A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences expands our understanding of how ideology shapes US citizens’ attitudes toward COVID-19 vaccine policies. While right-wing authoritarianism and libertarianism predicted decreased support for punitive policies against unvaccinated individuals, left-wing authoritarianism predicted increased support.
Throughout the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, various policies have been introduced to increase vaccine uptake. For example, some parts of the world have implemented policies such as mandating vaccinations for employees or requiring proof of vaccination for public activities. Although intended to help contain the virus and protect citizens’ health, such policies have garnered much backlash from the public.
A body of psychology research has investigated factors that may shape citizens’ attitudes toward vaccine mandates. Much of this research has explored the well-known construct of right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), an ideology that embraces traditionalism, morality, obedience to authority, and punishment for those who do not conform. The author of the new study wanted to explore the lesser-studied ideological construct of left-wing authoritarianism (LWA), which reflects authoritarian beliefs on the other end of the political spectrum.
“I have been puzzled by why science has become such a polarized issue in the United States,” said study author Yilang Peng, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. “Especially, conservatives and Republicans are often less concerned about COVID risks, and more hesitant toward COVID vaccination and mandatory policies. One might attribute this pattern to partisan elites and opinion leaders from the two parties. But this could also be explained by political psychology. In this study, I investigate how specific components of political ideology contribute to the divide in public attitudes toward vaccines and vaccine policies.”
A total of 983 Americans were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) to complete an online survey. The surveys were completed in January 2022 and included measures of RWA and LWA. Additionally, the questionnaires assessed social dominance orientation (SDO), an ideology that endorses a hierarchical society in which some groups are dominated by others, and libertarianism, an ideology that emphasizes individual freedom and rejects state intervention. Participants also answered questions about their vaccination status, willingness to get vaccinated, and concern for COVID-19.
Importantly, the surveys included seven items assessing support for various vaccine mandates, and three items assessing support for punitive measures against unvaccinated individuals. The punitive measures included firing employees who refuse to get vaccinated, not covering the costs of medical care for unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, and giving unvaccinated COVID-19 patients lower priority on hospital care.
First, the results revealed that left-wing authoritarianism was a significant predictor of participants’ attitudes toward vaccines. Higher LWA predicted stronger concern for COVID-19, greater vaccine acceptance, and increased support for vaccine mandates and punitive policies against the unvaccinated. Peng notes that these findings align with past research suggesting that LWA is associated with aggression toward political outgroups.
The study author says that political polarization during the pandemic may have led people to assume that most unvaccinated people are conservatives, leading people high in LWA to justify punitive measures against this outgroup.
By contrast, right-wing authoritarianism and libertarianism were both tied to lower vaccine acceptance and reduced support for vaccine mandates or punitive policies against unvaccinated people. Peng says that people high in RWA may view these policies as infringing on moral principles like tradition and purity.
As for libertarians, it is not surprising that they also oppose vaccine mandates, given that they strongly value liberty and oppose government intervention. Social dominance orientation was also associated with less support for vaccine mandates but not significantly associated with support for punitive policies.
According to Peng, the findings suggest that libertarianism and left-wing authoritarianism are meaningful predictors of sociopolitical beliefs and that these constructs warrant further study. “How people think about vaccines and vaccine policy also depends on how they imagine an ideal society should look like and what values or worldviews are prioritized,” he explained. “Science issues are increasingly integrated into political debates. Policymakers and science communicators must take into account the audience’s existing worldviews and values when communicating about science issues.”
Among limitations, the author noted that the sample consisted of MTurk workers, who tend to have a higher education and more political knowledge than the average American. Future studies should attempt to replicate the findings among nationally representative samples.
“This work is a continuation of my research on the political polarization of science,” Peng added. “I have one previous paper looking at how ideologies shape audience perceptions of COVID risks and government measures.”
The study, “Politics of COVID-19 vaccine mandates: Left/right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and libertarianism”, was authored by Yilang Peng.