How to encourage skeptical family members to get the COVID vaccine, according to a brain science expert

  • Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business.
  • He regularly answers questions about psychology, business, and behavior via email from people who attend his talks.
  • In this column, he shares different ways to encourage skeptical family members to get the COVID vaccine.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Q: We live in Florida and visit my parents frequently so they can see the kids. My parents are in their late 60s and refuse to vaccinate. My mom’s concerns are “lack of information on the side effects,” and my dad’s are a general distrust in the government and scientific community. While we keep meeting despite the risk associated, I wish there was a way to convince them to get vaccinated. Any advice on how to change their minds?

A: As you can imagine, questions about changing people’s minds, convincing them to do things that you think are important and lifesaving, or helping them “see the light” have been prevalent recently.

People want to convince their relatives how to vote right, customers of one company want to convince others from the competitor brand to correct their ways, and everyone tries to make everyone else see the world from their perspective.

Here’s the bad news first.

The success rate here is low all around, according to behavior research. And worse (in my mind) is that evidence, data, appeals to emotions, and even facts do not seem to help. If you come to a conspiracy theorist with videos of the moon landing, firsthand evidence from Buzz Aldrin that he’s been there, and rocks collected on the moon, they’d still argue that the movie was made with computer graphics, that Buzz was brainwashed, or that anyone can fudge the carbon testing of the rocks to suggest that they’re from the moon…

So, what does work?

There are five things that seem to work more than others:

1. Crisis: A lot of deniers, conspiracists, nonbelievers, etc. tend to see the light when the issues hit close to home. This is typically proportional to the crisis and to how relevant it is. Drug addicts are more likely to quit after they hit rock bottom, and same is true for a lot of abusers or people who are extremists. Unfortunately, if this year’s crisis didn’t change your parents mind, then we can rule this one out and try the others.

2. Care for others: As it turns out, if you look at the decades-long campaigns to quit smoking, few of them worked well. Saying it’s risky, putting a big label on the package, having documentaries about cancer, or even putting big tobacco companies on trial didn’t significantly change the percentage of smokers.

The only thing that did work significantly was the campaign about second-hand smoking. As in, “when you smoke you’re killing me (your son/wife/friend/colleague).” 

This campaign had huge success because it changed the concept from focusing on the smoker and their choices, to making them feel bad for hurting the others, and making the others responsible for interacting with the smoker.

In this case, the equivalent would be talking to your parents about the chance of them getting the disease and infecting their friends, or their grandchildren who will then pass it to other grandparents in the school, etc. This one does work.

3. Money: Turns out that incentives work even if people don’t “believe” in what they incentivize. In a study two colleagues of mine and I are conducting, we show that having climate change deniers earn money from making decisions that align with climate beliefs, actually changes their mind over time. It’s hard to take actions you don’t believe in. So, if we make you take the action, you gradually align your mental states with it to decrease the cognitive dissonance. You convince yourself.

If you ask your parents, for example, to just read “to the grandchildren” a book about viruses and vaccines (there are now many short online books that explain things to kids) and answer questions that the grandchildren may have, they will have to come up with explanations to questions that the kids ask and through their actions will potentially convince themselves gradually. The caveat is that all the tests here show that it takes quite a bit of time and repetition, so don’t expect an overnight epiphany.

4. Exposure to an identifiable victim: It’s hard for people to comprehend the number 538,000 deaths, for our brain to capture this level of pain and agony among so many people.

But seeing one case in front of our eyes could shock us into realizing the magnitude. That’s why it’s important to have holocaust museums, memorials, or victims who speak out directly on topics like human trafficking or sexual abuse. We change our mind when we see the story personally. 

For your parents, have them talk to a person who was connected to the ECMO machine for a day, or just watch one of the new documentaries about the first few weeks in Wuhan to get a sense of the reality. This is a powerful way to make the story salient.

5. Architecting an action: This one is the most controversial since it does not work through convincing the person, but rather by nudging them into actions without having them fully acknowledge or consent to it.

One justification you can give yourself to why it is morally OK is that the Nobel prize in economics was given to one of the people inventing this method. So, there’s clearly growing support for the concept.

The idea: Instead of spending time arguing for an option, you create conditions that make it the most likely option for people. For example, if you make it easy to sign up for cable TV, but extremely hard to disconnect, you make people stay longer with the service just by virtue of the difficulty to overcome the architecture of the action that they actually wish to take. 

In your case, if you invite your parents to a vacation in Hawaii, but the airline company requires a negative COVID test and a one week quarantine when they land in Hawaii, or instead proof they got the first vaccine shot, then the chances of your parents getting the first shot are going to be high.

Now, to those who see the potential of these tactics being misused … you are correct. They can be easily used for manipulation. That’s why it’s up to us to spread the word and make sure everyone is aware of the possibilities and the risks of changing people’s minds. So please tread carefully and approach these conversations in good faith.

Moran Cerf is a professor of neuroscience and business who explores how we can harness our understanding of the brain to improve our behavior, our business, and society.

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