What Can Convince People to Just Get Vaccinated Already?

A few months later—early 2021—the same researchers did another study, a randomized trial of 18,855 people. This time, they measured the effectiveness of 10 different kinds of messages on people’s stated willingness to get vaccinated. (The control group just heard the basic UK National Health System spiel: That the vaccines are safe, effective, and protect against Covid.) Telling people that vaccines help prevent them from transmitting the virus to others, that it was safe even though it had a speedy development process, or that the pandemic is really bad and everyone getting vaccinated would help end it sooner—none of that worked. The only thing that moved the needle was emphasizing the personal benefits of getting the shot: It makes it less likely that you will get sick. Less likely that you will die.

Another survey, this one of a representative sample of 3,048 US residents last summer, similarly compared changes in intent-to-vaccinate after hearing language about vaccine safety, private benefit, social benefit, and economic benefit—sometimes in combination with each other. (A single basic message about rigorous testing of the vaccines in trials functioned as the control.) The biggest boost by far was in the private-benefit group; as the journal article about the research noted, even though vaccine-resistant people often cite concerns about safety and side effects, in practice the this-is-safe message did only slightly better than the control.

The Civis researchers found much the same thing. “We have tested that kind of framing in the past. With wearing a mask, for instance, we found that personal benefit was far more effective to talk about than protection of others,” says Crystal Son, director of health care analytics at Civis. “When we tested messages talking about the importance of mask use, one of them was: ‘Wear it for grandma.’ That one was zero percent effective, and had a high probability of negative backlash.”

Son’s team found more subtle effects in their most recent vaccine research. In similar Civis research a year ago, telling people that Covid vaccines might keep children from getting sick didn’t seem to change anyone’s mind; now, with most kids back in school and vaccine approval for kids looking more imminent, it did.

But in trial after trial, the only reliable way to convince vaccine-resistant folks to get vaccinated is to tell them it’ll benefit them personally.

So I’m a schmuck, basically. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve been writing about how disasters actually make people work together, and how cooperation is the only way out of all this. In just about every story I wrote about vaccines once they became available, I’d add some boilerplate about how they were safe and effective, and that while vaccines would keep each of us safer, the best reason to get them was that they helped each of us protect us all. What a waste of pixels.

Here’s the weird part: People resisted entreaties, messages, even prizes. But when the hard-assed mandates started to slam down—get vaccinated or lose your job—the volume of complaints didn’t change, but the volume of vaccinations did. They worked. Lots of those people who said they’d never, nope, nuh-uh get vaccinated? Poll numbers showed percentages of “never” in the teens and “only if you make me” in the single digits. After mandates, those conditions flipped—it turns out the “nevers” were the much smaller group.

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