Researchers identify new way to encourage vaccinations and masking

Don Pearce

Amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, despite unprecedented efforts by public health officials to convince people to wear masks and get vaccinated, the results are mixed, according to new research published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

In the study, researchers from Princeton University discovered an approach that they found successfully motivated people to make appointments for vaccinations and to consistently follow measures such as social distancing and mask wearing. Rather than targeting the very vocal minority of people who insist they will never get vaccinated, the researchers focused on individuals whose actions don’t consistently align with their stated beliefs. In total they studied 101 participants.

Previous research had found that inducing cognitive dissonance, or asking people to hold two contradictory things in mind at the same time, can be an effective tool to encourage shifts in behavior. The researchers created cognitive dissonance in their research participants by first encouraging them to advocate for a public health position, such as “it is important to wear masks” or “vaccinations will help us end the pandemic,” and then asking them to remember occasions when they did not act in accord with that attitude. Humans feel uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance, and the easiest way to ease that discomfort is to change behaviors to become consistent with attitudes, the researchers said.

Some studies have found that the mindfulness piece alone, encouraging people to remember when their actions didn’t match their beliefs, can shift behaviors, but that was not the case in the study, the researchers said. The advocacy piece, strenuously arguing for the belief or behavior, is vital, they said. Without it, he said, the mindfulness work can tilt the scale in a counterproductive way.

The current research was conducted in two waves, with data collected a week apart. During the first session, participants in the cognitive dissonance test group first advocated for consistent adherence to safety protocols and then were asked to recall times where they had acted unsafely or avoided getting vaccinated when they had the opportunity. Other volunteers were assigned to one of three control groups: advocacy only, mindfulness only, or neither. Participants in all three groups watched a short video encouraging mask-wearing and other anti-COVID-19 measures.

A week later, the researchers assessed their participants’ reported behaviors. Members of the cognitive dissonance group were much more likely during the intervening week to have complied with guidelines and sought out vaccination appointments than participants in one of the control groups.

The researchers found the 101 participants via the online tool Prolific, while working remotely at her home near Atlanta. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 67 and came from 18 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Portugal.

Much of this research was conducted before vaccines were widely available, so the researchers largely focused on mask wearing and social distancing. As they were launching the study, they decided to add a few questions about whether the participants had made or intended to make an appointment to get the shots.

The researchers said they are looking for ways to implement their findings widely, by inducing dissonance on a greater scale. Logan Pearce, a graduate student and first author of the study along with lead author Joel Cooper, PhD, a professor of psychology at Princeton, suggested holding contests in which people compete by writing or recording compelling arguments to become vaccinated, whether via video, essay, poem, or drawing. Similar efforts have included the “Wear a Mask New York Ad Contest” and the “Mask Up Alabama Video Contest.”

What sets her contest apart is the second step: including mindfulness. Rules would require contestants to include recollections of times they did not actually follow COVID-19 guidelines, such as choosing to forego a vaccination when one was available. Admitting this will both make it more likely that the contest participant will shift their own behaviors, and it will encourage others to make better choices.

For community leaders who don’t want to host a contest, Pearce and Cooper have other ideas. A church group might suggest its members go through the exercise as an act of public service, for example. Whatever approach is taken, the combination of the two is key, the researchers said.

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