Oct. 29, 2021 -- Perceived invincibility from the threat of the coronavirus may be undermining efforts globally to reach herd immunity against COVID-19, researchers conclude in a paper that analyzed survey responses from more than 200,000 people across 51 countries.

James Leonhardt, PhD, associate professor of marketing at the University of Nevada in Reno, and colleagues say controlling the disease requires people be both take preventive measures, such as wearing a mask, and be willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Findings were published online Wednesday in PLOS ONE.

However, these "pro-social" actions may depend on people's level of perceived invincibility, their data shows. The ties between invincibility and low desire to take action are particularly prominent in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, where there is greater focus on autonomy and individual freedoms, the researchers say.

Leonhardt says in an interview that they expected to find, and did find, that high levels of "perceived invincibility" matched with low levels of wanting to help prevent the spread of the disease and low levels of vaccination.

What they didn't expect to find, he says, was that a sense of “collectivism” – the idea that your own health is dependent on the health of the community -- made the difference in whether people with perceived invincibility were motivated to help prevent COVID-19 in themselves or others.

He explained the importance of the collectivist mentality:

"Even if I think I'm invincible but I'm in a more collectivistic culture, my feelings of invincibility are going to have less of an effect on whether I want to get vaccinated," he says.

So people with the collective mindset who feel invincible may say that although they don't feel at risk themselves, they will go ahead and get the vaccine for the good of the community.

Knowing that collective-culture thinking is connected to better performance on vaccine prevention may hold clues for changing the public health messages surrounding the vaccine, he says.

How to Frame the Message

So how to promote an all-for-one mindset regarding COVID-19?

Leonhardt says that will be especially difficult in the U.S., which "is the least collectivistic culture on Earth," based on their analysis.

He says that — given this new data — a message that might be more persuasive than emphasizing the danger of the disease on an individual basis would be to emphasize that getting vaccinated will help the groups people care about, whether that is family, a school, a city, or a nation, for instance.

At Leonhardt's university, he pointed out, the various sports teams are nicknamed the "Wolf Pack" and the vaccine pitch is "Let's Vax the Pack."

He says rather than focusing on individual risk, messages should emphasize emotional appeals that center on empathy for others.

"In general, we need to encourage a more interdependent view of the self," he says. "It's the idea that I succeed if we all succeed."

"Invincibility has been under-researched in health," Leonhardt says, though it has bearing on numbers who drive recklessly, drink too much, skip screenings, or have unprotected sex, he noted.

A Matter of Trust

David Dunning, PhD, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, agrees. Invincibility is also at play in committing crimes and making economic decisions, he says.

People find a reason to be invincible, Dunning says, such as their youth, they exercise regularly, or they eat healthy food.

With COVID-19 precautions, he says, emphasizing empathy for risk to a group that someone lives among is a compelling strategy.

Key in that strategy, though, is finding out what group is important to the individual and to have the message delivered by someone the person trusts.

"Trust is a big issue in terms of who is asking you to think about things that go beyond yourself," Dunning says.

The U.S. has benefited from having less exposure to deadly outbreaks than some countries. And many people haven't experienced someone close to them dying from COVID. That's often the setback it takes to temper invincibility, he says.

Dunning says it's important to remember that "perceiving yourself as invulnerable is not predictive about whether you really are. You could have very legitimate reasons for thinking of yourself as invulnerable. So did the people who turned out not to be."