How to talk with vaccine hesitant people

Take a recent article by Christopher Bechler, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who looked at people’s attitudes towards behaviors such as mask-wearing. In one experiment, promoters were given the opportunity to convey potentially useful information on the subject to people with diverse opinions.

Participants were much more likely to target those on the negative end of the spectrum. Yet Bechler found that the information had very little impact on the opinions of these people. Instead, the message was more effective at bolstering the opinions of people who were already weakly supportive of the security measure. “They were much more receptive to the message,” he says.

The implications for immunization messages are clear. “We’d rather shift someone else’s perspective from anti-vax to pro-vax,” says Vanessa Bohns, social psychologist at Cornell University and author of You Have More Influence Than You Think. “But we can have a bigger impact by talking to someone who is already leaning in that direction.”

2) be humble

The second rule of effective communication concerns our humility, as we try to understand the other person’s point of view.

“It’s important to have a two-way dialogue, where we listen with empathy and genuinely seek to understand what their objections are,” says Cook, who recently co-wrote a free article Covid-19 Vaccine Communication Handbook. “Trying to change a person’s mind by making them feel stupid is not the way to success.”

Bohns agrees. She points out that many of us may have also had second thoughts ourselves – but we tend to forget that fact once we’ve made the decision. “And the moment we’re trying to convince someone else, we’re expressing that certainty that makes it really hard for us to meet them where they are.”

She says it would be much more effective to acknowledge our initial concerns and explain how we arrived at the decision we made. “People balk at feeling like someone is judging them — and I think that can show up when you express too much certainty,” she says. “It’s the difference between telling people what they should do, instead of telling them what we did and why.

In his book on persuasion, You have more influence than you thinkBohns indicates a study of health messages directed by Ann Kronrod at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The team found that when giving advice, most people tend to prefer very authoritative messages, delivered in the form of a command. However, when receiving advice from others, many people respond much better to gentle suggestions.


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