Carrot and stick combine in vaccine offers you can’t refuse
OPINION: In 2025 there will be a handful of university graduates in New York, West Virginia and Delaware who will be crossing the stage to receive their degrees, having had their education paid for by their decision to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in 2021. There will be others who have won ten years’ worth of petrol, a $150,000 dream wedding, hunting rifles, beer, tickets to the Chicago Cubs baseball team and the opportunity to drive their own car on the famous Talledega Superspeedway in Alabama.
Across the United States and elsewhere, governments and private entities such as corporate employers have been grappling with how they can influence the decision-making of citizens to raise rates of vaccinations so that we can return to normal life. The essential question is one for behavioural scientists and economics, and boils down to whether the carrot or the stick is the best way to nudge people to behave in a particular way.
It says something about our preference for positive levers that the early strategies were clearly in the carrot camp, of incentivising behaviour by offering sweeteners of cash and Walmart gift cards, products such as sports cars and ride-on mowers and fun experiences at theme parks and ski resorts. Several American states operated sweepstakes or cash lotteries, with prizes of up to $2 million.
Similarly, in Aotearoa, early vaccination strategies focussed on strong public health messaging, with a gradual shift to incentivising – through making vaccination a family-centred entertainment event, offers of giveaways and the ultimate Kiwi koha – a feed of KFC.
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After several months of engaging in these novel attempts to shift vaccination rates across America, in October the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the many and varied incentives that had been dangled in front of unvaccinated Americans.
The study found that while nudges increased vaccination intentions they had no effect on increasing actual vaccination rates. Ironically, incentives had a negative impact upon some groups, including over 40s and Trump supporters, perversely validating their concerns about the vaccination and government more broadly. Not long before the study’s release, a palpable shift in tactics was evident – with a clear pivot to the stick rather than the carrot – enter vaccination mandates lead by government or employers.
The stick approach reflects behavioural economics research that demonstrates the “loss aversion” principle – that people are more afraid to lose what they have, than to gain what they don’t have.
The National Bureau study also found that the most impactful incentives were public health messages that focussed on getting back to normal.
Surveys in America and elsewhere have consistently found that what people want the most is to go back to their pre-pandemic lives – where they could move around freely, unmasked, not socially distanced, and participating in the full range of activities that modern life offers with their friends and families.
The general goal of behavioural scientists and economists is to identify the most effective levers and the biggest challenges to effect change. Effective levers are ones that are consistent with the long-term interests and values of the target audience. That might include being a good citizen, a good ancestor for future generations, or just maintaining your pre-pandemic levels of health, wealth and social freedom.
Mandates might be viewed as the big stick approach – threatening loss of employment or the ability to easily access goods and services, but they could also be viewed as preserving your current status, which is clearly highly valued.
Punishment could also be termed the “sneaky twin” of rewards, and the looming threat of a negative consequence for not taking up an offered incentive could be deemed what Canadian philosopher Hillel Steiner characterises as a “throffer” – a proposal that mixes an incentive with a threat if the incentive is not accepted. Steiner identifies the classic example of the legendary line by Marlon Brando in The Godfather “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” – a thinly veiled threat dressed up as an offer.
Nobel Prize for Economics winner Herbert Simon coined the term “bounded rationality” to describe how our rationality in decision-making is limited by both the information we have and the time we have to make a decision. Policymakers should therefore ensure that people have good information and sufficient time to process that information to make reasoned and rational decisions. In recent weeks we’ve heard a lot from people who are claiming a shortage of both – particularly those who are subject to vaccination mandates before the end of 2021.
One of the advantages of our nation’s success at keeping Covid-19 at bay for the better part of a year, is that we can see how these dynamics have played out in nations who are further through the stages of the pandemic.
Mandates have been imposed in many other jurisdictions, by both government and private employers for several months now. Despite the threat of the stick initially meeting with significant opposition in some of them, the overwhelming majority of people have fallen into line, as they have already in Aotearoa.
However, the sheer population numbers of large cities such as New York, means that even 5 per cent of resistant employees in the police, fire department and public services adds up to many thousands of people. It remains to be seen in coming weeks whether the initial noise of opposition to mandates will translate into numbers that threaten the team of five million.
Khylee Quince is the Dean of Law at Auckland University of Technology.