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Anti-vaccine or Anti-innovation? How Anxiety Might Keep COVID Around for Longer

Even when confronted with the terror of a global pandemic, many people are in no rush to get vaccinated

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Innovation is related to mortality anxiety, a fear of death that arouses a “state of nostalgia” in those exposed to it, a longing for the familiar and beloved good old days. This nostalgia underlies the opposition to a new product, since it is preoccupied with looking backward rather than forward.

Even when confronting the terror of the coronavirus, people are in no rush to embrace innovation. To prove that assertion, it’s enough to watch the discussion in the media and the social networks about people’s willingness to be vaccinated. The world was already full of various anti-vaxxers, but in the case of the COVID vaccine the speed of development, the innovative nature of a medication based on “genetics” and a host of additional reasons lead many people to think that it’s preferable to wait a while and let others be the guinea pigs.

In a study conducted in September by Kimberly Fisher, a doctor and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Health Care Center, three out of every 10 people surveyed declared that they “weren’t sure” they would be vaccinated. One out of 10 claimed that he “wouldn’t be vaccinated.”

Anxiety is an emotional mechanism that exists on a continuum. On the “healthy” side of the continuum, its role is to prevent us from exposure to dangers and risks, one of the most prominent being the unknown. On the “sick” side anxiety paralyzes and prevents us from engaging even in everyday experiences. Anxiety related to adopting new goods and services is familiar in the world of marketing. There is a reason why companies rely on “early adopters,” people of influence who, it is hoped, will set an example for those who are afraid of the unknown.

Innovation by definition arouses anxiety, argues Benjamin Boeuf, an associate professor of marketing from the IESEG School of Management in Paris. It arouses in us the fear of the extinction of humanity, of the fact that everything, and therefore all of us, can be replaced. The greatest unknown is the fear of death. In a study entitled “The effect of mortality anxiety on attitude toward product innovation,” Boeuf used advertising in which anxiety-provoking messages related to death were embedded.

His study demonstrated that mortality anxiety may help to market products that are not innovative in essence, but it reduces the chances of people adopting innovative products. The reason is that innovation arouses anxiety, in particular, mortality anxiety. When confronting mortality anxiety, consumers are more likely to experience a “state of nostalgia,” a temporary backward-looking mindset, in contrast to the forward-looking mode necessary to favor product innovation adoption.

Different people experience differing levels of anxiety. People who by nature are attracted to innovation and risk-taking neutralize the negative influences of mortality anxiety on the adoption of innovation. However, many people will prefer a new product or service that is marketed to them as an upgrade or an improvement of an existing and familiar product. This mindset helps us understand why the fear of the COVID-19 vaccination – which was created with an innovative RNA-based method and which has to be kept in conditions of extreme cold – is far stronger than the fear of the presumably good and familiar vaccination containing a weakened virus.

New goods and services create previously unknown fears: a fear that computers will replace human beings, a fear concerning privacy and fears about the control of information – to name a few. Add to that a fear of being unable to integrate into a technological environment, and even a simple and everyday fear of getting stuck without being able to charge your cell phone – a fear until recently unknown to mankind.

Professor of Marketing Wujin Chu and other researchers from the Seoul National University College of Business Administration studied the process of introducing the electric car into China and South Korea, and also concluded that the connection between innovation and anxiety is clear. For example, in relation to electric cars there has been a development of what they called “range anxiety,” which stems from the drivers’ unfamiliarity with the battery’s rate of energy consumption. They contend that the various marketing efforts by the car manufacturers failed to properly deal with the psychological aspects that are likely to reduce this anxiety.

Fortunately for mankind, people are influenced by other mortality anxieties besides the one related to innovation. These include the fear of ceasing to exist and fear of loneliness related to being left behind. In the coronavirus pandemic we saw how elderly and technophobe populations joined the circle of Zoom users, and how both large and small organizations that weren’t active in the digital market hastened to adopt new sales and services approaches.

Greengrocers and grocery stores set up small commercial websites, restaurants that wanted to survive turned into delivery platforms, and psychologists expanded their online consultation services. There is a cautious process of negotiation underway between various types of mortality anxiety. People are improving what already exists, upgrading platforms, but not causing revolutions.

Being vaccinated against COVID-19 is an innovation that isn’t really revolutionary. Most of us are vaccinated and take medications all the time. Some of the vaccinations and medications were only manufactured recently, and we don’t really have any idea how they work. In the interface between human nature, which aspires to renew itself and the simultaneous fear of innovation, that is apparently a winning formula.

Dr. Etay Shilony is the founder and CEO of S2R, an organizational strategic consulting firm, and a lecturer at the Arison School of Business at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

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