imposing a near-term cost for not complying would have an impact.”

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Meanwhile, the same group, led partly by University of Waterloo psychology professor Geoffrey Fong, is planning to issue several more papers stemming from the research, which also looked at other possible factors — from emotional status to views about the severity of COVID-19, political orientation and trust in science.

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The first study was posted on a “preprint” site and has yet to be peer-reviewed.

About 88 per cent of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated, and finding ways to increase that rate is still important, said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an expert on public-health policy at the University of Ottawa.

Evidence suggests two doses of vaccine may do little to curb transmission of the virus with the highly contagious Omicron variant dominating. But two or three doses still protects against serious disease, while the unvaccinated make up a disproportionate share of patients in intensive-care units. So vaccinating more Canadians would lift the burden on Canada’s “fragile” health-care system — and make lockdowns unnecessary, Wilson said.

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“I am more of the libertarian bent myself and to the libertarians out there I would say ‘This is the best way to avoid these lockdowns,’” he said. “If everybody gets vaccinated, we can actually reduce the restrictions on our civil liberties.”

The new study, funded in part by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, surveyed just over 2,000 people, divided about evenly between fully vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Using standard psychological questionnaires, they were probed on three aspects of cognition.

One looked at so-called “delay discounting,” with questions about whether the person would prefer $500 now or $1,000 at some point hours or days away. Another examined the subjects’ “time perspective.” They were asked, for instance, if they agreed that “living for the moment is more important than planning for the future,” or “I spend a lot of time thinking about how my present actions will have an impact on my life later on.”

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Vaccine-hesitant people were more likely to opt for the earlier reward and to indicate they lived in the moment.

People are pretty entrenched at this stage and unlikely to pay much attention to messaging that doesn’t fit their view

The researchers also looked at “executive dysfunction” of the brain, asking subjects how often they felt that “I am likely to do things without considering the consequences” or “I act without thinking.”

There was a weaker connection between people who scored high on the executive dysfunction scale and resistance to the COVID prevention measures, the study found.

“There is a slight, but reliable, tendency for vaccine-hesitant people to be a little more sensitive to near-term rewards,” Hall said in summarizing the findings.

That conclusion is “entirely consistent” with what’s been observed on the ground, said Wilson. He pointed to the uptick in vaccinations in Quebec after the province required them for buying liquor or cannabis in government stores — a short-term benefit of getting the shot — and a new Simon Fraser University study that suggested there was an average 66-per-cent increase in first-dose vaccination after vaccine mandates were announced in Canada and three other countries.

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“If there are Individuals who are more focused on immediate benefits than benefits down the road, it’s really going to be hard to convince them through messaging,” said Wilson. “But if you give them an immediate benefit, such as access to restaurants and bars and such, then you can potentially persuade them, if this research is accurate.”

The next stage of the study is using a non-invasive imaging technique called real-time near-infrared spectroscopy to measure brain activity as subjects read different public-health messages.

The imaging is meant to measure whether the message was relevant to the individual. Separate tracking of eye movement will try to gauge to what extent the words hold the person’s attention.

• Email: tblackwell@postmedia.com | Twitter:

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