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Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube shows an app on his phone as he announces details of the COVID-19 vaccination passport system during a news conference on Aug. 10. Mr. Dube said unvaccinated people in Quebec will be denied access to non-essential public spaces such as bars, restaurants and gyms as of Sept. 1.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

To those who are militantly anti-vaccination, libertarians keen on rhetorical flourish and/or People’s Party leader Maxime Bernier (excuse the tautology), a vaccine passport system will inevitably lead to many wretched things: authoritarianism, oppression, medical apartheid, hellfire, brimstones and possibly the slaying of firstborn sons.

But to the vaccine-hesitant – that is, those who have held off on COVID-19 vaccination because of genuine reservations about safety or efficacy – a vaccine passport system may inadvertently deliver something else: relief.

That’s because the requirement to get vaccinated to participate in normal life in effect takes the decision out of individuals’ hands. Of course, no one will be pinned down and forcibly injected with Bill Gates’s secret soup, but a certificate system would function to shift the perception of choice.

Yes to vaccine mandates. Yes to vaccine passports

Vaccine mandates are not a hill to die on – literally or figuratively

Until now, there have been few tangible repercussions for delaying vaccination (other than that whole “major increased risk of serious illness and death” thing), meaning that the vaccine-hesitant had little impetus to go out and get their shots. If they opted to receive their vaccines and something went wrong – a serious adverse reaction, for example – they’d be left with the nagging thought that there was no one to blame but themselves. Why did they take the risk, they might wonder, if they didn’t have to?

But vaccine mandates serve to limit that perception of complete autonomy. The decision is ultimately still left to the individual, but it becomes easier to justify getting the vaccine on account of the province, or the federal government, or the school or employer, leaving “no choice” but to do so. Indeed, a requirement to get vaccinated to attend, say, in-person classes at the University of Ottawa, or a Jets game in Winnipeg, shifts the burden onto the state or institution, and gives the vaccine-hesitant someone to blame if something goes wrong. That knowledge alone can relieve some of the stress of deciding whether to schedule a shot.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Paradox of Choice, where he discusses the toll that “overchoice” can have on the psyche. His thesis is essentially that too many choices – or the perception of many choices – can cause negative effects, including “anticipated regret” (“you can actually experience regret in anticipation of making a decision,” he writes).

Mr. Schwartz explains that the desire to avoid regret can sometimes cause a sort of paralysis – “inaction inertia,” he calls it – whereby people who are presented with too many choices simply avoid making a decision at all out of fear of making the wrong one and later experiencing regret. “The more that our experiences result from our own choices,” he explains further, “the more regret we will feel if things don’t turn out as we had hoped.”

Vaccine mandates would directly challenge that inaction inertia. Vaccine-hesitant Canadians who might have previously been paralyzed by an abundance of choice (should I start conducting in-person lectures and see how things go? Or maybe do only half of my lectures on campus? Perhaps I’ll just wear a mask? What if I just get one shot?) are suddenly given very limited options: Get vaccinated, or stay off campus. No longer can their experience be seen as the product of wholly autonomous choice, which can actually relieve their anxiety about potentially making the wrong one: I had no choice; I had to get vaccinated – and if this ends badly, it’s the university’s fault.

Various studies have shown that people actually tend to experience greater satisfaction with their decisions when given limited choices, which might indicate that we don’t exactly trust ourselves when it comes to selecting from an abundance of options. One of the most cited studies was conducted by American academics Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper in 2000, when they looked at how inclined shoppers were to purchase jars of jam when they got to sample from a table of 24 varieties, versus one of six varieties. In the end, 30 per cent of tasters purchased from the table of limited options, compared to just three per cent of those who sampled from the table of 24 varieties. The researchers noted that “as the attractiveness of alternatives rises, individuals experience conflict and as a result tend to defer decision, search for new alternatives, choose the default option, or simply opt not to choose.”

The stakes are higher, obviously, when choosing how, when, and why to receive two shots in the arm of a new vaccine than they are when choosing between rhubarb and blackberry jam. But it follows that if individuals struggle to trust their own judgment in selecting from myriad options of jams, they would also experience all sorts of complex emotions, anticipated regret, and inaction inertia when deciding if and when to get vaccinated. Vaccine mandates serve to relieve that burden by limiting the choices to just a few jars of jam, so to speak.

While that might signal the start of creeping authoritarianism to those staunchly anti-vaccination, to the vaccine-hesitant – and everyone else looking hoping for better vaccine coverage across the country – it can offer invaluable mental reprieve.

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