Personal Beliefs May Skew Pandemic Memories and Deepen Polarization

Philipp Sprengholz, PhD, Luca Henkel, PhD, Robert Böhm, PhD, and Cornelia Betsch, PhD
6 Min Read

Sprengholz is a professor of health psychology. Henkel is a behavioral economist. Böhm is a professor of psychology. Betsch is a professor of health communication.

As we move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic and look to evaluate our past responses to prepare for future crises, our new series of studies published in Nature sheds light on a concerning issue: Societal polarization between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is distorting the accuracy of how people recall the pandemic’s history. Here we will summarize the main results of our research and expand on the implications.

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s crucial to understand the effectiveness and appropriateness of our past actions, as this knowledge is essential for future pandemic preparedness. However, psychological research has shown that people’s retrospective narratives of historical events can be distorted. With significant polarization observed between the vaccinated and unvaccinated throughout the pandemic, we aimed to investigate the extent to which these two groups either overestimated or underestimated their own past perceptions, behaviors, trust in government and science, and how these distortions affect their evaluation of past political actions.

One study we examined, conducted in Germany and Austria, involved people answering questions about their pandemic-related perceptions, behaviors, and trust at two different time points: in the first year of the pandemic (2020) and then at the end of 2022. For instance, we asked them about their perceived infection probability or how exaggerated they perceived pandemic regulations existing at that point in time. At the second time point, they were also asked to recall their earlier responses, allowing us to compare actual answers with recalled ones. What we discovered was striking: both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals showed opposite distortions of recall. Vaccinated individuals tended to overestimate their past risk perceptions and trust in science, while unvaccinated participants tended to underestimate them. The effects were larger for individuals who strongly identified with being vaccinated or unvaccinated. Thus, individuals for whom being vaccinated or unvaccinated was especially relevant for their identity tended to have particularly biased memories. This distortion was not due to simple forgetfulness but appeared to be motivated by vaccination-related attitudes, based on the fact that offering a significant monetary incentive for correct recall reduced the distortion in another study.

Distorted recall can have implications for future action. If an unvaccinated individual recalls feeling minimal risk for COVID infection in 2020 (when their risk perception was actually higher at the time), what does this mean for their response to a future threat? Might the risk be downplayed? The reverse is true as well for a vaccinated individual — might the threat be overblown?

The systematically diverging narratives about the pandemic have the potential to perpetuate current and future societal polarization, hindering the improvement of crisis preparedness and response. Another study across 10 countries shows that the polarized perception of the past is associated with desires to punish politicians and scientists, distrust in political institutions, and decreased intentions to comply with future pandemic regulations. These relationships were observed in all investigated countries including Germany, Mexico, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.

Our findings suggest that all countries must consider the longer-term consequences for societal cohesion and trust when responding to societal challenges. This may help promote more unified responses when future crises do arise. While further research is needed to understand the complex interplay between polarization and recall, the studies highlight the urgent need for strategies to reduce the impact of group identification on societal polarization. We aim to investigate such strategies in future research.

The research also opens the door to explore how similar effects may influence other societal challenges, such as the climate crisis, and paves the way for finding interventions to bridge the divide between groups with opposing opinions on pressing issues. In a world where unity and collaboration are essential, understanding and addressing the impact of polarization on our shared history is paramount.

Philipp Sprengholz, PhD, is a professor of health psychology at the University of Bamberg in Germany. Luca Henkel, PhD, is a behavioral economist working at the University of CEMA in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Robert Böhm, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Vienna. Cornelia Betsch, PhD, is a professor of health communication at the University of Erfurt in Germany.

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