Over the past 18 months, scientists have made remarkable progress in developing COVID vaccines. But on vaccine communication, our progress has been remarkably poor.
I’ve spent the past few years studying the science of motivating people to think again. And I keep seeing government officials, healthcare professionals, and citizens make the same three mistakes.
1. “Vaccines are safe and effective”
With skeptical audiences, one-sided messages tend to backfire. Expressing high certainty under low trust is a recipe for disaster. It sounds like you’re sweeping the truth under the rug. When you bring your defense attorney to court, they show up with their best prosecutor to annihilate your arguments.
No medical treatment is 100% safe or 100% effective. Research reveals that experts are more persuasive when they acknowledge uncertainty. We’re all more convincing when we address counterarguments. Cardiac surgeons don’t go around saying “Open-heart surgery is safe and effective.” They walk you through the risks and potential benefits of the procedure so you can make an informed judgment.
What if we took a similar approach with vaccines? We should make it clear that yes, vaccines have risks, but COVID carries risks too. Then we can explain the available data suggesting that the risks of getting COVID—both in probability and severity—far exceed the risks of adverse vaccine reactions. For example, even though the mortality rate is low among younger people, COVID is still affecting them severely: some data suggest that one in four cases are long-haul.
2. “The anti-vaxxers are to blame”
We might be better off talking about vaccine hesitancy. Instead of turning opposition into a permanent identity—you’re the kind of person who’s against vaccines—we can frame it as a temporary state of mind. After all, doubt is one of the key ingredients in science, and healthy skepticism is a hallmark of critical thinking. Having questions doesn’t make you an anti-vaxxer; it makes you an informed citizen.
3. “Only 49.4% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated”
Translation: half of Americans aren’t going for it! Instead of percentages, it’s more effective to highlight the raw numbers: over 162 million Americans are fully vaccinated. That sends a very different message: vaccinations are wildly popular. You could fill over 6,000 Super Bowl stadiums with vaccinated Americans.
The psychology of social proof tells us that under uncertainty, people are especially motivated to follow the lead of similar others. When it comes to energy conservation, for example, people are most likely to be influenced by the norms in their local community. We look to our neighbors for clues about what’s appropriate. Applying that logic to the COVID vaccines, if you’re in Louisiana, you can share that nearly 2 million Louisianans have gotten at least one dose.
The way forward
Of course, all of these messages need to be tested with COVID vaccine communication. It’s time for us to apply the same scientific rigor to our messaging as we have to the vaccines.
Social scientists have tested other messages around vaccination and COVID prevention efforts, and some of the more promising ones include scarcity (“a shot has been reserved for you”), reciprocity (“healthcare workers have put their lives on the line—we can do our part”), and prosocial consequences (“don’t spread it” rather than “don’t get it”).
While we’re waiting for government and medical experts to hone their messaging, we can all have more thoughtful conversations about vaccine hesitancy. If you haven’t already been trained in motivational interviewing, one of the main lessons is that telling people why they should change is less effective than helping them find their own reasons to change.
A good starting point is to ask: What do you see as the pros and cons of the COVID vaccines? And what would convince you that the benefits outweigh the risks?