Discriminatory Attitudes Against the Unvaccinated During a Global Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic sizeable groups of unvaccinated minorities persist even in countries with high vaccine access1. Consequently, vaccination became a controversial subject of debate and even protest2. Here, we assess whether people express discriminatory attitudes in the form of negative affect, stereotypes and exclusionary attitudes in family and political settings across groups defined by COVID-19 vaccination status. We quantify discriminatory attitudes between vaccinated and unvaccinated citizens in 21 countries, covering a diverse set of cultures across the world. Across three conjoint experimental studies (N=15,233), we demonstrate that vaccinated people express discriminatory attitudes towards the unvaccinated, as high as the discriminatory attitudes suffered by common targets like immigrant and minority populations3,4.5. In contrast, there is an absence of evidence that unvaccinated individuals display discriminatory attitudes towards vaccinated people, except for the presence of negative affect in Germany and United States. We find evidence in support of discriminatory attitudes against the unvaccinated in all countries except Hungary and Romania and find that discriminatory attitudes are more strongly expressed in cultures with stronger cooperative norms. Prior research on the psychology of cooperation has shown that individuals react negatively against perceived free-riders6,7 including in the domain of vaccinations8,9. Consistent with this, the present findings suggest that contributors to the public good of epidemic control (i.e., the vaccinated) react with discriminatory attitudes against perceived free-riders (i.e., the unvaccinated). Elites and the vaccinated general public appealed to moral obligations to increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake10,11 but the present findings suggest that discriminatory attitudes including support for the removal of fundamental rights simultaneously emerged.