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Tips for Vaccination Campaigns

In response to a local newspaper ad that listed Christian clergy who support vaccination, local clinical psychologist Nada Mangialetti, Ph.D., has shared some suggestions for churches to amplify this effort. The very people who need to see the newspaper ad are likely the ones who don’t get the newspaper or are not readers. How can we reach those who need this message the most? Churches have an incredible power to influence people about getting vaccinated.

Here are a few things to consider:

Social psychologists and marketing researchers know that the more you tell people what to do/not do, the more a certain segment of them do the opposite.[i] Look no further than the Garden of Eden: “Don’t eat that apple.” Chomp, chomp, chomp.

They call it "reactance" or "resistance." I call it waking up a person's Inner Two-Year Old.

Historically, telling people what they must do to avoid illness or injury has, at best, had no effect, or, at worst, has backfired. Think of past public service announcements on TV:

“If you took all the cigarettes in the world and laid them end to end (*shows business-suited man diligently doing so*) you’d never have time to smoke a single one. Now isn’t that a great idea?”

“This is your brain.” (*Shows egg in frying pan*) “And this is your brain on drugs.” (*Shows egg starting to sizzle.*)

Car crashes into a brick wall showing what happens to the dummy without a seatbelt.

The response to these public health interventions? The dangerous behavior increased.[ii]

Using data and logic also goes right over most people's heads, as in: “90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were not vaccinated;” or, “Science has shown that the vaccine is safe and effective;” or, “The FDA has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine;” or, “The COVID count for today in Hawai’i is over 1000.” Simply repeating the evidence, showing more data and explaining the scientific rationale is unlikely to change the minds of those who did not initially react favorably to it.

These approaches may even elicit more resistance/reactance.

What Then?

We do know that people are more likely to change their behavior in response to SOCIAL PRESSURE from people within their social group. A “social group,” can mean membership in a particular profession, age group, ethnicity…or church, to name a few.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Posting photos of people (with their consent, of course) within a particular church who are already vaccinated or are in the act of getting vaccinated indirectly exerts SOCIAL PRESSURE on other people in that church to do likewise. Photos of respected people within a church (such as clergy) may have even more indirect influence. Publicly acknowledging and thanking the people who are already vaccinated indirectly puts SOCIAL PRESSURE on those who have not been vaccinated.

Vaccinated clergy and vaccinated members of their congregations might make a short statement on video about why they decided to get vaccinated, and what it was like for them. Your rationale to the volunteers: “I’d like to show this to other folks here who are still thinking about vaccination. It might help them do the right thing, like you did.” The video could be posted on your website, or wherever else you think it might be viewed. Anyone viewing it would experience indirect SOCIAL PRESSURE to get vaccinated. Indirect influence is less likely to wake up a person’s “Inner Two-Year Old” than direct confrontations or exhortations.

We do know that COGNITIVE DISSONANCE (holding two conflicting beliefs at the same time, or saying one thing and doing the opposite) causes a sense of incongruence, discomfort, and sometimes guilty hypocrisy within a person. This, in turn, can cause the person to change their behavior in order to resolve the discrepancy. Deliberately eliciting and focusing on COGNITIVE DISSONANCE can be a tool to increase vaccination among the unvaccinated.

Example #1 The newspaper ad in the Star-Advertiser created COGNITIVE DISSONANCE in quoting Mark 12:31 “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I’m sure you can think of additional ways of highlighting the disconnect between the Christian ethic of caring for others and the “ME” ethic that some of the vaccine-resistant are touting. Emphasizing how refusing vaccination is in opposition to the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself elicits and increases COGNITIVE DISSONANCE in unvaccinated Christians. Likely, they will then seek to relieve the dissonance—either by rejecting Mark 12:31 and proclaiming that they love themselves more than their neighbor (not desirable to them!), or by getting vaccinated. Example #2 A clergyman was recently quoted on FaceBook as saying, “If we Christians somehow arrive at the conclusion that giving up some personal liberties for the sake of other people’s safety somehow makes us less free, then we have deeply misunderstood the cross.”[iii] Emphasizing that Christ gave up not only his liberty, but his life, to save others elicits and increases COGNITIVE DISSONANCE in Christians who feel that their liberty is being threatened. Likely, they will then seek to relieve the dissonance—either by rejecting their faith (not desirable to them!), or by getting vaccinated.

Example #3 (pertaining specifically to Native Hawaiians, and I credit Rev. Kealahou Alika for inspiring this one): Remind Hawaiian congregations about how the Native Hawaiian population was almost wiped out by diseases brought over by foreigners. Emphasizing how NOT getting vaccinated against COVID-19 furthers this awful end, and thus elicits and increases COGNITIVE DISSONANCE in Native Hawaiians who may distrust western medicine. Likely, they will then seek to relieve the dissonance—either by giving up on the propagation of the Hawaiian people (not desirable to them!) or by getting vaccinated. (An aside: How ironic it would be to preserve and increase the Hawaiian population by using a weapon against disease that was invented by the very people who once almost decimated them with disease!)

I leave the sermon-writing on all these examples of COGNITIVE DISSONANCE to others better qualified than I.

Finally, we do know that MAKING IT EASY helps people change. Remove the usual excuses for not getting vaccinated (“I don’t have time,” “I don’t know where to go,” “It’s out of the way,” “I keep meaning to but…” “I’m waiting to see how it goes.”). How? Arrange to have the Department of Health or your local hospital or health care center hold a vaccination clinic at your church, immediately after Sunday services. If you have primed your congregation beforehand with the above SOCIAL PRESSURE and COGNITIVE DISSONANCE approaches, and you MAKE IT EASY for them to access vaccinations—without going out of their way and in full view of their fellow congregants, you may see a lot of shots get into arms, right on your premises. Once the above Vaccination-at-Church Day is scheduled, again combine MAKING IT EASY with SOCIAL PRESSURE: Encourage and reward people who are already vaccinated to bring their unvaccinated friends or family members to church on that day. How to encourage and reward them? Up to you!

What is doable? What is not? What gets more people vaccinated? What doesn’t? Feel free to use any of these suggestions that you find useful and share what else has proven useful in your context.

Nada Mangialetti, Ph.D.

Learn about getting vaccinated in Hawai‘i!

Works Cited

[i] Jonah Berger. The Catalyst: How To Change Anyone’s Mind. Simon & Schuster, New York, c2020. My suggestions are largely based on the concepts covered in this thoroughly researched collection of methods, by a professor of marketing research at the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.

[ii] Jonathan Berman. Anti-Vaxxers: How To Challenge A Misinformed Movement. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, c2020. Excellent history of vaccines and the anti-vax movement.

[iii] Rev. Ben Cremer, Cathedral of the Rockies, Idaho. Affiliated with the Evangelical Church of the Nazarene.


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