No-vaxxers: The emotional drivers and how to navigate barriers to the COVID-19 vaccine | Maru Group
By Rich Durante, Managing Director, Pharmaceuticals and Medicines and Andrew Campbell, VP, Business Development, Maru/Matchbox | January 20, 2022
The latest data on vaccination rates suggests that slightly less than two-thirds of all Americans are fully vaccinated, and another 12% are partly vaccinated. However, there remains a not insignificant portion of the population who are unyielding in their refusal to get vaccinated. Even the massive disparity between unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths and the recent emergence of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant has done little to influence this “no-vax” mindset among un-vaccinated individuals.
The key question becomes why, in the face of a mountain of evidence suggesting that vaccines protect against COVID-19-related severe outcomes, do people persist in refusing to get vaccinated. Much has been written about this, and the reasons range from health-related beliefs to skepticism / cynicism about the sources of information. Perhaps the most thoughtful piece was written by Derek Thompson in the Atlantic. Thompson reached out to no-vaxxers on Twitter to understand their perspectives on “why”.
Reasons behind hesitancy
Somewhat surprisingly, many of the reasons he heard for refusing to get vaccinated were not wild conspiracy theories but were within the realm of reason. Some thought that the risks of COVID-19 to them personally were minimal and therefore, they didn’t need a vaccine — either because their immune system was sufficient for staving off a bad health outcome or they perceived the probability of catching COVID-19 as relatively low. The perspective of others was colored by the civil liberties issue — they thought it was liberal over-reach — with mandates to get vaccinated infringing on their civil liberties. Others distrusted the sources of information they were receiving on COVID-19 — public health officials, government authorities.
A key question that Thompson raises and tries to answer is, what will motivate these folks to change their minds and get vaccinated? He poses several suggestions including convenience (“Door Dash for vaccines”) and using vaccination status to restrict access to things the unvaccinated want to do (e.g., travel, sporting events, etc.).
How emotion affects attitudes
While Thompson’s take on the situation is a good one, from our perspective, there’s one glaring gap in this and other articles on the topic. Though asking no-vaxxers how they think is interesting, understanding the implicit emotional reaction no-vaxxers feel about COVID-19 vaccines and getting vaccinated is crucial to understanding, and potentially influencing, their behavior. It’s important to understand the way in which no-vaxxers rationalize their decision not to get vaccinated, and perhaps even more imperative to understand the emotions that underlie and influence this decision. For example, a no-vaxxer whose decision is driven by fear may be motivated to change their mind by different arguments than a no-vaxxer whose decision is driven by anger. A deep understanding of emotional triggers is critical to the pursuit of changing behavior.
To that end, we at Maru recently conducted research that captured emotional reactions to the Pfizer / BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines among both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. We did this by leveraging our Emotional Signature approach, a capability integrated into Maru’s software ecosystem — which uses visual semiotics to understand emotional associations that implicitly influence real-world behavior. We asked participants to select 10 images out of a subset of 200 (pulled at random from our proprietary library of more than 10,000 images) that best capture the qualities and characteristics of each of these vaccines. Each image is encoded with up to 10 emotions, and the database of images has been validated over 30 years in over 40 countries to be accurate and free of bias / cultural influence. We analyzed the images selected for each vaccine by each group of respondents and identified those emotions that are associated with or evoked by each vaccine.
Our analysis revealed a number of interesting trends. First, among those who had been vaccinated, the Emotional Signatures for these vaccines were overwhelmingly positive-each vaccine was associated with emotions of contentment, exuberance, and joy. However, when we focused our analysis on no-vaxxers-individuals who had not been vaccinated and indicated that they did not intend to get vaccinated-the Emotional Signature for each vaccine changed substantially. Instead of being associated with positive emotions, vaccines elicited feelings including hopeless, embattled, deceived, and indifferent.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the emotional reaction of no-vaxxers to COVID-19 vaccines is significantly negative versus the positive emotions elicited by vaxxers. Further, the data suggest that, because there is both a rational and an emotional component to their reluctance to get vaccinated, they are going to be more resistant to rational arguments for receiving the vaccine (e.g., people are less likely to wind up in the hospital because of COVID-19 if they’re vaccinated).
All of this begs the question of how we can leverage a more fully developed understanding of no-vaxxers’ seemingly entrenched reluctance to get vaccinated. We believe that making a rational argument alone to change an emotionally fraught decision, like receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, is not likely to be a successful strategy.
A solution to vaccine hesitancy
We suggest fighting “fire with fire”-using communications that evoke strong emotions to battle emotional resistance. There’s evidence that this approach is beginning to be adopted in persuasive communications directed towards no-vaxxers. GetVaccineAnswers.org, for example, created a series of advertisements that lean into emotion to motivate vaccination. By capturing conversations between individuals who care deeply for each other, but who have differing perspectives on getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the ads effectively use emotions of fear, sorrow, frustration, and love to activate deep emotional triggers to convey the pro-vaccination message and attempt to influence behavior change.
At Maru, we believe that understanding both what people think and how they feel is critical to truly understanding how they behave. Maru’s System 1 approaches, our software, and our Feel / Behave / Think framework are a critical foundation that enable us to obtain a deeper understanding of behavior and the unconscious, emotional influences that drive it. Specifically, we have developed cutting-edge approaches rooted in behavioral science that tap into emotional drivers of behavior. Whether it’s understanding why people won’t get vaccinated, why physicians prescribe a particular medication, or why people use wearables to monitor their health, understanding both the rational and emotional components of these decisions is critical to the success of any strategy targeted at changing human behavior.
Contact us today to discuss how Maru can help you gain this understanding of your audience.
Originally published at https://www.marugroup.net on January 20, 2022.