Can we convince people to take a vaccine?

Vaccine hesitancy is at an all-time high. The latest Gallup survey puts the number of people in the US who may not take one of the COVID-19 vaccines at it at 42%. Despite the vocal anti-vaxxer community we hear about, this appears to be at a higher level than for the routinize childhood vaccines. You can’t use the extremely high childhood vaccine compliance levels as a guide because they’re required for school attendance. The COVID-19 vaccine may be required for certain jobs such as healthcare roles, but it won’t be required for children in the near future. They will only be approved for adults at first because testing for children will follow that of adults (which is the normal procedure — nothing nefarious about this.)

The concerns about vaccines are varied. Like the disease itself, the vaccines have become politicized. (See my earlier post for tips on how to talk about the disease.)

What the articles about how to encourage vaccination are missing is that there are different segments of people who have different concerns. This was the conclusion of a study I did about parents’ vaccine hesitancy, and it’s still true today despite this being an adult vaccine.

So how can we deal with the different issues?


I’m going to recommend a technique similar to the one that I recommended for COVID-19 deniers. It’s a little bit more complicated, though, because vaccine hesitancy is found on both the right and the left, not just on the right. Because I’ve already talked about how to overcome COVID-19 denial among those on the right, I’m going to focus on what to say to those who are on the left. To address those of the right, use the questions I posted about last week, just add in questions and information about vaccines.

As I did for those on the right, I’m going to suggest using an adaptation of a technique called the illusion of explanatory depth when speaking to those on the left. Studies have shown that when we can get people to slow down their thinking, to really take an inventory of what they know and they don’t know, they tend to realize that they don’t know a lot. It isn’t easy for them to do this because it goes against their nature, but it does work. Researchers have done studies on this for topics are as varied as how zippers work, how toilets work and, most recently, how economics works. In all these cases, people who are asked to explain in-depth what they know about a topic when they aren’t an expert are later more open to hearing from an expert. It gets them to slow down their responses.

How can this work in this situation? The first step is to ask questions. Or if that’s too much, give them a tablet and ask them to write it down. Then, you can tell them you’ll review it and come back with answers to any questions they have. You can load it with an explanation of what you want them to do and also some probing questions such as:

·       What do you know about the COVID-19 vaccines?

·       Where did you learn the information that you do know? What other sources have you checked?

·       How do you know to trust that source? How does that source get their information? What things have they said that have worked out? Are there any times when what they said hasn’t been true?

·       Are there sources you don’t believe? What are they? What do they say? Where do they get their information from? How do you know that what they say is a lie?

·       What specifically are your concerns about vaccines? Are you equally concerned about all the vaccines, or only some of them?

·       How has the pandemic affected your life? Have you had to make any sacrifices?

·       Do you know any doctors or nurses? What do they say?

·       Do you know anyone who was sick? What happened to them?

·       What questions do you have?

You get the idea. By the end of this, they will have taken an inventory of what they really do know and what they don’t know, and hopefully, they will be more open to hearing what you have to say.

Then, you need to pay attention to their concerns and agree with what you can. For example, you might say something like, “Yes, the vaccines have developed more quickly than other vaccines. That does raise the concern about whether they are safe.” Or “Yes, you’re right, former President Trump did pressure the FDA to approve an Emergency Usage Authorization for hydroxychloroquine that needed be rescinded and is trying to pressure them to approve the vaccines more quickly.” Or even just simply, “It’s scary putting something in your body that you aren’t sure about.”

After you agree with something they’ve said, then you can add something that reflects what you know that addresses their concern. Perhaps it’s that you have been following the advice of scientific experts who say that the FDA has learned the lesson from the outcry in the scientific community when they approved hydroxychloroquine — that they need to resist the pressure and take their time. Perhaps also you can mention the safety record of previous vaccines. And you could mention that there are two reasons why the vaccine trials were so much faster — one is because the companies took more financial risk, not that they skipped any steps, and the second is because the disease is so widespread and hurting so many people that they had more people enrolled, which made it faster. This reddit thread has more details, if you are interested.

Because previous research among those who are hesitant among vaccines has shown that they are higher in purity concerns, lower in respect for authority, higher in valuing liberty and higher in fearing harm, using these moral foundations can make your arguments more compelling. The arguments that the FDA resisted then President Trump and that companies went into financial risk both resonate with their lower authority tendency. Reassurance about safety and focus on the “nasty, disgusting” nature of the disease evokes that the sacredness/purity moral foundation. And the emphasis on the fact that the trials went faster because so many people are dying taps into the care for others/harm moral foundation. Finally, you can emphasize that this is their choice, no one is mandating it (except for those that are), which reminds them of the liberty moral foundation.

Interestingly, after I wrote this, I ended up using one of these in a discussion with a liberal, scientifically minded person who has a lot of influence over vaccine compliance of others. I asked his opinion, and I listened. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, I just mostly stayed silent while he outlined his concerns. One of them, I couldn’t address but one of them was about the speed of the trials. When I told him that they hadn’t skipped any steps and had spent money at financial risk to speed it up, that resonated with him.


If you have any follow-up questions about vaccine hesitancy, please email me by using the form on my website. Based on various parts of my professional career, I know about both vaccine hesitancy and clinical development as well as these psychological techniques, so I have a lot to offer on this topic. I’m happy to help on this important issue. You can reach me through the comment page on my website.