The Covid-19 vaccines, which are up to 95% effective, have the potential to save millions of lives in the UK and many more around the world.
Yet creating the vaccines is just the first step. We now need to produce them as quickly as possible, work out the logistics of distribution and administration and – most importantly – ensure as many people as possible take them. And as the history of vaccines shows, that is not as easy as some might assume. You only have to look at the fall in uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine after it was falsely linked with autism.
Despite the Covid vaccines being reported as safe, a recent YouGov survey found that 21% of adults are unlikely to take a vaccine, and a further 12% are unsure. That means a third of the country aren’t confident they will take the vaccine – though reasons vary from a minority of anti-vaxxers, to a larger group of people who are hesitant and want to wait and see if it’s safe, or think they are too low risk to need it.
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This resistance could potentially increase as confirmation bias – our tendency to search out and engage with content that affirms what we already believe – and polarising social media algorithms cause people to become more entrenched in their views. It is therefore vital to plan ahead of the rollout in order to ensure as many people as possible take the vaccine. Behavioural science can provide useful guidance.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to handle the anti-vaxxers the right way. Though, instinctively, many of us would want to tell them they’re wrong, this is not the way to proceed. We must avoid avoid directly confronting anti-vaxxers like this, or dismissing them as crazy or stupid.
It’s a human instinct that, if our strongest beliefs are directly challenged, we can end up believing them more firmly – what’s known as the backfire effect. We often have a defence mechanism that leads us to actively search out information that shows we are right. In this case if people are pushed too hard and feel judged, they’ll look for reasons to avoid taking the vaccine.
This knowledge of the backfire effect should impact all of us, not just those directly connected to the rollout. We shouldn’t post on social media about how “idiotic” people who don’t take the vaccine are. It won’t help. Nor should there be public broadcasts from government ministers disparaging anti-vaccine views. And it means ensuring doctors have a non-judgmental approach when they talk to patients who aren’t sure about taking them.
If we are talking to someone who’s uncertain about the vaccine we should try to be empathetic, actively listen, and focus on the benefits of taking it. And rather than contradicting them, we should suggest places where they can find out additional information. If people feel respected and trusted they are more likely to listen; and if they can find out on their own, then they will have time to process and engage with it without feeling defensive.
And there are broader behavioural science tactics that the government can use to improve the uptake of vaccines, including making it seem like the default and showing it to be a social norm. This means using language that inherently assumes everyone will take the vaccines, making people feel they are actively opting out, rather than opting in.
So health secretary Matt Hancock and other politicians should highlight the extent to which people are taking vaccines; making it a positive social norm. Newspapers should have headlines about high take-up rates, and the positive benefits this will have for society. It is this type of positive story we should be actively sharing and discussing, rather than looking for people to judge negatively.
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This will work most effectively when people see those they feel a connection with following the rules. This means, where possible, that messaging aimed at young people following guidelines should be targeted towards young people, and the same applies to aiming messages at people in a certain social group or geographical region. We instinctively want to copy those we feel closest to, and are less likely to disregard the behaviour of those we feel are in our in-group.
Finally, the government and GPs should make it easy for people to get the vaccine. In a 1965 study, students at Yale University were given information about the need for tetanus inoculations. Initially, 3% of the group got the vaccine. But when provided with a map and specific instructions on where to get it, 28% of the students got inoculations. We shouldn’t underestimate how important it is to allow people to go when they aren’t working, and to provide clear directions or support for travel, and easy lines of communication to clarify uncertainties; these things have a bigger impact than is often assumed.
Hopefully, utilising a range of smart behavioural science insights will drive vaccine uptake. That’s vital, because a draconian system of enforcement could embed deeper polarisation and resistance at a time when we need cohesion and agreement more than ever.
• Will Hanmer-Lloyd is head of behavioural planning at the consultancy Behave