Persuading Employees into Vaccine Compliance

A few months ago, when it was becoming obvious that Covid-19 propaganda wasn’t going away after a couple weeks of flattening the curve, the New England Journal of Medicine published Ensuring Uptake of Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. The recommendation in this article is that employers be able to either mandate or, offer incentives to employees to get the Covid-19 vaccine. The incentives could be in the form of punishments such as loss of pay or suspensions. The reasoning for this was based on the knowledge that forcing the vaccine onto society through means of law was unconstitutional and unlikely to work. The journal also cited the fact that forcing families to get their children vaccinated before going to school was an effective means of ensuring they received their required vaccinations. It stood to reason then, as far as the journal was concerned, that enlisting employers as a means of ensuring vaccine uptake would be an effective route.

Now, six months later, The Washington Post published an article entitled Employers start preparing for the coronavirus vaccine with a question: Can we require it? The overall point of the article covers the various legalities and ethical issues of employers mandating a vaccine to their employees. The article discusses the use of incentives as well. Most employers involved, as of now, are sitting on the sidelines awaiting government guidance because the vaccine is being issued under emergency use guidelines, according to the article. Many lawyers are suggesting that once the emergency use authorization is over, and the vaccine becomes more normalized like a flu shot, employers will be able to mandate it to employees.

Interestingly, at the end of the article the author mentions the use of some persuasive strategies that might be useful in “nudging” employees in the direction of taking the vaccine voluntarily. The use of rewards and punishments as mentioned earlier, and something a little less obvious. Framing the issue in a way that makes it difficult to say no. It is also interesting that the word “nudging” is used. Here’s why. The book Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler has some interesting concepts describing human behavior and how to best use persuasive strategies to influence choices. More on that later.

At the end of the Washington Post article the suggestion is made to have employees fill out a form that explains why they refuse to get the vaccine. The claim is made that most people will refuse to do this and go along with vaccination.

Small inducements, in some cases, may prove to be more effective than mandates, Gostin said. Research has shown that forcing employees to sign a form explaining why they don’t want to take a vaccine may significantly increase compliance, he said.

“The more you make them jump through hoops — to sign forms, to make statements — the more likely they are to just acquiesce,” he said. “The change is the default, making it harder to say no.”

What is the research that shows this to be the case? According to Sunstein and Thaler, people are more likely to along with the default option because it represents the normal course of action and, it is the one that requires the least effort. People, according to Sunstein and Thaler, will as a rule of thumb, make decisions base on which one offers the least resistance. Framing a choice in a manner that requires effort on the chooser, by making them explain their unpopular position, places them in a position of feeling like they are going against the grain. In other words, if your employer decides to offer the vaccine but not mandate it, there will be incentives for going along. If they make you explain why you don’t want it, they will be intentionally putting you on the spot in an attempt to nudge you into compliance. As I have been saying for some time now, they understand human behavior very well. Sunstein and Thaler say on page 83, that a good choice architect must have a good understanding of how humans behave to properly frame default messages to get compliance.

A good example of how a default works can be found in the opt-in or opt-out options for organ donations. When you get your driver’s license you are asked whether you would like to be an organ donor. Because you must explicitly choose to be an organ donor, with no opt-out option, very few people opt-in. Research shows however, that when the default option is incorporated, and you must explicitly opt-out, leaving the opt-in as the default, organ donations increase. This is because very few people will take the time to look any further into the issue than just going along with the default under, what Sunstein and Thaler refer to as, the “yeah whatever” heuristic. This study was also cited in Dynamics of Persuasion: Communications and Attitudes in the 21st Century, which is a textbook for a persuasive reasoning class. The text also cites the fact that people will go for the default of opting in because of the conscious effort required to opt-out where the perceived norm is to go along. By making the opt-in as the default, they are manipulating your perceptions, based on what they know about human behavior, to make you perceive it as the normal course of action.

It is likely that employees will go along with vaccination recommendations. The question is, who is framing the option for the employers to participate in the program themselves?

In August I published my article Employer Mandated Vaccines Coming? after first reading The New England Journal of Medicines piece. I have been following the science and persuasive communication strategies behind the coronavirus and, the compliance with mask mandates that seems to be taking us over, from the beginning. There is an entire academic field dedicated to the study of compliance gaining, which is defined as “any interaction in which a message source attempts to induce a target individual to perform some desired behavior that the target may otherwise not perform.” It may be harmless enough in some scenarios but imagine a government, with the help of the mainstream media and social science, directing such messages towards an unsuspecting public. That my friends, is exactly what is happening. And if we don’t wake up soon, we will be complying with recommendations to get vaccinated simply because we are too lazy to explain why we don’t want one.


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