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How To Persuade the COVID Unvaccinated

Daily, politicians such as President Joe Biden and District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser are pleading with the populace to get vaccinated. Health Experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci are also begging people to be safe and get vaccinated.

As of July 4th, 2021, 67% of adult Americans who are eligible have been vaccinated and now it has stalled despite the entreaties. Why is this not working?

Maybe they are not following the Laws of Persuasion?

Walking in Their Shoes

The first step in persuading the Persuadee is to understand them; that is, to walk in their shoes. One does this by listening, questioning, and summarizing. One needs to listen to the surface reason and the underlying reasons

This is like an archeological dig. Get out the brush and slowly brush it off until you get to the real reason. - Prudence Bowman Kestner

This is also called the "Five Why’s" theory, where one needs to ask “Why” five times to get to the real reason for the resistance.

Trust: Some might say they do not trust the science. The vaccine was quickly developed and now only has emergency FDA approval.

Some might say they do not trust the federal government especially the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which had invested in the Wuhan Laboratory which may have created this virus.

Some African-Americans cite the long history of the US using African-Americans for medical experiments.

They receive even more validity of this fear or mistrust of the government when they hear the US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra states it is the “government’s business” to know who is or who is not vaccinated. He mentions a new government “door to door” program to discern who is vaccinated.

Religious reasons: Some may cite religious reasons that their body is a “temple” and foreign liquids should not be injected into it. An estimated 45% of white evangelicals state that they will not get the vaccine.

Convenience: Some might say with their busy work schedule, child care, etc, they simply have not had time.

Political reasons: Some may somehow connect the virus and the vaccine with ways to disparage former President Donald Trump and thereby resist being part of this program.

Freedom and civil rights: Many frame vaccination as an individual decision-a decision of civil rights. They believe each has the freedom to make this decision about their bodies.

Side Effects: The unvaccinated seem to focus on the side effects stories, whereas the vaccinated know some stories but that is not their focus.

This brings up the sayings: "You see what you expect to see" and "you see what you want to see."

Deadlines - Persuasive?

Sometimes deadlines can be motivational. If one is to set a deadline, be certain that one is in control of the process so the deadline can be successfully accomplished.

President Biden set a deadline of July 4th for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated. He came close at 67%, but the media headlines said “failure.” Biden really did not have control over the process. That deadline was not motivational.

Incentives - Are They Persuasive?

Government has tried a wide variety of incentives such as lottery tickets and scholarships, as in Maryland.

Private business has also offered incentives such as free Krispy Kreme donuts if one shows the COVID vaccination card. In New York City , Shake Shack is offering free fries as demonstrated by Mayor DeBlasio.

Framing and Reframing

It is often said that they who frame the issue, win the issue. For some of the unvaccinated, they have framed COVID as a political issue. Politicians such as President Biden’s pleas to get vaccinated only solidifies this belief.

Johnathan Foster is pastor at Vertical Life Church in Newton, North Carolina and offers this:

"They don’t view it prescribed by the doctor. They view it as mandated by the government.”

Some politicians try to frame vaccinations in terms of patriotic duty, but this does not seem to work in the United States which emphasizes individuality.

There needs to be a strategy to reframe the issue as a health issue. This could be done by involving doctors, nurses, and pharmacies. They should be the ones sending the unvaccinated the texts urging vaccination. The health issue frame could connect to protection of family emphasis.

Social Media Influencers

Olympic swimmer Michael Andrew refuses to be vaccinated. He claims he does not want to put any foreign items into his body before the competition. He also cites the safety of the Olympics in terms of constant testing.

For me in the training cycle, especially leading up to trials, I didn’t want to risk any days out, because we do know that there are periods where, getting the vaccine, you have to deal with some days off.

The Olympics have no rules requiring such vaccinations. Should they? Andrew is in such a unique position that his stance most likely is not influential.

Andrew isn't alone as an unvaccinated team USA athlete, though. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland has said she expects "the vast majority" of American athletes at the Olympics to be vaccinated. The IOC has also said "well above" 80% of residents at the Olympic village will be vaccinated.”

It is clear that “influencers” can persuade people to buy items such as shorts, dresses, sandals, etc. This can be measured by sales.

It is less clear whether influencers can persuade on health issues. Some must believe they can with the example of Cyndi Lauper promoting Cosentyx for psoriasis.

Also, “On March 19, 2020, for example, the Surgeon General called upon Kylie Jenner, Kevin Durant, and other influencers to help young people understand the severity of COVID-19.”

Ohio Native and Singer John Legend has a series of commercials advocating vaccination: “It’s our shot.”

Rapper Juvenile also has a new anthem on Vaccination.

Maybe some unvaccinated folks would be influenced by certain celebrities?

Follow the Laws of Persuasion

Celebrated Author Kurt Mortensen describes twelve laws of persuasion that work both consciously and subconsciously. If one wants to be effective in persuasion, one adheres to these. Among these are:

Law of Esteem: Instead of calling the unvaccinated stupid, uneducated, misguided, one might seek to understand their point of view. This does not mean that one agrees. It means that one listens and respects.

Law of Contrast: One might contrast a country with herd immunity (70-85%) with a country that has not achieved herd immunity. This would include freedom to travel, to visit businesses, to go back to school without masks and social distancing.

Law of Association: One might associate this vaccine with a myriad of others that are already mandated by law including polio, diphtheria, measles, etc.

Law of Verbal Packaging: One might frame COVID as a health, not a political issue. Verbal packaging is similar to the framing and reframing that was described above.

Law of Dissonance: This law is making the person feel uncomfortable about not doing something and then offering them a way out. This is captured in the research below when the vaccine shot is declared to be “theirs.”

Law of Social Validation: This is similar to Groupthink, aka “everyone is doing it.” This could be very effective when dealing with church groups if one could persuade church leaders to get vaccinated.

Law of Obligation: This law also could be used not to say that getting vaccinated is a patriot duty, but associating vaccinations with being a good and loving family member.

Follow the Research

Katy Milkman co-directs the Behavioral Change for Good Initiative which is in collaboration with the Penn Mecicine Unit. She offers some great information on persuading the unvaccinated.

“Conducted with Walmart and two regional health systems—Penn Medicine and Geisinger—these studies reveal that simple communications that reminded individuals a flu shot was 'waiting' or 'reserved' for them proved most effective, boosting vaccination rates by up to 11%. The promising results can be adapted to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations.

The rationale for nudging people toward better decisions is simple and well-supported; most people intend to do what’s best for their health, for example, getting a vaccine, but have trouble garnering the motivation to take action. These text messages were designed to close this 'intention-action gap' by providing the necessary encouragement to follow-through on best intentions.

The significant increase in vaccination rates generated by using the 'reserved for you' reminder messaging is especially remarkable given the very low cost of these SMS-based interventions.” (Maybe ten cents per person?)

Illusory Superiority

Although there is not an abundance of research on persuading people to get vaccinated, there is some as cited above. So incentives generally do not work. Mentioned or referring to Dr. Fauci is a no-no for the unvaccinated.

So in mid-July, DC Mayor partnered with Fauci in walking around Ward 8 to persuade constituents to be vaccinated and offered incentives. So how does one explain that this event contravened the research?

Some speculate that the primary goal of this event was media attention and photo-ops. If so, mission accomplished.

Another idea might be illusory superiority. This is the concept that one believe one’s skills are better than what they are. This could explain the event above and President Biden’s daily begging. They may think that they are more persuasive and influential than they actually are.

These are the same folks who admonished folks during the pandemic to simply “follow the science.” Research indicates that they followed the science model that best matched their views. So if one wanted a total lockdown, one could find a scientific model to support that approach.


Magic persuasion formula:

-Appeal to values

-Appeal to logic

-Appeal to emotions

Based on the studies mentioned above, the best way to persuade is to,

-Use texts

-Use formal style as if it is from the pharmacy or doctor

-Create defaults where readers simply need to say Y or yes.

-Indicate that the vaccine is “waiting for you.”

-Create ownership with phrases like “your vaccine,” “don’t miss out,” “available for you,” and encourage patients to “claim your dose.”

-Use multiple messages

Also, jokes or incentives like beer or money or donuts help a little, but not a lot.

Framing vaccinations as a competition between states like Pennsylvania and Maryland did not work.

Informal messages performed badly, especially jokes.

In the end, some folks may be “persuaded” by governments and employment requiring the vaccine. Maybe this is a case of national need over individual need. Of course this brings up the old saying:

A person pushed against their will is of the same opinion still.


See Recommended Books under “Blogs” drop down menu. Clicking on any book will lead one to the discounted Amazon site.

Roy J. Lewicki is the author of 'Essentials of Negotiation', published 2015 under ISBN 9780077862466 and ISBN 0077862465. Publisher: McGraw Hill Higher Education

The Conflict Resolution Training Program, Leader’s Manual, ISBN: 0-7879-6077-2. Prudence Bowman Kestner and Larry Ray

5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.

Getting Your Way Every Day.


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