March 19, 2021
Utah Governor Spencer Cox just announced that all Utahns 16 and older will be eligible to get a COVID vaccine starting next week at the same time President Joe Biden is moving forward with a plan to persuade Americans to get vaccinated. These developments make the question of how to persuade people with doubts about a vaccine an urgent one to answer. Data suggests that educating the public with facts, and avoiding politicians, is the way to go.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recently suggested that vocal support for getting a COVID-19 vaccine from former President Donald Trump would go a long way toward persuading Trump supporters who are hesitant about vaccines to get vaccinated. Just days later, Trump did exactly that.
New focus group data suggests that Fauci may be wrong. According to news coverage of the focus group, who was shown a variety of vaccine promotion ads and messages, the things that change minds among “vaccine-hesitant Trump voters” include “be[ing] honest that scientists don’t have all the answers. Tout[ing] the number of people who got the vaccines in trials. And [avoiding] pro-vaccine ads with politicians … even ones with Donald Trump.”
In particular, the thinking of those with doubts about a COVID vaccine was moved when they heard “five facts” about coronavirus and the vaccine, including how “the overwhelming share of doctors … have chosen to get vaccinated,” that “tens of thousands of people … participated in coronavirus vaccine trials last year,” and that the long-term effects of COVID may be worse than the effect of the vaccine.
This focus group evidence highlights the conundrum we face when it comes to vaccination. Elected officials are the ultimate decisionmakers on vaccine education efforts, but when politicians are the face of the effort, it fails.
It is easy in a polarized political climate to believe that politics or politicians are driver of any opinion related to political or policy debate. But that way of thinking fails to understand people for how they are – how they really think and feel. This misunderstanding of people is an obstacle to the effectiveness of any important civic endeavor, such as persuading people to get vaccinated against a pandemic disease.
In the end, when an important decision is at stake, the overwhelming majority of people want to make reasonable and informed decisions. What they want and need in such situations – what they act upon – is the information they can access and the experience that they rely upon, whether their own experience or that of someone they trust.
This will likely be the reality that either makes or breaks efforts at the state and federal levels to promote COVID vaccination. Will they seek to persuade vaccine-hesitant Americans with political arguments, politicians and ideological influencers? Or will they recognize the reality that, in the articulate words of one of the focus group participants, “we want to be educated, not indoctrinated”?
How many more Americans die of COVID-19, and how quickly our communities can move toward life after the pandemic, depends in part on how public officials answer these questions. Let’s hope they get it right.
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