How to persuade someone to take the COVID-19 vaccine

Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY

The vaccines are coming. Now, how many Americans will actually get them?

It's a looming question, perhaps the most important one as the coronavirus continues to surge in the U.S. Medical experts say vaccine-induced herd immunity — when enough people are immune that the virus will find it difficult to spread — is the best way to end the pandemic.

Overall, 60% of Americans say they would definitely or probably get the vaccine if one were available today, according to a Pew Research Center survey this month, up from 51% who said so in September. Nearly 40% said they definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine, though about half of this group – about 18% of U.S. adults – say they could change their minds.

What will that take?

USA TODAY spoke with Jay Van Bavel, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab, and Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies judgment and decisions in health, to get advice on what everyday Americans can do to encourage their families, friends and community members to get the vaccine.

More: USA TODAY panel says US has nailed the science behind COVID-19 vaccines, but logistics, trust remain a concern

Don't judge people; meet them where they are

More than 325,000 people have died since the beginning of the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's senior official for infectious diseases, said if most people get vaccinated, "we could really turn this thing around" toward the end of 2021.

Many people who plan to get vaccinated are confounded by those who are hesitant. But Van Bavel said there are understandable reasons that someone would be uncertain about a brand-new vaccine.

"Regular people are not trained in science," he said. "They haven't been trained to think analytically about these kinds of complex scientific issues. And when they don't trust mainstream news sources or scientific authorities and they don't know how to vet information ... then it's understandable from that perspective that they could be misled."

In today's outrage culture, he said, people often use shame to call out what they perceive to be irresponsible behavior, but shame is not nearly as effective in changing behavior as some might think.

Authors of a paper developed by the Center for Public Interest Communications and the United Nations' "Verified" initiative on building trust in the COVID-19 vaccine wrote, "Shame is likely to achieve the opposite reaction we’re hoping for. Look to more constructive emotions like love, hope and the desire to protect to get people to act."

Colleen Teevan, System Pharmacy Clinical Manager at Hartford HealthCare, administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to healthcare worker Connor Paleski outside of Hartford Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Hartford, Conn.
Colleen Teevan, System Pharmacy Clinical Manager at Hartford HealthCare, administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to healthcare worker Connor Paleski outside of Hartford Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Hartford, Conn.

Don't dismiss people's concerns

Reasonable skeptics are not going to trust the vaccine just because someone says they should. If someone is skeptical of Big Pharma, for example, don't disregard that.

"There's lots of reasons that you should be ... skeptical of the financial interests of large pharmaceutical companies," Van Bavel said.

If an African American is hesitant about getting the vaccine, don't ridicule that. Black people have been repeatedly mistreated by the medical community. Dismissing their concerns about a COVID-19 vaccine shows a lack of empathy and a misunderstanding of history.

Don't treat people's concerns as dumb. Listen to them, validate them, and figure out how to address them.

"The first thing is just understanding the base of those concerns and not trying to dismiss them, but trying to grapple with them," Van Bavel said.

Vestiges of Tuskegee study: Black Americans are the most hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in New York.
Sandra Lindsay, left, a nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, is inoculated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by Dr. Michelle Chester, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in New York.

Know that a person's politics aren't everything

The pandemic has been politically charged from the start, but don't assume political identity is the only one that matters in decision-making.

"Identity is intersectional and involves a lot of things," Chapman said, including race, gender and religion. "There are some pretty interesting dynamics going on here."

For example, Democrats are more enthusiastic about the vaccine than Republicans. But Black Americans, who lean Democrat, are skeptical of vaccines because of their history of abuse by the medical system. For some, racial identity may be more potent than political identity.

"In a perfect, limitlessly resourced world," the authors of the United Nations paper wrote, "we’d have the opportunity to craft highly specific campaigns for each community and identity."

Americans remain divided on COVID: What will it take to bring them together?

Government distrust: Black Americans are the most hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Ask questions to learn whether you're talking to someone who is anti-vax or vaccine-hesitant

Before launching into your argument, try your best to size up your audience. Is this person vaccine-hesitant or a hardcore anti-vaxxer?

It's unlikely you'll change the mind of a militant anti-vaxxer, but experts say they're rare. Those who are skeptical of vaccines are far more common.

To figure out where someone stands on COVID-19 vaccines, be curious. Ask questions like, "Why do you think that?" or "Where are you hearing this?" or "Why do you trust this?"

Sal Lando, left, holds up signs during a protest against mandatory flu vaccinations, outside the Massachusetts State House, in Boston, last summer. Spurred by the pandemic, vaccine opponents have worked to reinvent their image around a rallying cry of civil liberties and medical freedom. Such a stance, health officials worry, could lead to a large percentage of Americans opting out of promising COVID-19 vaccines.
Sal Lando, left, holds up signs during a protest against mandatory flu vaccinations, outside the Massachusetts State House, in Boston, last summer. Spurred by the pandemic, vaccine opponents have worked to reinvent their image around a rallying cry of civil liberties and medical freedom. Such a stance, health officials worry, could lead to a large percentage of Americans opting out of promising COVID-19 vaccines.

Asking such questions will help you understand if people are persuadable and what may persuade them. For example, if someone thinks COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, you know which belief you have to correct.

If they're getting their information from certain sources with an agenda, they've been indoctrinated to be skeptical of experts, so noting that the nation's top infectious disease expert says the vaccine is safe may not matter to them.

Facts alone don't sway anti-vaxxers. So what does?

The Backstory: Why do people deny the seriousness of COVID-19?

Know your facts, but know that facts aren't everything

A 2010 study found that trying to correct someone's perception can have a “backfire effect.” When you encounter facts that don’t support your belief, it actually grows stronger.

It's often an uphill battle to convince someone that a deeply held view is flawed. Human beings are hard-wired for bias. If you’re a new mom who believes vaccines cause autism, do you look for research that shows whether they actually do, or do you Google “vaccines cause autism” to find stories to affirm your belief? Likely the latter, which is driven by “motivated reasoning," our psychological tendency to perpetuate our own beliefs and dismiss anything that runs against our own views.

However, if you and the person you are trying to persuade share the same identity or social circle, she may be more apt to hear what you have to say.

Be clear, transparent and honest

When communicating with someone who is hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine, experts say you should tell them the vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna are about 95% effective.

Don't downplay the side effects. There are some, but they're not severe and they're short-lived. Thousands of people have gotten the vaccines and none have reported serious, long-lasting health concerns. People seem to feel worst after the second dose and may need a day to recover. If you have extreme allergies, you should talk to your doctor first.

If someone is concerned the vaccines were developed too quickly to be safe — they were released to the public about 11 months after the coronavirus surfaced — you can acknowledge it's normal to be fearful that things were rushed, but explain the science was not compromised. Public health experts, those involved in the effort and those who weren't, agree on that.

"Another thing you could say is, 'This has gone really quick, but it's a really amazing thing for science,'" Van Bavel said. "Some people are saying that this should be a model. We now know that we can do this in this time with this level of rigor. This is now going to be a model for future vaccines."

Model the behavior you want to see

Experts say what you do is more powerful than what you say. Telling people you plan to get the vaccine and posting a photo on social media when you do is far more potent than anything else you share.

"We tend to look for cues in the environment about what others are doing to tell us what is the appropriate thing to do in a situation," Chapman said. "And up until (recently) none of us knew anyone who had gotten the COVID vaccine. ... Over the next month, we're going to have more and more of those cues. We're going to start knowing people who have been vaccinated."

Research shows immediate connections in our social networks matter the most for changing behavior, partly because they set norms about what everybody else is doing.

When we get vaccinated, Chapman said, "other people who are like us will look at that and say, 'Oh, well, I'm kind of like Gretchen. I guess that's the thing I should do.'"

Always correct misinformation

If you see people who are fervently against the COVID-19 vaccine posting conspiracy theories on social media, you're probably not going to change their minds. But even if you can't convince them, you can still debunk misinformation.

You can post a link to a fact check or another credible source like the CDC or the World Health Organization. Even if you can't convince the person posting, you may convince some of the friends and family watching.

You can also reach out to mutual friends to tell them you know a particular claim is false.

Make the vaccine seem as uncontroversial as it should be

Chapman said the vaccine should be framed as the standard of care, rather than something open to debate.

She referred to a 2017 experiment by Noel Brewer in which physicians announced it was time for a child's HPV vaccine rather than having a conversation with the parent about whether they wanted their child to be vaccinated. The announcement technique resulted in more parents vaccinating their children.

The same should be true, Chapman said, of the COVID-19 vaccine. "Don't make it seem like this is optional," she said.

An unintended consequence of the many opinion polls about COVID vaccines is that they may lead some people to believe the vaccine is controversial, Chapman said.

"When pollsters ask people, 'Are you going to get the COVID vaccine?' that question sort of implies, 'Oh, so maybe some people don't want to get the vaccine. I didn't realize that this was something that there was some controversy about,'" Chapman said.

"Let's frame the COVID vaccine as best-practice standard of care," she said. "Of course we're going to get the vaccine. That's what everyone's going to do, because that's how we're going to stop this. This is what we've all been waiting for."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccine: How to convince people to get vaccinated; tips