How to talk to people with vaccine hesitancy: epilogue

Two valuable tools from The New York Times can help you engage in constructive conversation with people who are vaccine-hesitant.

Chat bubble

Check out our entire series explaining the science involved in the coronavirus pandemic. Sign up to receive our coronavirus update each week.

In early April 2021, I told you about a conversation with a vaccine-hesitant friend where I learned a lesson about putting aside my penchant for piling on the facts in favor of asking questions and identifying shared values.

As a brief extension of that idea, I point you toward two excellent resources. First, a recent New York Times article entitled “Meet the Four Kinds of People Holding Us Back from Full Vaccination.” The author makes the crucial point that there are several reasons why people might be turning down vaccines. In the article, the vaccine-hesitant are placed in four categories. Before having your students read the article, it might be interesting to ask them to write down all the reasons for vaccine hesitancy they can think of. Then they can compare them to the categories in the article:

Watchful: people who aren’t opposed in principle, but don’t want to be the first to get the vaccine.

Cost-anxious: people who are worried about missing time from work to schedule a vaccination or because of side effects that might keep them home for a day or two.

System distrusters: people who for one reason or another don’t trust authorities, which could be medical authorities, political authorities, or corporations.

COVID doubters: people who don’t think COVID-19 is real or dangerous to them. (The Times described them as “skeptics,” but this isn’t a good usage because a healthy skepticism is part of the scientific attitude.)

By the way, this article has really great infographics showing the prevalence of these different kinds of vaccine hesitancy in all fifty states. Here’s the one for the Watchful category:

Chart from the New York Times

I love how much information this graphic packs into one image. Each state is represented by an empty box of the same size. Superimposed on the box is a purple box that can be larger, smaller, or the same size as the empty box. If the purple square is larger than the empty box, that state has more watchful people than the national average. If it’s smaller, that state has fewer watchful people than the national average. So at a glance you can see that Delaware and West Virginia have more watchful people than average and Vermont and Pennsylvania have fewer. Similar graphics are provided for all four categories. This is a great opportunity for building your students’ graphic interpretation and scientific investigation skills. Where does your state fall in these categories? Can you come up with some ideas about why? How could you test those ideas?

Anyway, back to conversations with the vaccine-hesitant. If you ask your students to consider which category the friend I introduced in the earlier article belongs to, they’ll quickly realize that he’s not easily pigeon-holed: he worries that we don’t have long enough experience with the new vaccine platforms (watchful) and he doesn’t think he’s at much personal risk from COVID-19 (COVID doubter). And maybe he’s a little distrustful of government mandates (system distruster).

Why is the recognition that people are hesitant for different reasons important? Because it will help you have more productive conversations about vaccination. Your first goal becomes figuring out what, exactly, is holding your vaccine-hesitant friend back. That’s already a good idea, because asking questions is the most important part of setting the stage for changing someone’s mind.

And along those lines, here is another helpful tool: in “Your friend doesn’t want the vaccine: What do you say?” (also from the Times), you’ll find a chatbot that allows you to choose various answers to a hypothetical friend’s questions and then tells you which choices are likely to be successful. You and your students can look at the answers and discuss why some of them work better than others. These conversations are challenging and our first impulses (at least my first impulses!) are often counterproductive. Practice can really help. And I hardly have to tell you how important it is to have these conversations: the more people we can persuade to be vaccinated, the more likely we, as society, can truly put the pandemic in the rearview mirror. Let us know how it goes.

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is a former Executive Director of NCSE.