A chink of light has finally appeared in the long dark tunnel of 2020. The UK became the first country to start vaccinating its population against Covid-19 last week. But while the medicine is here, what happens next depends on the behaviour of the public. If people continue to follow social-distancing measures, and take the new vaccines, the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight. But research suggests there may be many behavioural hurdles to overcome.
In order for the population to be immune to the virus through herd immunity, most estimates suggest about 60% to 80% of people need to get the vaccine.
Research suggests that while the majority of people say they will take the vaccine, many of them are hesitant. Ironically, the success of the vaccine – the speed at which it has come to fruition in particular – has led to some questioning whether corners have been cut during the process.
The scientists are at pains to stress this is not the case and that it is a safe medicine. But there are still many unknowns about the vaccine, for example whether it prevents transmission of the virus and even how long immunity lasts. Another possible barrier is that people need to get vaccinated not just once, but twice.
These concerns come at a time when social media has helped to increase the popularity of anti-vaccination campaigners by spreading their messages more widely.
That's before you throw identity politics into the mix, where, particularly in the US, many see masks and social distancing as an intolerable imposition on their freedoms. While others believe the economic cost of lockdowns and social restrictions is too high a price to pay.
But one behavioural scientist believes he may have the answer to encourage people to follow the social-distancing rules and get the vaccine: lotteries.
Do you feel lucky?
Christopher Graves is the president and founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioural Science. His clients include a global pharma vaccine maker and the World Health Organisation, and he has experience of working on vaccine hesitancy.
He is also one of seven founding members of the NOCOVID, the National Organising Coalition On Virus Information Distribution. It is a group of cross-discipline experts who are working on ways to best communicate with Americans about defeating the virus. It now has 50 core members and its wider group includes Hollywood actors, high-profile politicians and comms experts.
Graves told Campaign that this task force is currently considering the idea of using a lottery to encourage people to get vaccinated and to wear masks.
“In behavioral science, almost nothing works as well as lotteries to incentivise behavior, for a lot of reasons. People overestimate their chance of winning (optimism bias) and prefer $5 of lottery tickets to $5 cash because of the asymmetry of the cost versus the large payout,” he says.
“It even works in some studies in encouraging people to stay on their meds; as long as you stay on the meds, you are entered into a lottery only available to others who stay on their meds,” he adds.
The concept has also been proved to work in encouraging drivers to obey the speed limit. The Swedish National Society for Road Safety teamed up with Volkswagen to set up a speed camera lottery. It was part of the car brand’s award-winning “fun theory” campaign with DDB Stockholm.
The team assembled a special speed camera in Stockholm. Drivers who followed the speed limit were entered in a lottery to win money from the fines paid by speeding drivers. It worked: the average speed of cars passing the camera during the experiment dropped by 22%.
'Get a shot to get a shot at a million'
Using this idea, Graves says: “Why not enter each person who gets vaccinated into an exclusive lottery? 'Get a shot to get a shot at a million.' Make it easy, make it fun, make it rewarding.”
This concept could also be used to encourage compliance on social-distancing measures, too. “We could do a version of this to celebrate and reward mask-wearing, where so many in the US see it as wearing the enemy flag on their face. Just as with radio contests, where they would spot your car with their radio station decal on it and give you a prize, spot mask-wearers and reward them,” he says.
He believes this scheme could also help benefit small, local businesses who have been hit disproportionately hard by the crisis. Instead of the lottery prize being cash, it could be vouchers for these local businesses. “This would make it tribal and local,” he says.
He adds: “Finally, for those still today resisting mask-wearing, as a sign of being weak 'sheeple', they can rationalise it now to themselves as, 'I'm just taking their money to do this'. So it gives them a 'permission structure' to change their behaviour.”
Fear of death
Indeed, the US is one of the most-divided nations over Covid-19. Graves says there is a behavioural science effect at play in the country, called "mortality salience".
"When a population is frightened by a big, looming threat such as terrorism or a pandemic, people are reminded of death – especially their own – and become more exaggerated versions of their former selves with more shrill and extreme divisions," he says. This makes any mass communication campaigns particularly tricky.
As part of NOCOVID, Graves has created a toolkit for local leaders, who are the most-trusted type of leaders in the US. It uses a behavioural science approach to diagnosing the world views and identities of local communities, and then matching the messaging to those identities.
He has also matched A-list celebrities to specific communities. “For example, actor Matthew McConaughey interviewed [the US' top infectious disease expert] Dr Fauci one-on-one, since McConaughey is popular with the sceptical rural and southern states. Actor Tiffany Haddish interviewed Fauci and sang and danced with him, since she is strong with the young and communities of colour.”
It will be interesting to see what strategies emerge from the task force and whether other nations can learn from their lessons. As for the lottery idea – will it work? With a little bit of luck.
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