Human Behavior And The COVID Vaccine

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 10, 2021
Joe Biden is pissed.

He’s got 340 million horses at the water’s edge -- and only 208 million of them are drinking.

This, despite the fact that thousands of them are dying of dehydration every day.

It’s right there! he keeps saying. It’s free. It will literally stop you from dying. What more do you want?

That water is the COVID vaccine, obviously -- and people are not horses.

If you’re for the vaccine, it’s because you’ve received sufficient information from sources you trust to believe it’s safe and effective.

If you’re against it, it’s because you’ve received sufficient information from sources you trust to think it isn’t.

And so, if you’re the President of the United States, trying to vaccinate enough of the population to achieve herd immunity, you don’t just have a public health problem. You have a persuasion problem. You have a marketing problem. You have a sociology problem.



From a marketing perspective, we know this kind of persuasion doesn’t happen by offering more facts. Indeed, facts can achieve the opposite result. Presented with facts that contradict our beliefs, we often dig in harder to our original erroneous position, a phenomenon known as the boomerang effect.

It also doesn’t happen by way of mockery or shame. Venting frustration through belittling might be momentarily satisfying, but it’s unlikely to cause anyone to change their behavior.

Sociology professor Brooke Harrington describes the problem as one of “reference groups,” noting that none of us strives for the good opinion of everyone, just the good opinion of the people in our reference groups: our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends, members of our churches and our social clubs.

That good opinion isn’t just a nice-to-have. Forming into tribes is literally what allowed us to evolve as a species. For our lizard brains, the risk of getting kicked out of the tribe is literally life or death.

“Questions like ‘Don’t they want to live?’ or ‘Can’t they see that science works?’ seem sensible enough,” says Harrington, "but they miss the dynamics of social identity and affiliation motivating much of the strangest behavior we have seen in this pandemic.”

An example of that “strange behavior” is the way it can be easier to convince people to get a vaccine than to wear a mask: “One can get vaccinated in secret, but there is no way to wear a mask in secret. On the contrary, mask wearers literally ‘lose face.’ For many, that is a fate worse than physical death,” adds Harrington.

So what can we do? The answer is simple, but not easy: Make the desired behavior safe and acceptable within the reference group. Remove the risk of getting kicked out of the tribe.

Here, Harrington offers hope: “Recently, vaccination has been destigmatized in some reference groups that once opposed it; this has occurred through public endorsements of the procedure by partisan leaders such as DeSantis, as well as by Alabama‘s Gov. Kay Ivey, and the Louisiana Congressman Steve Scalise, who got vaccinated on camera. The Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders later penned an opinion column to encourage partisan reference-group members to get the shot by referring to it as ‘the Trump vaccine.’”

It’s never simple to change people’s behavior. But understanding why we do what we do is a good place to start.

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