The social psychology concept that could persuade the vaccine-hesitant
Vaccine campaigns must appeal to the elephant in the brain
I am not the target audience for exuberant TikTok influencers hawking COVID-19 vaccines. For one thing, I'm long since vaccinated. For another thing, I am an adult.
That distaste is part of why my immediate reaction on seeing a TikTok clip making the rounds of political Twitter was dismissal. This stupid and futile, I thought. It will change precisely zero minds.
And there's a sense in which that's true. That video won't change minds, provided we're thinking of minds as the consciously reasoning part of us. Yet it might well change some people's decisions about vaccination — but not necessarily in the direction its creators hoped — because it appeals to the elephant of the brain.
The idea of a brain elephant comes from a metaphor developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Considering his own apparent irrationality and divided will, and drawing on millennia of human expression of the same self-experience, Haidt proposed our minds have two parts:
The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I'm holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn't have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I'm no match for him. [Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis]
That introduction might make it seem like the rider is our true self and the elephant somehow less human, more exterior, less us. But as Haidt further sketches the metaphor, he rejects that notion: "The rider is ... conscious, controlled thought," he explains. "The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions." Why, then, do we so often identify with the rider alone?
Because we can only see one little corner of the mind's vast operations, we are surprised when urges, wishes, and temptations emerge, seemingly from nowhere. We make pronouncements, vows, and resolutions, and then are surprised by our own powerlessness to carry them out. We sometimes fall into the view that we are fighting with our unconscious, our id, or our animal self. But really we are the whole thing. We are the rider, and we are the elephant. [Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis]
Many efforts to persuade people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — some of mine included — have aimed much more at rider than elephant. Think statistics about vaccine safety, or explanations of the testing process, or analyses of comparative risks from the shots vs. the disease.
That stuff can work, but only if the elephant — one's gut, intuition, emotions — is already at least open to heading in that direction. For those whose elephant is walking (or stampeding) away from vaccination, all the statistics in the world won't be enough for the rider to turn things around. In most cases, the rider won't want to turn things around. My guess is that this far into vaccine distribution, most people still wary of getting a shot aren't lacking for statistics and risk analyses. Persuading them is an elephant problem, not a rider problem.
Let me be a little more precise about the group I have in mind. I'm not talking about those legally (i.e. children under 12) or medically ineligible for vaccination. Nor am I speaking of those who'd like to be vaccinated but face logistical impediments, like not being able to take enough time off work. I'm thinking about the one in three unvaccinated adults, per a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll, who still say they want to "wait and see" how the vaccines affect other people, as well as the one in four unvaccinated people who expect to get a shot by the end of 2021.
Unlike the 14 percent of American adults who have for nine months steadily insisted to Kaiser researchers they will "definitely not" get vaccinated, not this year or ever, these wait-and-see or maybe-later folks are persuadable. Their elephants aren't charging away from vaccination. They could be convinced to stop spectating and get the shot if their brain elephants can be moved in that direction.
Addressing the elephant instead of the rider doesn't mean no more statistics and reports — for scared elephants, reassuring numbers might help, while overconfident elephants can be shifted by worrisome hospitalization rates. It means more emotive, instinctive appeals, like linking the shots to favored public figures, be they President Biden or National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases chief Anthony Fauci or former President Donald Trump. Influencer campaigns, of which the White House alone has more than 50, fall into this category, too. They won't shift riders, but they may move elephants.
The challenge will be making sure the elephants move in the right direction. Take the TikTok clip I mentioned. Maybe it will be persuasive for some teenagers, who are one of the least-vaccinated demographics and seemingly the primary White House focus for influencer appeals. But videos like that and others from the Biden administration's "eclectic army of more than 50 Twitch streamers, YouTubers, TikTokers, and the 18-year-old pop star Olivia Rodrigo," will repel elephants, too.
The right-wing Daily Wire has already published a roundup of criticism of that clip, which its headline dubs "cringe and pathetic." That post includes a tweet from Donald Trump Jr., who's likely correct in his observation that given what we know about the demographics of adult vaccine hesitancy, the video may be counterproductive as it goes viral among the Very Online right.
However much we might prefer to imagine ourselves as all rider, the elephant isn't a bad thing. It's a good and necessary part of us. Yet it is undeniably difficult to direct.
We have to start moving more elephants to persuade the vaccine hesitant. We also have to make sure we steer them right.