How to convince someone to get vaccinated

Woman holding a sign to convince people to get vaccinated
Photo via The National GuardFollow/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: Aug. 3, 2021

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 70% of the population will need to be inoculated against COVID-19 to achieve a level of herd immunity. In the United States, this task is easier said than done thanks to anti-vaccination movements and political partisanship standing in the way. People with hesitant family members and friends are looking for any ideas to convince someone who isn’t sure about the vaccine to get vaccinated.

Currently, about 70% of eligible U.S. adults have received their first vaccine dose. Meanwhile, the rolling rate of new vaccinations has dropped to its lowest since mid-March. That means approximately 20% of Americans still need to be vaccinated.

With one in five Americans saying they won’t get the vaccine, very little wiggle room remains. Not only have millions of people not getting vaccinated, but a decent number of them have also said nothing can convince them to get jabbed, not even their own doctor.

But Alice Chen—a senior adviser with Made to Save, a national grassroots effort to ensure communities hit hardest by the pandemic have access to vaccines—told the Washington Post that a number of cumulative effects have successfully convinced skeptical holdouts to get vaccinated.

“The ads on TV, reading up on the CDC site, talking to your buddy who’s a nurse—I think it’s going to be a combination of all these things that are going to help, particularly for the people who are the most hesitant,” she said.

Chen, who also administers shots at a Florida clinic through her work as an internal medicine physician, said even she has given doses to “self-confessed former skeptics.”

“Almost all of them changed their mind because somebody they love told them to—because they saw people around them getting vaccinated,” she said. “I think that piece is so much more important than I think I even realized, going into this.”

Chen, along with politicians and public health leaders, has been studying Zoom focus group responses headed up by longtime pollster Frank Luntz. The research was conducted by the de Beaumont Foundation, a public organization that strives to strengthen public health. The goal of the focus groups was to understand why some Americans are hesitant to get vaccinated and learn which messages will get through to them.

Between March and the end of April, four Trump voters who weren’t planning to get vaccinated experienced a change of heart. The change was prompted by guidance from former CDC director Tom Frieden, who served in the Obama administration. 

“When I did the last focus group with you, and you had the doctor from the CDC on,” a woman who introduced herself as “Marie from New York” said, “he explained it much better than Fauci, or any of them, ever did.”

People in Belgium also seem to be listening. According to one study, 60% of those Belgians who were hesitant about the vaccine eventually changed their minds.

Shaming won’t work

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that positive reinforcement and education are key to convincing someone to get vaccinated. What doesn’t work is shaming people, especially if they’re family members. It didn’t work with masks, and it won’t work with pro-vaccine campaigns.

Time magazine cited a UK Metro headline from back in December. It proclaimed that “People think anti-vaxxers are ‘stupid and selfish.” Though certainly attention-grabbing, as the publication pointed out, these approaches are ultimately counterproductive, according to experts.

“The thinking has been that the more you shame people the more they will obey. But this turns out to be absolutely wrong,” Giovanni Travaglino, assistant professor of social psychology at Kent University, told Time. “It’s hard to get people to act in a cooperative manner when you approach them that way.”

“It’s associated with subordination to authority, and people don’t like that,” he added.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser on the White House coronavirus response team, told the Washington Post the Biden administration instead encourages efforts to share “reliable information” and simply listen to people’s concerns.

“There’s no reason to shame anybody. And there’s no evidence that shaming anybody ever accomplished anything,” Slavitt said. He added that officials are still working to understand the various reasons why many Americans have yet to make up their minds.

How to actually convince someone to get vaccinated

As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. A recent Time/Harris Poll survey asked vaccinated Americans how they were influenced to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The results reinforce the inefficacy of individual authority figures.

As you can see in the results below, the most effective motivating factors were hearing anecdotal evidence. News stories discussing the results of COVID-19 vaccine trials and stories about the results of those who have already been vaccinated were effective in swaying skeptics. Others were swayed by the desire to visit family, travel, or resume other activities that may soon require proof of a vaccine.

The following list details the most effective factors in convincing someone to get vaccinated.

  • Reading or listening to a news story discussing COVID-19 vaccine trials results: 72%
  • Reading or hearing a news story about the results of those already vaccinated: 63%
  • Wanting to visit family or friends but not being able to without a vaccine: 60%
  • Having a conversation with friends or family about whether to get a vaccine: 59%
  • A friend or family member receiving the COVID-19 vaccine: 56%
  • Wanting to travel but not being able to without a vaccine: 52%
  • Watching a commercial or a PSA about how to get vaccinated for COVID-19: 51%
  • A friend or family member being diagnosed with COVID-19: 50%
  • Seeing a celebrity or elected official get a vaccine: 44%
  • Wanting to return to work or school but not being able to without a vaccine: 43%
  • A friend or family member passing away due to COVID-19: 34%
  • Being directly contacted by local officials with information on how to get vaccinated: 32%

There is also great value in appealing to people through personal stories. A 2015 study on countering anti-vaccination attitudes published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed multidisciplinary scientific journal, focused on making people appreciate the consequences of failing to vaccinate their children.

The subjects took a survey on their attitudes about vaccines before being divided into three groups. Each group was given reading materials to see what resonated the most.

One group received an explanation about how autism and vaccines are not related, while a control group received material on an unrelated science topic. The third group was given an account from a mother who described her child’s bout with measles in graphic detail.

When retaking the survey, all of the subjects exhibited changed attitudes about vaccines, but none more so than the group who read the mother’s account. This group was five times more convinced than the group that read material on autism and six times more than the control group.

Giving people the resources to make their own informed decisions is more successful in convincing someone to get vaccinated than shame tactics. It will take patience and understanding to successfully change minds.

In early August 2021, New York City planned to require people to prove they’ve been vaccinated if they want to dine indoors or go to the gym. It remains to be seen whether this kind of so-called vaccine passport system will convince people.

And if none of that works, perhaps offering the chance to win $1 million will be the deciding factor.

Read more on the coronavirus vaccines:

Sources: Washington Post, Time, PNAS

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