Psychologist discusses efforts to persuade people to get coronavirus vaccine

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Polling suggests just half of Americans are willing to get vaccinated — a much lower number than the 75% needed to reach herd immunity. 

News 8 spoke with Arthur Evans Jr., CEO of the American Psychological Association, who says more efforts to motivate the public to get a coronavirus vaccine are critical. 

Gillis: We have some exciting news. Yesterday, the Pfizer vaccine was granted FDA approval. First, give us the stance from the association. 

Evans: Well, the American Psychological Association believes that as we really move into this next phase that we should be using what we know from behavioral science to help increase the likelihood that people will take the vaccine. What polling is suggesting is that only about half of the people are willing to take the vaccine and we know we need to get to about 70-75% for the herd immunity that we need. So, we really believe that psychological science can be brought to bear help with that. 

Gillis: Right, so the Pew research data suggests only about 60% of people are willing to get the vaccine, but that of course differs between certain communities. But in the statement you pointed to things that … for example, risk communication and how that can be used to inform the public and how that approach might persuade people to consider getting the vaccine because this is something we really need people to do so we can get to the herd immunity we need as you were speaking about. Can you explain what risk communication is and some lessons we’ve learned from it in the past?

Evans: What we know from research that how people perceive information is affected by both by their pre-existing attitudes and their emotional state and that there are certain things we can do in terms of how we communicate that can increase the likelihood that will hear the information, but also be motivated to follow up and follow through with the motivation. 

Having consistency. Having people who are perceived as authorities on a particular topic. Making sure we’re being transparent with the information. All of those things contribute to how people are going to perceive the messages. 

Gillis: Another interesting point was about the science behind what motivates behavioral change and how people make change. People are more likely to adhere to vaccine recommendations when they believe they are susceptible to the illness. So, how clear do we need to make it to people that this virus spares no one and then how will this help people move towards considering the vaccination?

Evans: How people perceive their own personal risk is very important. But the really important issue here is that different groups and different people perceive risk differently and different things are going to motivate people. For some people, the personal risk is much more important, so talking about the likelihood of being infected and becoming sick…for some individuals is going to be more important. For other individuals, it’s their willingness and desire to help protect their family and other people. What that means is that we really have to have different messages for different communities and we have to tailor those messages so that what we’re speaking to are the specific risks that any individual might be having. 

Gillis: There are also physical barriers, financial barriers, other psychological barriers. Anything you’d like to address in terms of those barriers? Some of them are within our control and some of them are not.

Evans: One of the things a lot of people are talking about is making sure that the vaccine is physically accessible to people, which is important. But another key concept is psychological access to the vaccine.We know that certain places are more psychologically acceptable to people and more accessible to people. And it’s not just having the vaccine in close proximity, but also having it in places where people are going to feel comfortable. Those are the places we ought to be looking at.

Also, we know small financial barriers can have a big impact on people’s ability to engage in health seeking behaviors. For example, a small copay can change whether or not a person will seek out help in the emergency department. So, if we know that we should be removing financial barriers like lost wages, which is something that employers can do and give people paid time off to get the vaccination. Or if they are experiencing side effects, to give them time off to recover from that. 

So, all of those kinds of financial barriers that are in the control of employers and others can help increase the likelihood that people are going to actually take the vaccine. 

Gillis: A lot of these recommendations, these guidelines that we’re speaking about are for health care officials and policymakers to consider moving forward as this vaccine moves forward and is being distributed. Much to consider. Last 30 seconds. What would you like to tell people about this vaccine and how important it is to get it?

Evans: What our message is for those who are really trying to take the vaccine…let’s use what we know from science. There’s cognitive science that tells us how people perceive these messages. There are things that we know that can help us motivate people to take the vaccine. And we should use the lessons that we learned from the research and from past experiences to help get people to do that. The most important thing though is to make sure we are tailoring messages for certain communities and for certain groups–particularly high risk groups–because if we don’t, we know that a one-size-fits all approach is not going to get us to where we want to be in terms of the number of people taking the vaccine.