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There are people who accept vaccines and eagerly await their turn for inoculation, and there are people who will always refuse them.
In between lies “the moveable middle,” a term to describe those who need some nudging to get to yes. A new study led by experts from Wharton and Penn offers three specific interventions to persuade more people in the middle to get vaccinated, an important step in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The final report from the COVID-19 Vaccination Uptake Behavioral Science Task Force is “eminently practical,” said Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade, who co-chaired the task force along with Penn psychology professor Angela Duckworth and Jennifer Chatman, a management professor at University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
“It has literal, practical, science-based suggestions about how to get the [vaccine] uptake higher,” Barsade said during an interview with the Wharton Business Daily radio show on Sirius XM. (Listen to the podcast above.)
While the study focused on employees at long-term care facilities who were reluctant to take the COVID-19 vaccine when it was first released in mid-December, the results are easily translated to other populations and other kinds of vaccines, Barsade said. That’s because it relies on behavioral science to influence change, rather than just information. Previous research has found that simply presenting the facts — such as the data on vaccine safety and efficacy — usually isn’t enough to get people off the fence.
“Of course, having good information is critical, and it’s one of our levers in the model. However, it is not enough to have it alone,” Barsade notes in the report. “Good information — a great website, an eye-catching infographic — these passive interventions were not as effective on their own. They needed to be partnered with active psychosocial interventions as well.”
The report’s four recommendations are:
- Empower Vaccine Acceptors as Advocates
Identify staff who have taken the vaccine and provide training so they can inform and encourage their more vaccine-hesitant coworkers to accept the vaccine. This can also include as role models people who were initially reluctant but then decided to be vaccinated who can serve as “convert communicators” to share their experiences honestly, including any unpleasant side effects.
- Make it Easy
Mitigating the difficulty of getting the vaccine helps pave the way to inoculation for those who are hesitant. Providing on-site vaccines, offering paid time off for off-site vaccines, clearly stating company policies regarding the vaccine and sending personalized reminder messages are all effective ways to remove barriers and encourage compliance.
- Use Social Influence and Boost Motivation
It helps to rely on respected, positive role models to spread the message that vaccines are beneficial and desirable. Providing silicone bracelets, stickers or other wearable items that signal vaccination are another way to create subtle, positive peer influence.
- Build Trust in Vaccine Safety
One of the biggest reasons for vaccine hesitancy is distrust, whether in the government, the workplace or the vaccine itself. Combatting this distrust requires a combination of approaches: transparency about vaccine development, advancing vaccine literacy, partnering with physicians who serve Medicaid patients, and emphasizing the freedom to decline the vaccine. It’s also important to acknowledge the lack of trust within minority communities and use social justice framing to encourage vaccination.
“One of the most important things about this model is that it’s an additive model,” Barsade said. “What I mean by that is the more concerns people have about the vaccine, the more you layer on these things. You need to empower the vaccine advocates. You need to make it easy. You need to influence and boost motivation, and you need to make it clear that the vaccines are safe, and build trust with the organization.”
“One of the most important things about this model is that it’s an additive model.” –Sigal Barsade
The report’s authors found that even people within the “moveable middle” gravitate toward one side or the other of the spectrum, and they included that segmentation as part of their strategy. The report also addresses “vaccine detractors” who exist on the negative end of the spectrum and will never change their minds. The researchers recommend against engaging too much with detractors so that their unfounded concerns are not amplified to the larger group.
The report is available to the public, and Barsade encouraged organizations around the world to download and use it as they figure out their own vaccination plans. The report has already been distributed to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“Our hope is that the report, created by this set of task force experts across multiple fields and universities, serves as an excellent repository of ideas that could be useful for everyone across industries,” she said.