Lacking vaccination willingness: A matter of missing trust in our politicians?

Identification and analysis of the causes and consequences from a psychological-scientific perspective

Not only in Germany are political decision-makers trying to counteract the increasing number of COVID-19 infections with the reintroduction of free corona tests and the 2G regulation, requiring students to bear masks in schools or the revitalization of vaccination centres to increase the vaccination rate [1]. On November 5, 2021, the Prime Minister of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer (CDU), was interviewed on the morning show of Deutschlandfunk (Dlf) about the current situation in the corona pandemic [2]. When asked by the Dlf reporter what reasons there are for the low vaccination rate of 59.1% in Saxony (as of November 5th, 2021) [3], Kretschmer had no answer.

However, according to psychological research, there are serious reasons why people might not want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Political decision-makers should take these reasons seriously if they want more people to get vaccinated. Jolley and Douglas [4] provide a psychological explanation for the unwillingness to get vaccinated. They examined parents and their willingness to have their children vaccinated. They found that the higher the degree to which people believe in conspiracy myths (cause), the less willing people are to have their children vaccinated (effect). What is interesting in this study are not cause and effect, which most of us already might have guessed, but the factors that mediate this relationship. In research methodology, the term mediator is a variable that decides whether there is a relationship between cause and effect or not [5]. Jolley and Douglas [4] study shows that the mediators (a) distrust in authorities, (b) the feeling of powerlessness and (c) the feeling of disillusionment, mediate the relationship between the belief in conspiracy theories and the willingness to get vaccinated. This means that people who have no trust in the government and its institutions, who feel that they have no influence over changing or improving their own life situation, as well as their feeling that their values, beliefs and worldview have been shattered, prompt them to not get vaccinated.

This knowledge, that people lack trust, that they are disappointed, that they have resigned about their situation, gives us however the opportunity to work progressively and actively with these three factors. Based on this knowledge, our political decision-makers should respond to these perceptions by using adequate communication and actions to build trust. Because trust in a relationship, be it between parent and child, teacher and student, employer and employee, politician and citizen, can’t solely be built on regulations and on a one-sided and top-down communication style [6, 7, 8]. Especially in crisis situations such as the current corona pandemic, trust is a key driver of how people react to communication from authorities and political decision-makers [9]. Trust is based on reciprocity, both partners need to feel understood, valued and cared for. The more a person is convinced that his/her partner feels committed to the relationship and puts his/her own interests and goals in favour of the mutual relationship aside, the more trust and security this person experiences. Furthermore, the balance of power between the partners, openness, empathy and acceptance for the other partner, being reliable, and the willingness to admit to mistakes play a role in building and maintaining trust [7, 8, 9].

The political and health consequences when people no longer trust their political decision-makers when they are disillusioned are far too great for us to accept as a society. Maher et al. [10] shows that the feeling of disillusionment prompts people to seek the meaning of life in radical left or right-wing extremist worldviews. This orientation toward either left or right-wing extremist ideologies leads ultimately to an increasing polarization of societies. Polarization in our societies is a threat to our democratic processes [10]. People who feel powerless suffer emotionally because they feel that their life is over. They feel miserable and worthless, which manifests itself in the feeling of being powerless, in disengagement and amotivation, mistrust and social isolation [11]. Feeling powerless increases people’s risk of getting ill. However, empowerment is a health-promoting factor, both for the individual person and for the health of our society as a whole [12, 13].

Every political decision-maker, whether town/city councillor, member of the Land- or Bundestag, mayor, district chief executive, prime minister, or chancellor should, based on their mandate as representative and the Article 1 of our Basic Law in Germany, commit himself/herself to transform distrust into trust, powerlessness into empowerment and disillusionment into determination. We should base our efforts to successfully master the corona pandemic not just on a few strategists, but on several strategies that have proven to be effective in overcoming crises. And this includes psychological strategies of building trust, empowerment and determination to overcome this crisis united and together.


[1] Süddeutsche Zeitung (08.11.2021, 9:12 Uhr). Mehr als 600 Covid-Patienten auf Intensivstationen – rote Ampel kommt. Coronavirus-Newsblog für Bayern.

[2] Deutschlandfunk (05.11.2021). Kretschmer (CDU): „Aktuelle Entwicklung ist heftig“.

[3] Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (05.11.2021). Aktueller Impfstatus.

[4] Jolley, D., & Douglas, K. M. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspirarcy theories on vaccination intentions. PLOS ONE, 9(2), e89177.

[5] Howitt, D., & Cramer, D. (2017). Research methods in psychology. London, UK: Pearson.

[6] Poole, M. S. (2011). Communication. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Vol. 3: Maintaining, Expanding, and Contracting the Organization (S. 249–270). Washington DC, USA: American Psychological Association.

[7] Simpson, J. A. (2007). Psychological foundations of trust. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(5), 264–268.

[8] Hung-Baesecke, C.-J. F., Chen, Y.-R. R. (2020). Explicating trust and its relation to dialogue at a time of divided societies. Public Relations Review, 46, 101 890.

[9] Liu, B., F., & Mehta, A. M. (2021). From the periphery and toward a centralized model for trust in government risk and disaster communication. Journal of Risk Research, 24 (7), 853–869.

[10] Maher, P. J., Igou, E. R., & van Tilburg, W. A. P. (2018). Brexit, Trump, and the polarization effect of disillusionment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9 (2), 205–213.

[11] Strandmark, K. M. (2004). Ill health is powerlessness: a phenomenological study about worthlessness, limitations and suffering. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 18(2), 135–144.

[12] Wallerstein, N. (1992). Powerlessness, empowerment, and health: implications for health promotion programs. American Journal of Health Promotion6(3), 197–205.

[13] Zimmerman, M., & Rappaport, J. (1988). Citizen participation, perceived control, and psychological empowerment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 16(5), 725–750.

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