Let’s talk about control. I contend that it is this “perception of control” that is preventing people from taking the COVID vaccine. In psychology, we call this Perceptual Control Theory.
Right now, the majority of people dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. It’s in the news almost every day that another unvaccinated radio host, politician, or beloved unvaccinated parent or child has died from COVID-19.
Yet, every single day, there is someone on the news shouting that they will never take the COVID vaccine. Instead, they say, “I’d rather have COVID-19 than ever take that vaccine.” What is causing people to act this way?
Why Do People Fear the COVID Vaccines So Much?
There are almost as many answers to that question as there are people trying to answer it. Unfortunately, none of us really knows.
Since today, October 10, 2021, is World Mental Health Day, I would like to look at the question from a mental health perspective.
Many people on the street are talking about the word “control:”
“It’s not about the virus. It’s about control….”
But Is That True?
Sometimes when mental health collides with reality, perceptions become distorted. Different people interpret situations in different ways. Perceptions are not always based on true facts. A perception is by definition—a way of understanding something, a mental impression. Perceptions may or may not be based on facts and perceptions may or may not be real.
As John Adams once said during a criminal trial,
"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."
Control is definitely one of the reasons for the resistance to the COVID vaccine, but I contend that it is not a question of government control. It is an issue of the control that is being exerted through misinformation.
See my earlier post COVID-19 Misinformation and Lies Are Killing Young People
What Is Perceptual Control Theory?
To simplify, perceptual control theory explains how we as humans try to control our environment. Yes, that includes the people who live in our families, neighborhoods, and the world as a whole. With young children and teenagers, we see this constant fight for control. Children and teens are trying to establish their identity. As adults, we are supposed to look toward the common good, what is best for all of society, not just for me as an individual. Yet, if you turn on the news or check on the Internet, common good is not what you will find, certainly not in reference to COVID-19.
Where does this battle for control that we see taking place out on the streets come from? Researchers explain that,
“Conflict within a person can arise quite by accident. A person may have a goal of being a good person. To be a good person, one should be steadfast, both consistent and firm; also, one should be supportive of others; obliging and accommodating. Both of these sub-goals are supposedly ways of satisfying the higher goal of being a good person. But when it comes to selecting a specific way of behaving that will satisfy both goals, the contradiction arises: one can’t be steadfast and obliging at the same time, or firm while being accommodating too. At the level where a specific goal is to be achieved through specific programs, there is direct conflict. To behave one way means not behaving the other way.” (p.9)
Conflict arises. We take sides. The vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. Both sides believe they are right, but unfortunately, both sides cannot be right. The facts do not support both arguments.
The battle lines have been drawn. The yelling is hot and heavy. The commercially-made signs are aplenty. People are still dying, and at present, the death toll is higher for the unvaccinated. So, why do the unvaccinated continue to fight as their friends and colleagues die around them?
How Do You Resolve the Conflict?
Resolving such conflict is not easy. People never want to admit that they are wrong. Some people will even risk their life and even death rather than admit they made a mistake.
Negative feedback feeds conflict. If you listen to the radio, the TV, the Internet, negativism is everywhere. We sell hate or should I say that hate sells the news and keeps the internet humming. Hate runs our political parties. Hate is supporting the continuation of the coronavirus pandemic.
We will never overpower the hate that is raging through our country until we're ready to celebrate good news, happiness, and kindness as readily as we are to focus on hate and anger. Telling someone that they are wrong rarely if ever convinces them to change their opinions. As psychologists Timothy A. Carey, Sara J. Tai, and Robert Griffiths explain,
“Living things, therefore, function effectively when they can achieve and maintain the preselected perceptual states that are important to them, despite environmental effects that would otherwise alter these states.… when stress is experienced in social situations it is due to a lack of control.” (p. 56-62)
People are fighting to regain control of their environment. It is not possible to understand why someone is marching up and down the street protesting vaccines by just watching pictures of them marching around carrying signs. You must understand the individual's “preselected perceptual states”--how they perceive their environment to be run, to be organized, and what they perceive themselves to need to be happy.
The problem is that perceptions are not real; they are perceptions - what you think. A person's preselected perceptual state may not be derived from factual material. A person may not read, believe, or accept the facts of the coronavirus pandemic. A person may have distorted perceptions of COVID-19 and may be functioning on those distorted perceptions. It is very hard to convince someone that their perceptions are wrong. As Carey, Tai, and Griffiths explain,
“Someone will only be troubled, or bothered, or distressed, or traumatised, or experience some other unpleasantness, if the happenings in their environment overwhelm their abilities to act, or otherwise impair their ability to control. This relativity of control explains why the same event will not be similarly traumatising to all people.” (p. 64)
If Our Perceptions Are Wrong, How Do We Change our Perceptions and Resolve the Conflict?
It is not easy, nor is it a simple fix.
Report the facts. Counteract the misinformation. Show how many people have been rescued from COVID because of the vaccine. Bombard the news and Internet with positive case studies. Show that the vaccines work.
What Will It Take to Convince People to Get Vaccinated?
Mandates are essential to save society from those who will not take the vaccine willingly.
See My Earlier Post: Coronavirus is Raging Through the Schools. We Must Have Mask and Vaccine Mandates to Protect the Children
Bill's Post: "It's All About Control:" Conservative Persuasion and Public Health
The World Health Organization says that the coronavirus pandemic has had a “major impact” on the lives and mental health of people around the world. Neither the pandemic nor the impact has ended. COVID rages on.
As of October 10th, it was reported that 712,974 people have died from COVID-19 in the U. S.
Happy Mental Health Day
I've given you a couple of sources for those who wish to dive further into perceptual control theory, but I've also tried to keep from delving too deep into psychological theory for those who may have no interest in psychology. Both sources that I've quoted have free access and are fairly easy to read.
My publisher, Springer Nature, is offering free access to chapters and journal articles on mental health this month. If you are interested in learning more, I encourage you to check the listings.
Hummingbird Photo: Elaine Clanton Harpine, copyright 2021