Why do people resist COVID vaccines? Original source data gathered by e.pluribus.US reveals fascinating insights

Why do some people adamantly resist COVID vaccines?

Why do others unquestioningly accept them?

We are learning why. You’ll be surprised at what we’ve found.

e.pluribus.US’ Project Listen exists to understand why people think the way they do. Currently on COVID vaccines, we’re engaging Americans across the political spectrum to understand what they think about the vaccines, why they have their perspectives and where they got the information driving those views.

Our first round of research in Miami-Dade County, Florida has already generated fascinating insights.

The top-level statistics — percent supporting vaccines, the number actually vaxed, the complete range of reasons driving their choices, etc. — we cover in the Appendix, at bottom.

But the interesting discoveries we’ll dive right into.

First, a quick preface that we polled six different online groups focused on local Miami community discussion, across three different social media platforms, comprising well over 130,000 total users and received responses sufficient for a 9% margin of error. In all, 42% had reservations about the vaccines, though 70% were vaccinated.

Surprise #1: Opponents don’t think what you may think they think

COVID vaccine opponents generally don’t oppose them for the reasons often believed by vaccine proponents.

We asked opponents to select up to four out of eleven common explanations for why they have concerns about the vaccine.

  • ● None of the following were cited by more than a handful of vaccine opponents (see Figure 1):
    • ○ The belief that declining a vaccine doesn’t put anyone at risk but themselves (12%)
    • ○ Preferences for alternative therapies like Ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine (8%)
    • ○ The belief that vaccines cause “shedding” of dangerous virus particles to others (8%)
  • ● And only 22% worried that vaccines delay herd immunity.

Figure 1: Why vaccine opponents say they are concerned about vaccines.

Similarly surprising: vaccine opponents reported they were not as influenced by the sources of information proponents often believe them to be. Again given the opportunity to cite four of twelve common sources of information:

  • ● Effectively none (less than 2%) reported that their opinions on vaccines were most influenced by:
    • ○ “Cable or TV news,” or
    • ○ Their own “trusted political leaders’ perspectives.”
  • ● A small number, roughly 20%, reported being most influenced by “Internet news/opinion sites” or “social media sharing.” Those influences are meaningful, but still small compared with the main information sources they actually relied on, discussed in the next section.

Not as surprising were the reasons cited by vaccine proponents for their confidence in the vaccines, so we cover those in the Appendix. But there was one surprising finding about the reasons proponents cited, the fact that there is an unfortunate common theme shared with their neighbors that oppose the vaccines:

Surprise #2: Opponents’ key concern is actually shared by proponents

The main factor driving vaccine opponents’ concerns was to a surprising degree shared with even proponents of vaccines: distrust of what they are being told by the establishment in power.

  • ● The top four reasons that opponents had concerns about the vaccines were all related to this distrust of what they were being told.
    • ○ Vaccine opponents’ #2 overall concern (53%) was literally “I just don’t trust what the authorities are saying.”
    • ○ All three of the other top four concerns echoed this same distrust: As circled in Figure 1, over 50% of respondents cited the belief that the COVID vaccines are unproven or unsafe and nearly 40% believed them unnecessary, despite federal authorities repeatedly advocating for their efficacy, safety and importance.

      Opponents just don’t trust those authorities.
  • ● A surprising insight here is that this distrust seems to be shared even by vaccine proponents.
    • ○ Only 13% of proponents cited “I trust authorities” as the reason for their confidence in vaccines, making it the 4th least reported reason.
    • ○ Further, when asked what information sources influenced their opinions on vaccines, vaccine proponents ranked “my trusted political leaders’ perspectives” almost dead last, with only 6% citing leaders as influential (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Information sources that most influence vaccine proponents.

Insight: Distrust is the issue.

Surprise #3: Pro- and Opponents are influenced by starkly different information sources

While it is not surprising that proponents and opponents are influenced by different information sources, the degree of difference between those sources was unexpected. When asked which four of twelve information sources most influenced their opinions on COVID vaccines:

  • ● Only one information source was shared in both proponents’ and opponents’ top four most influential sources. This was the ambiguous “Research I have done myself.” Unfortunately we did not capture where they did this self-driven research.
  • ● But other than that, not one information source cited as most influential by proponents was also ranked as most influential by opponents.
  • ● Figure 3 illustrates this chasm. In the graphic, at left are listed the various sources of information that respondents reported influenced their opinions on COVID vaccines. On the right, the bars show the percent of those concerned about vaccines (in orange) and those confident in vaccines (blue) that reported being most influenced by each information source. The sources are ordered by how differently they influenced each group. So, for instance, if an information source heavily influenced the “vax-concerned,” but did not influence the “vax-confident” nearly as much, then it would appear at the top, and vice-versa.

    The divergence is somewhat shocking. Ironically, the only information sources that both sides agree on the utility of are the ones neither of them use.

Figure 3: Difference in sources of information about COVID vaccines.

If proponents and opponents rely upon completely different sources of information it is of course not surprising that they form different perspectives on the same topic.

Understanding limitations of the study

Let us quickly address some known limitations with this analysis. The most meaningful limitation is in what deeper, obscured or mis-characterized insights may lie below what respondents cited as their reasons and influences. For example, when one reports that “Research I have done myself” is the greatest influence upon one’s view — as both proponents and opponents frequently did — what sources did one use in one’s research? Were social media discussions and Internet news sites sources in that research, or did one sit down in the epidemiology section of the local medical school and pry open PhD theses? And as opinions are generally formed over long periods, synthesizing many different influences, can respondents accurately say that a report they saw on cable news three months ago really did not significantly influence them? We do not know the answers to those questions, but acknowledge that they exist.

One can also puzzle over causality. In particular, do proponents and opponents have different views because they rely on different information sources, or is it the opposite — that they start with different views and then gravitate to sources that validate those views? Our current research sheds no light on that question, but clearly illustrates that the differences in information sources now relied upon should be expected to widen the gap in differences of opinion.

As for other limitations, while statistically more than sufficient to achieve a 9% margin of error with 95% confidence on a county population of 2.7 million, the sample size is not huge at 134 respondents. There are also demo- and psycho-graphic skews associated with (a) the fact that we only surveyed online and (b) respondents self-selected to participate. But none of these are obstacles for our purposes, because we are not trying to precisely measure how many people have each attitude; we are only trying to discover (a) what are the most common attitudes and (b) what rationales and influences drive each. Neither the sample size nor skews meaningfully complicate our ability to uncover that information.

Conclusions and next steps

We believe the data gathered thus far are enlightening. At its most abstract we can see a core issue is distrust. Neither side trusts political leadership, but opponents of vaccines in particular distrust nearly all authority, including their own political leaders and even their own doctors.

In addition to their multiple choice answers, many respondents wrote richly detailed explanations of those answers, which shed useful light upon specific missteps policymakers may have made in exacerbating this mistrust. We’ve reproduced these comments in our Viewpoint Map.

The next steps in this initiative within Project Listen are to deploy this same survey in several additional metro areas, ideally with opposing ideological skews, to see if we can parse out differences in attitudes based on geo- and ideo-logical factors. That work is forthcoming in February/March.

Learn More

There is more information available about our Miami-Dade Survey, including a fascinating collection of nearly 100 freeform comments submitted by survey participants, expanding upon their views on the vaccines (sample shown in Figure 4).

Figure 4: Sample of comments by survey participants.

You may also review details on the survey methodology, and a further discussion of limitations.

Or you may take the survey yourself, in either Facebook Messenger, or SurveyMonkey.

You may also learn more about Project Listen in general.

Appendix: The broader survey data.

Breakdown of respondents confident in, versus concerned about the COVID vaccines.

Breakdown of respondents vaxed versus unvaxed.

Opponents of vaccines: Why they reported they were concerned about the vaccines.

The “Viewpoint Map” referenced in the graphic can be accessed here.

Proponents of vaccines: Why they reported they were confident in the vaccines.

The “Viewpoint Map” referenced in the graphic can be accessed here.

Opponents of vaccines: What information sources most influence their opinions?

Proponents of vaccines: What information sources most influence their opinions?

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