The approval of the first Covid-19 vaccine in the United States was welcomed over the weekend as the beginning of the end of the pandemic. However, the path between initial doses at a rate that stops the spread of the coronavirus and widespread vaccination is by no means easy. In addition to the logistical challenge of distributing the vaccine, people must be willing to take it. Just recently in late November, 37% of Americans said they wouldn’t.
Two prominent economists, N. Gregory Manqueu and Robert Tritan, and politicians John Delaney and Andrew Yang, proposed or endorsed paying Americans to receive the vaccine. At first glance, this seems like a rational idea. Economics teaches people to react to incentives. However, behavioral research suggests that this strategy may backfire.
Humans do not respond to incentives such as mice pushing levers for food. They try to interpret what the payments offered mean. In this case, the offer runs the risk of meaning that the vaccine is not of value.
The study cited in a treatise entitled “Tom Sawyer and Building Value” (see the famous section of Mark Twain’s book, where Tom convinces his friends that whitening the fence is a desirable activity) Payment prospects help them make negative decisions, whether something is good or bad when people are uncertain.
In one study, a professor asked students if they would like to participate in Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” reading, provided half of the students with a payment to participate in the reading, and paid to participate in the other half. I asked if I would. Those who offered to pay reported that they were less interested in attending. For those who are not confident in getting vaccinated, such as those who are not confident in participating in poetry reading, paying is probably by sending a message that this is something you do not want to do without compensation. Let’s do it.
People may also infer from payments that vaccines can be dangerous. A study with Kevin Volpp and Alex London found that people naturally assume that payments are a risk. A series of experiments described clinical trials that offer different payments to participate in studies that include unfamiliar test procedures. It turns out that people believe that the higher the payment, the higher the risk of the study, even if the description of the study procedure is the same. Similarly, paying people to get vaccinated may cause them to speculate that they would otherwise be more dangerous than they would expect.
Data to date suggest that Pfizer and Moderna’s early Covid-19 vaccine candidates are safe and effective. This is evidence that it has already led to urgent approval of Pfizer candidates. Direct vaccination payments may increase the intake of some people in the short term, but the effects just described can be the exact opposite of what was ultimately intended.
In addition to making the vaccine look more dangerous, payments may also make people less likely to be vaccinated because of the selfless goal of helping others. Studies show that paying people to take altruistic behavior often backfires. In one study, Israeli high school students who raised for charity on a particular day raised less money when they paid a small fee.
A treatise reporting a study titled “Pay Well or Not Pay At All” questioned the motivations of students who raised a lot of money, although the amount paid was too small to motivate students. Insisted that it was enough to throw in the minds of those observing those students, and perhaps even on the part of the student collectors themselves. The same logic suggests that paying people to get vaccinated can weaken the motivation of those who are or want to be altruistically motivated.
A more promising approach may be to carry out desirable activities such as travel, subject to vaccination. Australian airline Qantas reports that Qantas and other airlines are considering vaccination as a requirement for international air travel. As vaccination becomes associated with enjoyable outcomes such as travel and access to large public events, vaccination itself becomes positively evaluated. Skepticism can disappear, at least for some, when people recognize the various benefits of vaccination.
After all, the circumstances surrounding vaccine deployment may shape attitudes towards vaccines. Given the complexity of vaccine production and distribution, there is almost certainly a shortage for months. The silver backing for this is that much research in marketing has shown that scarcity can be a major stimulus to demand. Seeing others eager for vaccination (desperately waiting to be at the forefront) makes people more likely to see the value of the vaccine and want it for themselves. I will.
George Ruvenstein is a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, Herbert A. Simon. Cynthia Cryder is an associate professor of marketing at the Olin Business School at the University of Washington in St. Louis.
Why paying people to get vaccinated can backfire
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