Organizational Behavior

How to Convince Reluctant Republicans to Get COVID Vaccines

In a polarized nation, a dose of partisan public health messaging can be more effective.

May 11, 2021

| by Alexander Gelfand
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A patient waits in a doorway to check in for a COVID vaccination. Credit: Reuters/Lindsey Wasson

Messages from Republican leaders could reduce their base’s skepticism toward COVID vaccines. | Reuters/Lindsey Wasson

As the number of daily coronavirus vaccinations has stalled, public health experts are no longer convinced that the U.S. will reach herd immunity. In response, the Biden Administration has ramped up its vaccine education and outreach efforts, and is even turning to gimmicks like having businesses offer discounts to people who agree to get jabbed. While vaccine hesitancy among Black and Latino Americans has been declining, it remains strikingly prevalent among one group in particular: Republicans.

In an effort to understand what might sway this large group of skeptics, sociologist Robb Willer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, conducted an experiment with help from colleagues at Stanford, Northwestern University, and MIT to see how vaccine-hesitant Republicans would respond to pro-vaccination messages from partisan sources. The results were revealing: In a preprint paper, Willer and his coauthors found that Republicans are amenable to persuasion by former President Donald Trump and other prominent GOP politicians — but that pro-vax messages from Biden and other Democrats fail to move them.

You run Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, which focuses on reducing the harms of political polarization and developing effective strategies for social activism. So why a study on how messaging from political leaders affects Republican attitudes towards vaccination?

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, my lab has worked on finding the most effective way to communicate public health guidelines. One of the first things we figured out was that the content of the message doesn’t matter as much as the source of the message. So we shifted to finding ways of recruiting the right sources: People who would be trusted within subcultures and communities that are not naturally receptive to COVID public health guidelines.

We were also attuned to the idea that polarization was going to be a big problem, and that it was going to become critical to reach Republicans effectively. Sure enough, vaccination has become incredibly polarized despite very few Republican elites having been anti-vaccination.

In the study, you randomly assigned 1,480 self-identified Republicans to one of three “conditions.” One group watched a video featuring pro-vaccination statements by former president Donald Trump and read an essay that included endorsements from other Republican leaders while touting the GOP’s contributions to vaccine development; one group received a similar video-and-essay package featuring President Biden and other Democratic leaders; and a control group got a video and essay about neckties.

We didn’t make anything up. We worked entirely with existing endorsements.

Unvaccinated Republicans who were exposed to the Republican endorsement package were 7% more likely to increase their intention to vaccinate than those exposed to the Democratic one. What aspect of the messaging drove that response?

We found more evidence that it was driven by the sense that Republican elites wanted people to get vaccinated, and less about wanting to be part of something Republicans would get credit for.

We also found that hearing a pro-vaccination message from Republican elites like Donald Trump led Republicans to become more likely to encourage others to vaccinate. That’s an underrated effect: Getting people to encourage others is a way to get into this community and help promote vaccine confidence.

On the flip side, the Democratic endorsement package actually drove down Republicans’ willingness to encourage family and friends to get vaccinated.

I was a little bit surprised by that.

A cavalier response to this study might be: Why is it so important to persuade Republicans to get vaccinated? Who cares if a bunch of anti-vaxxers refuse to protect themselves?

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Republicans are the biggest barrier to containing the virus in the U.S., and that’s bad for everybody.
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Rob Willer, professor of organizational behavior

First, I think everybody’s life is valuable. That’s just basic public health logic. Whether or not people understand that the measles vaccine can help their child, it will; and their life matters, so we should try to work with them to help them understand the science.

Second, Republicans are the biggest barrier to containing the virus in the U.S., and that’s bad for everybody. Republicans are 32% of the population, and 44% of them are now saying no to vaccination. That means that an ideological group representing 14% of the American population doesn’t want to get vaccinated. Having a sizable subpopulation of unvaccinated people who disproportionally interact with one another can serve as a breeding ground for variants that could in time evade our vaccines and pose a threat even to the vaccinated population.

How can your findings be applied in the real world?

The most significant takeaway to my mind is that Republican leaders could really do a lot in this space if they were so inclined. A pro-vaccination campaign led by Republicans would be terrific. But you could also intervene directly using existing content. Groups like the AdCouncil could make public service announcements that include Republicans endorsing vaccinations.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would build both a top-down and a bottom-up program for reaching people through their most trusted leaders. I would create PSAs featuring nationally famous figures with appeal among Republicans, but also reach people through respected political and religious leaders in their local communities. There is very good reason to think that faith leaders could be particularly influential with religious Americans. We are testing that now.

And maybe don’t show Republicans pro-vaccination messages from Democrats?

Absolutely. If you are segmenting the population to target people with persuasive messages that fit their concerns and identities — which you should do whenever you can — present Democrats with Democrats, and Republicans with Republicans.

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