From the very beginning of the Covid outbreak in the UK, behavioural scientists have played a key role in helping the government to think about how to encourage citizens to comply with regulations relating to social distancing, mask-wearing, and self-isolating. While some legal penalties have been introduced for non-compliance, the effectiveness of these measures has ultimately relied upon people willingly changing their behaviour.
As a result, these measures have been collectively described as a ‘behavioural vaccine’. But with last week’s announcement of the imminent arrival of a safe and effective actual vaccine, behavioural scientists’ focus will now shift towards encouraging everyone to get vaccinated.
The task ahead is challenging for three overlapping reasons: 1) the success of the vaccine will depend on high population uptake, 2) anti-vaccination groups have been ramping up their online activity recently, and 3) recent polls suggest that a considerable chunk of the population harbours reservations about getting vaccinated. The approach taken to address these challenges will be multifaceted, but three key principles stand out as being important.
First, messaging should focus on the prosocial behaviours of the many (‘80% have done this’) rather than the antisocial actions of the few (‘20% have not’). These alternative frames prompt us to pay attention to different sides of the same coin, and so highlighting the prosocial side will help to encourage others to do the same.
The rationale for this approach is that we tend to both underestimate the proportion of people who perform socially desirable actions (a tendency known as uniqueness bias) and overestimate the prevalence of undesirable behaviours in others. In other words, our beliefs about our peers’ behaviours are often poorly calibrated. Given that these beliefs heavily influence our own behaviour, correcting these misperceptions is critical.
The second principle for achieving high vaccination rates is, in theory at least, the simplest: make getting a vaccine easy. This principle is, for the co-author of Nudge Richard Thaler, the first rule of designing interventions that work. To boost vaccine uptake, this means maximising convenience by minimising people’s proximity to vaccination sites, their waiting times, and any administrative requirements.
The final principle stems from the recognition that confidence – in the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, or in the trustworthiness of the authorities – can be a barrier to uptake. Encouraging high-profile people or community leaders who are seen as ‘one of us’ to publicly advocate vaccination can be a powerful persuasive tool for those on the fence, as demonstrated by the ‘I Immunise’ campaign conducted in Australia in 2014.
Taking these principles into account when designing public communications will help us to achieve a successful national vaccination campaign. But it will be even more important to test what works and what doesn’t for different people, rather than simply introducing them as off-the-shelf solutions.
We will be watching with interest. After we’ve got our vaccine, of course.