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What We Need Right Now Is an Appeal to Altruism

A new study demonstrated altruism in 19 month old toddlers who helped an adult reach a yummy snack item they’d dropped. They didn’t know the adult but still took the initiative to help out a stranger in need.

In another experiment, children in both Canada and Vanuatu gave one of their own candies to a puppet. Analysis of facial expressions showed that they got more pleasure from this altruistic act than when they gave candy provided by the experimenter. We humans are fundamentally altruistic. Yet millions of Americans are angrily refusing to send their kids to school in masks, or to vaccinate themselves—even as dangerous new COVID variants threaten our children.

There is a strong greater-good argument for letting yourself get poked: we only control diseases like polio and COVID by achieving widespread immunity, so each person’s shot helps protect all. This isn’t pure altruism: you benefit at the same time you help others. Should be an easy sell but lately it’s not.

Certain groups have especially high resistance. A survey by the Public Religion Research Group reported that 24% of White evangelicals say they will not get vaccinated, and a Gallup survey reported that 46% of Republicans say no.

A fascinating study shows that the best way to overcome vaccine hesitancy is with an appeal to altruism: “Reducing the danger for individuals who cannot be vaccinated… was by far the most effective way” to convince people to get the shot according to Prof. Marc Oliver Rieger of Trier University in Germany. (Social Health and Behavior, Jan. 2020) Saying “You can save children by getting the vaccine,” is likely to overcome the deep resistance felt in some groups.

Resistance is often the consequence of a little known (but suddenly important) psychological phenomenon known as reactance, in which people feel angry at being told what to do. They then turn to counter arguments to justify resisting—but arguments aren’t important, it’s the emotional response that matters. Countering reactance with fact-checks doesn’t address the emotional response.

Evangelical White Christians and registered Republicans are likely to feel angry when told to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Debating the facts or debunking conspiracy theories risks reenergizing reactance and thereby strengthening resistance to vaccines and masks.

I suggest instead an appeal to their altruism.

About three quarters of American adults give cash donations to charity—a much higher percentage than the poor vaccination rates in certain groups. Furthermore, there is evidence that charitable giving is higher than that in heavily Republican counties. (See Republicans Give More to Charity than Democrats, Non Profit Quarterly).

And a survey by the Barna Group (see, Evangelicals Give More to Charity) reports that 79% made financial donations. When donations of items and time are included, the charitable giving rate of Evangelicals rises to 99%.

How interesting to find that the groups with the most vaccine resistance are also the most charitable! This means that, so far, they don’t see vaccination as an altruistic act.

We badly need to reframe the vaccine question on the same emotional level where reactance arises. Those who are swayed by an appeal to science and logic have already been convinced. Others will not be.

I’m reminded of a long sea voyage I took with my then-teenaged son Eliot and an older man who was an experienced captain. We were bringing a sailboat up from Texas to the East Coast, and I knew we’d benefit from Roy’s vast knowledge of the sea—but I didn’t know that he’d break out his Bible as soon as we were out of sight of land.

Eliot did his darndest to debate evolution versus creation and all the other things Roy was determined to tackle, but neither got anywhere. You’re probably not going to change an evangelical Christian’s mind about such matters, or even convince him to respect your right to disagree.

But Roy was not only an able sailor, he was one of the kindest and best people I’ve ever known, and he often went to great lengths to help others. If I bumped into him today, I’d ask him to get vaccinated to protect the children in his community who can’t get this vaccine themselves but who, alas, can succumb to COVID-19. I’m pretty sure he’d say yes!

Alex Hiam is a fully vaccinated parent, teacher, and children’s book author. His books Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure are available now on Amazon and Kindle.

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