Expressing Frustration Toward People Who Are Unvaccinated Will Not Change Their Minds
I’m hearing a lot of frustration with people who aren’t vaccinated. My Facebook feed is replete with posts that describe them as “ignorant” or “morons,” including, “it started as a virus and mutated into an IQ test” and “I won’t die of stupid.” Others frame unvaccinated people as irresponsible or uncaring. Notable are the posts that appear to take satisfaction in the pandemic of the unvaccinated, that seem gratified by unvaccinated people’s deaths.
Not only is frustration toward unvaccinated people vented on social media, it’s expressed directly at individuals. I was talking with a friend who isn’t vaccinated. She’s feeling a lot of pressure from people close to her, who are shaming her and calling her “selfish.” I said, “I would like to hear more about your reasons for not being vaccinated, but you’re probably tired of talking about it.” Her sadness was palpable when she responded, “actually, no one has asked.”
When people tell me why they don’t ask, why they don’t reach out to unvaccinated people with kindness, I encounter impatience, frustration, and compassion fatigue. I can understand these feelings. After a year and a half of disruption, death, and despair, our glimpse of life getting back to normal is being thwarted by the Delta variant taking hold among unvaccinated people. In this context, it is not surprising that many are feeling anger toward those who are impeding public health efforts by seeding doubts about the vaccine and fostering personal choice narratives.
Whether or not anger is justified, it may be helpful to consider whether it is a productive strategy for increasing vaccination rates. Consider your own motivations. Frustration is understandable, however, expressing this frustration toward people who are unvaccinated is unlikely to move them toward vaccination. Which is stronger, your desire to air your aggravation or your motivation to increase the proportion of the population who is vaccinated?
I believe in science, and there is no science that says calling people selfish is a good way to motivate behavior change.
I believe in science, and there is no science that says calling people selfish is a good way to motivate behavior change. When trying to motivate individuals to get vaccinated, focusing on harm is less effective than appealing to their values and the benefits of vaccination. Saying, “I know you care about protecting your family, and the vaccine has proven to be effective in reducing serious illness in adults and youth” will go a lot farther than questioning their morals.
What science tells us is that clinicians are most effective in promoting behavior change if their patients trust them, and friends and family are better influencers than health care providers. The quality of the relationship is important, and we can strengthen these relationships by being allies rather than opponents. Research indicates that facts about vaccines are not persuasive and that correcting misinformation is ineffective in changing minds in an ideologically divisive context. That’s not because people are stupid. It’s because people are people, and we’re all subject to cognitive biases.
Science also tells us that varied approaches are needed to attend to the range of emotions underlying vaccine hesitancy. Thus, we cannot rely solely on broad public health messaging, and we would be misguided to think that a social media post can address to the specific affective states of all our followers. Psychological theory and research on increasing vaccination points to respectful engagement that focuses on empowerment. One-on-one conversations in which we demonstrate that we care through warmth, listening, and addressing individual barriers to vaccination may be the most effective way to meet people where they are.
In order to be effective advocates for vaccination, we need to cultivate understanding, trust, and connection.
Instead of driving away unvaccinated people with vitriol, we can be most effective if we harness the power of our relationships. I am not recommending that we focus our energy on talking with adamant anti-vaxxers, rather I’m suggesting that we stop treating everyone who is unvaccinated as a political foe. As satisfying as it can feel to share a snarky post, by leading with anger, we disempower ourselves and sacrifice our potential to influence others. In order to be effective advocates for vaccination, we need to cultivate understanding, trust, and connection. We need to believe, not only in the science of the benefits of vaccines, we also need to believe in the science of behavior change.
Tania Israel is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide, Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work (APA, 2020).