Smiling woman getting a vaccine form a  nurse
Behavioral Science Principles That can Reduce Vaccine Hesitancy

According to recent polls, the number of Americans who are unwilling to get the COVID-19 vaccine has recently dropped to around 1 in 5 Americans (Monmouth University Poll, 4/14/21). This is significantly down from prior polls but still has a large segment of our population resisting a way to end this pandemic, save lives, and get our economy rolling again. 

So where is the hesitancy coming from?

Demographically speaking, this 1/5 of the population is clustered in a few areas. There is higher hesitancy among Black and Latinos, often based on prior negative experiences with healthcare. Additionally, while these groups started out with significant hesitation, they have shown marked declines in hesitancy rates recently. Women between the ages of 20 and 36 are also slightly more inclined to be hesitant, mostly due to concerns about the vaccine’s safety with pregnancy. 

However, the largest portion of those wanting to avoid the vaccine is a result of partisanship. Only 5% of Democrats say they will not take the vaccine, while 42% of Republicans are in that category (Monmouth University Poll, 4/14/21).  This is not surprising, as the pandemic itself has been bogged down by political polarization – from the severity of the disease to quarantines, to mask-wearing. 

What can be done to get those people unwilling to take a vaccine to shift their minds? 

Being a communication agency that is deeply entrenched in behavioral science, we looked to see what can be done to shift people’s behavior. While there is no silver bullet, behavioral science does point to some things that might be able to “move the needle” for some people (pun not intended, but we’ll take it). 

First, a significant impact could be made if trusted Republican leaders would take an active role in promoting getting vaccinated. This is based on the messenger effect where people respond more to the messenger than they do to the message. For much of this pandemic, Republicans have downplayed its severity and criticized our response to it. For the most part, Republican leadership has not denigrated getting vaccinated, but neither have they very openly endorsed it. 

However, Republican uptake might be shifting. 

Recent research has shown that willingness to get vaccinated increased by 15% for those Republicans who were told that Trump had been vaccinated. Although it is noted that most of this shift came from Republicans who were on the fence about vaccination, not fully against it. Having high profile, highly esteemed leadership positively encouraging Republicans to get vaccinated, could help decrease some hesitancy.

Some of the messaging around this could include messages such as using a picture of Trump, quoting him saying, “Everybody go get your shot” which he said at the CPAC meeting back in February, with the follow up line of, “just like I did.”  Trump was secretly vaccinated in January of 2021. 

Donald Trump pointing while dressed asUncle Sam
The Messenger IS the Message

Another way to get people off the fence and get vaccinated is to enlist trusted non-partisan leaders.  Religious leaders, athletes, entertainers, military, and local businesspeople. Professor Robb Willers from Stanford is working with NASCAR to build public service announcements featuring drivers receiving their vaccines. Another prime influence group could be health professionals – particularly if it is through one-on-one conversations. This “deep canvassing” approach has been shown to be one of the most powerful ways of shifting people’s beliefs. 

The message itself can be structured in a way to help convince skeptics. Dr. Katy Milkman highlighted some research with flu vaccines that was done on a very large scale (over 500,000 participants) that messages that focused on the vaccine being personalized such as “Your vaccine is waiting for you” or “your shot is reserved for you.”

Polling work done by Frank Luntz tested a number of different messages with different demographic groups. The one that worked best across all of them focused on removing the mask. Obviously, this is a great incentive for everyone, but also plays into some of the negative perceptions of mask-wearing by Republicans. Thus, an image of a person taking off their mask and enjoying a family gathering or a concert was seen as the most compelling of all the messages. 

Girl taking off her mask and looking relieved
The Power of Emotional Messaging

The final piece of information that can be shared to help influence perceptions is to correct the false idea that vaccine hesitancy is rampant. As we outlined in the beginning, it is only about 20% of the population and that is rapidly decreasing. Many more people are getting the vaccine and want the vaccine than don’t. The social pressure that can flex with our friends and family is immense.

Framing is also important in this messaging as we tend to be influenced by the social norm. For example, if we state this as “20% of Americans refuse to be vaccinated” it anchors the negative and people may falsely be perceived that the norm whereas “80% of Americans and climbing are getting vaccinated!” we anchor the audience to the positive behavior.

While none of these are going to convince everyone, they can help in potentially shifting some perceptions – especially with those “on the fence”. We have also put out a podcast on this and developed some Facebook memes that you can use with your friends.

Go out and post these – they may end up saving someone’s life.