Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a personal health choice, but a new study suggests that appealing to the economy’s health as well as protecting others may be a good way to persuade vaccine skeptics into getting their shots.
Americans and people in eight other highly developed countries were more likely to say they intended to get vaccinated and then follow through on the intention, compared to a control group, according to a study distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday.
The message on protecting health appeared “most effective” in European countries and the message on protecting others “and particularly about protecting the economy are more impactful in the U.K. and U.S,” the researchers wrote.
“Those presented with the question of economic wellbeing reported vaccination levels 4.3% higher than the control group.”
Researchers at Harvard Business School and a number of European universities, including Università Bocconi in Milan, Italy and IE University in Madrid, Spain, started their work in December 2020, around the time when vaccines were slowly starting to roll out.
They polled people in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the U.K., America, Australia and New Zealand, splitting them into five groups.
As public-health officials keep thinking of ways to push vaccination rates higher, the study underscores how much the message matters.
People given messages before being asked about their vaccination plans. One said vaccination could protect the person from infection, and two others framed vaccination as a way to protect the people and population surrounding the individual.
“Participants asked about protecting the population around them had vaccination levels 5.7% higher than the baseline.”
The last version of the question on vaccination plans couched it as a macroeconomic matter. “In this case, if a person was vaccinated, they could avoid getting infected with the virus. It would allow a return to normal economic activity and reduce unemployment,” the survey said.
The researchers came back to the participants in June and July 2021 to see how many people went ahead with vaccination.
When asked about their vaccination status in summer 2021, those presented with the economic question reported vaccination levels 4.3% higher than the control group.
Those asked about protecting the population around them, however, had vaccination levels 5.7% higher than the baseline.
The control group was told “The only way to become immune to COVID-19 in the long run is by vaccination” and then asked whether they planned to get their shots in the coming months once the vaccine became available.
The waning power of ‘altruistic’ messaging
Exposure to the “altruistic” messages generally lowered the chance of anti-vaccination intentions, the researchers noted, but the messages had differing effect depending on the country.
Almost 75% of America’s adult population is fully vaccinated and 87.5% have at least one shot as of Sunday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Even as vaccination numbers rise, a core amount of vaccine refusers remain opposed to vaccination.
Between 12% and 16% of people have told the Kaiser Family Foundation they are “definitely not” getting vaccinated, according to monthly polls dating back to December 2020.
The study comes as case counts are falling after a holiday season spike from the omicron variant. Democratic governors in some states are dropping mask mandates after many Republican-leaning states already took the steps earlier in the pandemic.
Other research also says the person delivering the message also matters. Friends, family and personal doctors can play influential roles persuading holdouts to get their shots, according to a Deloitte survey in November that stressed the importance of making connections on public health goals.
Friction between business and public health
The past two years have shown the friction that can exist between business interests and governmental public-health interests, starting with the push and pull on lockdowns, and more recently the conflicts over vaccine mandates.
Last month, the Supreme Court stopped the Biden administration from enforcing its vaccine-or-test mandate on private businesses with at least 100 workers. The agency responsible for the halted regulations, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, formally withdrew the rule later in January, but still said it was strongly urging workers to get their shots.
The recent study talks about the importance of honing the message on why vaccines are important. It doesn’t delve into why different messages have resonance, but the scars and scares from the economic fallout in the pandemic’s early stages can’t be far in people’s minds.