When it comes to persuading the vaccine skeptics, family and friends are key

·3 min read

After a long, hard-won decline, COVID-19 cases are spiking again in Kansas City. Some days this month saw more new cases than the same time last year. Those ugly numbers show how hard it has been for experts to persuade our community to vaccinate, despite an overwhelming consensus among doctors and scientists that the inoculations are very safe and very effective.

Our national vaccination campaign is stumbling in dangerous ways, as the drive to immunize our communities hits a disturbing partisan gap. More than 80% of Democrats have received at least one shot, compared to just half of Republicans — and Republicans are much more likely to say they don’t plan to get immunized. That split hits particularly hard in Kansas and Missouri, where some conservative communities have turned their backs on experts.

Pockets of unvaccinated people give the virus a place to hide, spread and evolve, making it more dangerous and much harder to contain. We know that many of the people who have rejected vaccines so far would change their minds if someone gave them a reason to. Doctors and scientists are trying to shrink those pockets, but many unvaccinated people don’t trust experts. If they did, they wouldn’t be unvaccinated.

But they do trust their family and friends. They trust you. You can persuade them, if you make the effort and speak up for the shot.

We aren’t talking about hard-core anti-vaccine activists. They take a lot of blame for Americans’ fear of immunizations, because they manufacture it and sell it — many of them literally, in the form of quack “natural” alternatives to vaccines that are useless — to a segment of the public already prone to conspiracy theories. They won’t change their minds about vaccines, because they define themselves by their hostility to mainstream science and medicine.

But that group is smaller than it wants people to believe, and only dangerous because of the influence it has over those who are still deciding whether to get the shot. This latter group is larger, more important and more flexible. Those people are persuadable, given time, patience and the right approach.

The messenger matters. That messenger is you. Ultimately, the people in the best position to persuade someone to vaccinate are friends and family — people they know and trust, because of their strong relationships. And the message matters, too. That message is simple and powerful: I got the shot. That might seem like something the vaccine-hesitant are already hearing from other people. But they’re often not, or it’s being drowned out by the wailing of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. Just sharing how excited you are to be a part of ending the pandemic can break up that stream of propaganda with a hopeful, positive reality.

The best way to have this conversation is in person, slowly and without pressure. You are talking to people you care about, so treat them that way. Ask questions to understand where they’re coming from, because they aren’t crazy or evil. They’re just making a poor choice. Don’t expect them to change their mind on the spot, because people don’t work that way. Be patient and trust them to listen and keep thinking about your message after the conversation is over. That’s when you’ll be most persuasive. So make sure your points are memorable enough to stick around: Vaccines are safe and effective, which is why I’m glad to get inoculated. I wish you would too.

This won’t work on everyone. It certainly won’t affect the hard-core anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, who are generally unpersuadable. But that’s OK. Keep trying. Show patience and compassion, and know that this is a conversation worth having.

Just speaking up can help persuade people to protect themselves and their community, making it the easiest and potentially most powerful thing you can do to boost vaccination rates and push back against anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Because you are the right messenger, and your experience is the right message to help end the pandemic.

Colin McRoberts is a professor teaching business law and negotiation at the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He studies irrational decision-making and how negotiation can keep people from believing in false conspiracy theories.

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