The official U.S. approval of a coronavirus vaccine for elementary school students removes one of the last barriers to ending the pandemic, but it’s obvious that a significant portion of the country will never fully embrace vaccination. We’ve tried just about every form of positive motivation, including emphasizing family reunions, giving away beer and dangling $5 million in lottery winnings — with mixed results. For example, researchers found that Ohio’s distinctive lottery program didn’t actually affect vaccination rates.
To combat vaccine hesitancy, we need to grasp its psychological roots. Alongside skepticism of institutions and experts, exposure to misinformation, and other often-cited reasons for resisting vaccines sits a clear emotional explanation: Many people are afraid that they’ll make a bad decision. They’re influenced by the psychology of anticipated regret. Understanding this reaction can help us get more shots into arms, removing one of the final obstacles to controlling the virus.
It’s widely understood that when humans make decisions, they engage in a cost-benefit analysis. But psychologists have shown that people also conduct a less-rational calculation involving the regret they might experience. When deciding which of two roads to go down, they not only consider the statistical probabilities but also implicitly imagine their reactions to worst-case scenarios. In these analyses, potential bad outcomes weigh heavier on the mind than equally likely positive possibilities.
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