Understanding the “COVID skeptics”

The Issue

As COVID-19 vaccination efforts continue in the United States, it is becoming clear that hesitancy cannot be explained reliably by traditional demographic categories (e.g., political affiliation, race, age, gender, economic status). Instead, some distinct personas are emerging based on shared beliefs and barriers to getting the vaccine. These personas both transcend and encompass the traditional demographic categories—each persona includes at least some members of every demographic group.

One of these personas is the “COVID skeptics.” Their hesitancy is related to specific, deeply held beliefs around COVID-19.

What You Need to Know About COVID Skeptics

Based on polling and psychobehavioral analysis conducted by Surgo Ventures, approximately 14% of Americans are COVID skeptics.1 They are the people least likely to get vaccinated. COVID skeptics perceive themselves to be at low risk of COVID-19 infection and are guided by misinformation. Every person in this group believes in at least one conspiracy theory, such as:

  • COVID-19 has been exploited by the government to control people.
  • COVID-19 was caused by a ring of people who secretly manipulate world events.
  • Microchips are implanted with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Previous research into vaccine hesitancy by epidemiologists and social psychologists found that vaccine skeptics were much more likely than non-skeptics to value individual freedom and liberties and to resent being told what to do by others. They also were much less willing to defer to people in positions of power.2, 3

What Might Work

COVID skeptics are considered to be the least persuadable vaccine persona. But that doesn’t mean they are not persuadable—the percentage of COVID skeptics reported by Surgo Ventures decreased from 17% to 14% between January and May 2021.

Because of the strong moral preference among COVID skeptics for liberty and individual rights, it is important to emphasize that vaccination is their own personal choice. One approach that could work is asking the person to consider why others (e.g., people who traffic in conspiracy theories) might want them to believe a particular thing about COVID-19 or vaccines. They might be surprised to learn that just 12 people—arguably, influencers operating from positions of power—have been responsible for the majority (as much as 65%) of COVID-19 misinformation on social media and may be profiting financially from it.4

Another approach when conversing with COVID skeptics is to begin by simply listening with an attitude of genuine curiosity. Ask COVID skeptics about their main reason for not wanting to get vaccinated. After they have shared, try to distill their concern into a brief, nonjudgmental statement; reflect it back to them and check to see if you got it right. “So, it sounds as though you think the COVID-19 virus may have been created intentionally as a way to scare the public and take away personal freedoms. Is that right?” Then encourage the person to tell you more. According to journalist Amanda Ripley—author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out—when people feel heard, “they open up; they say more nuanced, complicated things—less exaggerated and extreme things; and they’re more likely to take in information they don’t want to hear.”5

If you do decide to share information about COVID-19 vaccines, be sure to ask for permission first, and end by asking what the person thinks about the information you just shared.

References

  1. Sgaier SK. Meet the four kinds of people holding us back from full vaccination. The New York Times. May 18, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/05/18/opinion/covid-19-vaccine-hesitancy.html. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  2. Amin AB, Bednarczyk RA, Ray CE, et al. Association of moral values with vaccine hesitancy. Nat Hum Behav. 2017;1(12):873–880. doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0256-5.
  3. Tavernise S. Vaccine skepticism was viewed as a knowledge problem. It’s actually about gut beliefs. The New York Times. April 29, 2021. Update May 6, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/29/us/vaccine-skepticism-beliefs.html. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  4. Center for Countering Digital Hate. The disinformation dozen: why platforms must act on twelve leading online anti-vaxxers.  March 24, 2021. https://www.counterhate.com/disinformationdozen. Accessed July 28, 2021.
  5. Marsh J. How to turn a toxic conflict into a good one. Greater Good Science Center. April 30, 2021. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_turn_a_toxic_conflict_into_a_good_one. Accessed July 28, 2021.

Return to Playbook Topics View in Spanish