A Social Identity Theory perspective on conflict between pro-vaccination and vaccine-hesitant groups

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 1297

Nearly two years into the global COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a notable increase of “I’m vaccinated” stickers, buttons, profile photos, filters and the like on social media (Huang, 2021). Here, I should probably clarify that I am pro-vaccination myself. However, the pronounced trend of declaring one’s vaccination status might be leaving some feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

Arguably, getting the COVID-19 vaccine is not only for yourself but for society as a whole (Randolph & Barreiro, 2020). At the same time, however, I also hold bodily autonomy as sacred. As such, I believe that one should make that decision without persecution if one feels that vaccination is not right for one. Note, however, that this stance on bodily autonomy in no way condones the spread of misinformation, unscientific propaganda, or baseless conspiracy theories about vaccinations. Rather, what this piece aims to unpack, is the apparent trend of an increased need to flaunt one’s vaccination status on social media, using Social Identity Theory.

According to the Social Identity Theory, part of our self-consciousness is determined by how we view ourselves in relation to certain social groups. Simply put, our identity is influenced by the groups into which we divide society and by the groups to which we consider ourselves a part of (Scheepers & Ellemers, 2019). Group membership is a facet of identity that begins with the categorisation of people into groups based on pervasive social norms and social structures (Jenkins, 2014). This identity perspective, in turn, can be used to understand behaviour.

This division and categorisation of social sub-groups occur as a normal cognitive process of group observation and experience to give meaning to the world around us (Ward, 2017). One identifies and selects groups on the basis of their values, beliefs and world views, which are established by various internal and cross-group associations (Trepte & Loy, 2017). Through these associations, we tend to exaggerate perceived group similarities and differences in order to reinforce social categorisation and give meaning to our experiences. Perceived group status differences are perceived with legitimacy because they are perceived as the ability to move from one group to another and serve as a reference point for a continuous comparison between groups that in turn shapes one’s own identity (Bochatay et al., 2019).

The group you consider yourself to be part of has much more to do with your identity than with what you consider to be objective facts about the COVID-19 vaccine. It is obvious that the groups in question here are those who are pro-vaccination and those who are vaccine-hesitant. What is not obvious, however, is the fact that membership to either group is not a choice based on available knowledge.

A central assumption of Social Identity Theory is that individuals are motivated to reach a positive self-image, to stand out and have a good sense of who they are as a person (White et al., 2018). This intrinsic motivation drives us to pursue different strategies to achieve this image. These include changing the way we categorise social groups, using alternative values when comparing groups inside and outside the group, changing the way groups are compared outside your group, being kicked out of a group, and pursuing goals you consider desirable for higher status groups. Social identity research has shown that there are two effects of intergroup discrimination: being able to distinguish oneself from others increases self-esteem (rather than being depressed or threatened by it) and fosters antagonism toward those whom one considers different from oneself (Turel & Gil-Or, 2019). In the face of a situation where being vaccination-hesitant risks your positive self-image, you have a few strategies at your disposal to maintain that image without changing your stance on vaccination. If your vaccine-hesitant group membership is fueled by your already positive self-image and sincere defiance, you are unlikely to even feel the need to pursue a strategy to maintain your self-image at all (Dutot, 2020).

As with all human behaviour, it is never black and white. Consider the following illustrative example: Vaccination advocates categorise people according to whether or not they believe in the institutions of modern science and medicine. As they themselves value the institution of science and medicine, those who are pro-vaccination consider those who also believe the science on COVID-19 to be part of their group, and those who do not is perceived to be outside of their group. The ever-ongoing comparison of those inside and those outside of their group results in the construction of a positive self-image through feelings of superiority for understanding and valuing science. At the same time, those who are vaccine-hesitant categorise people according to whether they follow right-leaning media or left-leaning media sources. Valuing the ideals of conservative ideologies, those who are vaccine-hesitant considers those who subscribe to right-leaning media content to be part of their group and those who subscribe to left-leaning media to be outside of their group. The ever-ongoing comparison of those inside and those outside of their group results in the construction of a positive self-image through feelings of superiority for not being easily convinced by what is perceived to be propaganda.

Shaping the vaccination debate in a way that is not new, although COVID-19 has made it more pronounced, offers a peek behind the curtain. The illustrative example that could be argued suggests that the entire conversation is doomed to failure because people are not talking about the same thing. This is not to say that people should not talk about their experiences with vaccination. However, what is suggested here is that people who consider themselves to be pro-vaccination campaigners need to ask themselves honestly what their intent is behind publicly declaring their vaccination status. Is it in the public interest, or is it an exercise in promoting a positive self-image? Essentially, for those who might share my views on being vaccinated, if you share your experiences online, are you virtue signaling, or are you providing usable, unbiased information that could benefit others?

Before you click the share button, you may want to reconsider your intentions to educate rather than to rejoice. The way your message is presented makes a massive difference. Social Identity Theory shows us that the way in which you share your own vaccination experiences with others could inadvertently be pushing people away from being vaccinated as opposed to encouraging them to get vaccinated.


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Huang, B. (2021). Posting COVID-19 vaccine selfies on social media can cause anger, frustration. The Conversation, 1–5.

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White, K., Stackhouse, M., & Argo, J. J. (2018). When social identity threat leads to the selection of identity-reinforcing options: The role of public self-awareness. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 144, 60–73.

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