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5 tips for talking to vaccine-hesitant people about coronavirus

Don't back away. It may prove to be a hugely important conversation.

Science always made for great dinner conversation, but 2020 is a banner year for talking over tricky subjects at the table. As you debate the longevity of antibodies, or muse about when the pandemic will end, it's likely you'll eventually arrive at an inevitable endpoint – the coronavirus vaccine.

Don't back away. It may prove to be a hugely important conversation.

Scientists have studied how to persuasively discuss vaccines for decades, but the coronavirus vaccine conversation presents new challenges, explains Julie Leask, a social scientist at the University of Sydney. Normally, vaccine information campaigns are centered around getting children vaccinated. This time, campaigns will need to target adults, especially people in high-risk groups.

"We are looking at all the past lessons learned about the barriers to vaccination among adults and what to do about them," Leask tells Inverse. "It’s going to be challenging."

An August Gallup poll suggested 35 percent of Americans said they were not likely to get a free coronavirus vaccine if it was ready right now (but that varied vastly by age and political affiliation). Thirty-three percent of 1,112 respondents to a CNN poll also said they would not seek out a coronavirus vaccine if one was available.

But there's also evidence that people can be convinced: A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll suggests that 46 percent of people would get a vaccine based on the advice of their family.

You can, in fact, talk to your adult relatives about getting the coronavirus vaccine in a productive way, explains Andrew Shtulman, a cognitive developmental psychologist at Occidental College. He says there are two main strategies:

1. A cognitive approach focused on vaccine science.

2. A social approach focused on the fact that vaccines are normal, and that people they know, love or admire will get them.

"If you could only present them with one piece of evidence, I think the more powerful form of persuasion would be the social route," he tells Inverse. "But if you have a room for adding some more to it, then you can back up."

Here's how to use both approaches.

This is not what your kitchen table vaccine conversation should look like.

Two tips for the social approach

Point to others who are getting the vaccine – The most powerful way to use the "social approach" is to show who you are talking to that getting vaccines, including the coronavirus vaccine, is a normal thing to do. Try to find an example of someone they know who has the intent to get one, and odds are that person may follow suit.

"We are social creatures and so much of what we do is based on what we see other people doing," Shtulman says.

That person might even be yourself, Leask adds, provided you are someone who may be a candidate for a Covid-19 vaccine. It might be enough to say simply “'I plan to get one if it’s recommended for me'” and "act as a positive role model," she adds.

Find the right messenger – On the other hand, you may not be the right messenger, especially you disagree with you are talking to on most other issues. If you bring up a Democrat who will get a vaccine, that might alienate a Republican and vice versa, says Shtulman – though scientists lament the politicization of vaccination.

Shtulman says to make sure that the messenger is "someone that they personally identify with."

Three tips for the cognitive approach

Don't lecture, do listen – It may be tempting to label those hesitant about a vaccine as anti-vaxxers. That typically leads to lectures about the proven safety of vaccines — and that approach can be "counterproductive," Leask says.

Noni MacDonald, a professor of pediatrics at Dalhousie University who studies vaccine communication, agrees. Start by asking what their concern is, then actually listen to what they say.

"Do not assume to know what [the] concern is," MacDonald tells Inverse. It is "often a surprise."

If you listen to what someone's actual concerns are, you can make your appeal less bland and more specific to their real concerns.

For example, a common misconception is that if we make a vaccine quickly, we will be cutting corners or skipping safety protocols. That's especially a concern with the coronavirus vaccine, which is being made at a record pace. In fact, more than 400 vaccine experts urged the FDA to ensure that we do not rush vaccine trials in an open letter published on August 5.

Leask says the idea of a speed-safety tradeoff is unfounded and easy to address. Focus on the fact that the steps for vaccine development are happening in parallel; they're not being skipped.

"It’s these parallel activities that are making the process the fastest ever," she says. "This does not mean people are taking shortcuts on safety."

Avoid specifics – As of August 13, the World Health Organization reports that there are at least 29 vaccine candidates being tested in clinics and 138 vaccines in pre-clinical studies. Don't spin your wheels trying to advocate for them all (not all will prove to be effective), nor should you try to harp on the ins and outs of each trial as they're published.

"We can all too easily get bogged down in fact-for-fact debates about safety, and the vaccines, and forget what we are trying to prevent here," Leask says.

And what we are trying to prevent is more people falling ill from Covid-19. Simultaneously we hope to avoid both fears of the vaccine itself, and misplaced overconfidence in specific vaccines that may not come to fruition.

"They've been convinced by the people in their network, especially people they trust."

MacDonald even adds that we should consider holding off on these conversations entirely, for now. It may be better to wait until we know which vaccines are available, how they perform in certain groups of people, and which one you will actually have access to.

Pick your battles – There are some people who simply won't be persuaded. If you're feeling that this might be happening, Leask suggests that you focus your efforts on people who are "reasonable alternatives" – someone may be hesitant or simply doesn't feel strongly either way.

The world isn't divided evenly into vaxxers and anti-vaxxers. A study on attitudes towards vaccines in 140 countries published in 2019 found that 79 percent of people worldwide agreed that vaccines were safe, while only 7 percent disagreed. In between were 11 percent of people who neither agreed nor disagreed and 3 percent of people who had no opinion.

If the conversation seems to be going badly, Shtulman says to remember one thing: Most people get vaccines. The stats are on your side, as is the power of trust within the social network. Make it clear you have their best interests at heart.

"They're getting a vaccine because they think it's a good idea," he says. "They've been convinced by the people in their network, especially people they trust."

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