An Evaluation of Collective Action- Herd Immunity & Vaccination Policy

Collective Action Theory

Collective action theory attempts to explain the individual decisions and behavior within a group while in pursuit of the common goals of the group as a whole. In economics, it is most often discussed in relation to the provision of public goods through the collaboration between individuals, and the impact of externalities on group behavior(Olson 1977). In other words, public goods are created and, or maintained as a result of successful collective action of group of individuals in order to protect a public good. Various groups have different advantages at achieving effective collective action simply by virtue of the group’s characteristics. Groups that are smaller, more sociable and are interlinked will find it easier to overcome collective action problems than groups without those qualities. Conversely, groups that are larger, more hierarchical and heterogeneous may find it more difficult to organize and achieve common group goals. Additionally, systemic variables (e.g., social institutions, regulations) can either facilitate or impede effective collective actions depending on their reach and influence.  Understanding the behaviors of others is key to understanding collective action. One aspect that can affect “willingness to cooperate” of actors within a group is reciprocation, where most people will be willing to cooperate if the get assurance that others will cooperate as well. Another aspect is reputation, where if more individuals have a history of cooperating, the greater the chances of cooperation in the future.

A number of factors can affect the success of collective action, which include but are not limited to the number of actors, the spatial distance between actors, the temporal distance over which actions are taken, and the complexity of system in which these actions operate. The larger the number of actors in a group, the less likely there is to be a consensus on what action to take and to what extent. Additionally, the larger that group, the more effort it takes to monitor and regulate individual contribution. This leads to a higher likelihood for single actors is to “free-ride”, or not make a contribution to the common good. Similarly, the spatial distance between actors in a group, can impact the effectiveness of the collective action take as a whole, where the further apart individual actors are from each other, the more difficult it is to accurately measure and monitor each individuals action. The depending on when each individual acts, whether simultaneously or sequential, and whether the consequences of those actions manifest immediately or years after the action is taken, it can be a significant challenge in organizing and monitoring the success of collective action efforts. In large-scale systems, the “tipping point” and other nuances that result due cumulative action can be missed or hard to interpret as there may be numerous aspects within the system impacted that we can misattribute or simply do not fully understand yet.

Herd Immunity & Public Vaccination Policy

Challenges faced by public health policymakers commonly depend on getting members of the public to behave in a way that promotes the common interest despite that desired conduct may necessarily be in the self-interest of each individual. If individuals make choices that undermine a public good, communities face the dilemma of either giving up the desired public good or influencing individual decision-making that guarantees a sufficient level of cooperation. Economists sometimes characterize these challenges as collective action problems(e.g. “free-rider problem”,“prisoner’s dilemma”; Olson 1977).

Large scale collective actions problems often involve large number of anonymous actors whose cumulative individual actions have a significant direct or indirect external impact. In the case of vaccination as a public policy, if a large enough portion of a community refuse or are excused from receiving vaccines, it increases risk that those most vulnerable to the disease.

It can be said then that the success of vaccines as a public policy depends not only on the added protection that vaccines confer upon those who receive vaccination shots, but also on the decrease likelihood that anyone who will come in contact with the disease. Immunization via vaccines are key in allowing us to protect members of the community who cannot receive vaccinations, such as the elderly, infants and others who immunocompromised due to medical reasons. Although vaccines are highly effective, none can fully guarantee immunity. Thus, ‘herd immunity’ relies on a high percentage of a population to be immune to a certain disease(Oxford Vaccine Group 2016), and so lessening the likelihood for that disease to spread as well as the occurrence of an outbreak. The more contagious a disease the higher the threshold percentage required to prevent an outbreak. This is why outbreaks have occurred in the recent decade in countries with high vaccination rates, where there exist disparities in vaccination rates between communities, geographic areas and among age-groups(WHO 2019).

Throughout the last half-century, policy remedies have concentrated on the use of mandatory vaccination laws (i.e. namely school vaccination requirements), alongside legislation that provides no-fault, administrative compensation for adverse effects that have been scientifically linked to vaccines. The majority of present-day society today have no personal recollection of a child dying from measles, but a growing portion of the American public have been discussing the remote, speculated risks associated with receiving vaccines. In these cases, individuals tend to underestimate the true value of immunization and are more inclined to take a chance on being unprotected. Consequently, successful collective action can also carry the potential for self-erosion. In California, even though the stringent restrictions SB 277 eliminates a parent’s right to use personal beliefs, to exempt their children from receiving one, some or all vaccines(Karlamangla 2019), it still does not apply to home-school students, and thus leading to only minor effectiveness in improving overall vaccination rates. Ultimately, the public immunity to preventable diseases via vaccines in California and other parts of the United States will depend on the inclusiveness and strict enforcement of vaccine mandates and policy, which may come at the price of the compromised constitutional individual rights, and so are unlikely to see resolve anytime soon.


  • Herd Immunity: How does it work? (2016, April 26). Oxford Vaccine Group. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from
  • Karlamangla, S. (2019, November 4). California’s strict vaccination law will have only ‘modest’ impact, study says. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from
  • New measles surveillance data from WHO. (2019, August 12). World Health Organization. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from
  • Olson, M. (1977).

    The logic of collective action: public goods and the theory of groups

    . Cambridge, Angleterre: Harvard University Press.