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- The story of someone you trust can save your life or quarantine you for many months.
- If your friend who has already been vaccinated tells you that the medicine works, you will go for the vaccination.
- There are ideological currents that, out of ignorance, slander or look for conspiracy theories where there is none. Better listen to the doctor.
These days many countries have started their vaccination campaigns against COVID-19 . I am happy. First, because many lives will be saved. Second, because at last we have something that can return us to the longed for normality. And third, because humanity has shown that, when it wants, it can cooperate to overcome great challenges.
The saving vaccine paradox
We should be optimistic. But half of my friends and family are fearful or mistrustful. Some tell me they don’t want to be among the first to receive treatment. Others, who will not be vaccinated under any circumstances. We are faced with a paradox: having already the cure, there are those who fear it as much or more than the disease itself.
Maybe you know people like that in your environment. For what it’s worth, it’s a worldwide phenomenon. In September, the Pew Research Center found that 49% of the US population was unwilling to get the vaccine right away. And in Spain, the Sociological Research Center calculated that the proportion of these people grew from 40.3%, in September, to 47%, in November.
The truth is that in many democratic countries vaccination is not compulsory, so for the campaign to be effective, people must want to be vaccinated. And the less we take to convince ourselves, the faster we will achieve “herd immunity” . So what can we do to combat fear and rejection from these people?
The answer to the question has to do with an already classic theory and with social storytelling. In the 1950s, the sociologist Everett M. Rogers studied the agricultural industry in the United States and discovered that there were innovations that local producers adopted more quickly than others. In 1962, he published a theory that went around the world: that of the “Diffusion of Innovations .”
It goes more or less like this: whenever an innovation appears in a society of well-communicated people, five attitudes can be expected that will manifest themselves successively and over time. These are:
- That of innovative or pioneering people . They are the ones who, without hesitation, will embrace innovation the minute it becomes available.
- That of the first followers . They are the group of those who could not be pioneers, but who will readily accept that they can.
- That of the precocious majority . A massive group waiting to see how the previous two groups are doing with innovation.
- That of the late majority . Another massive group, but reluctant (or without access) to innovation.
- That of the laggards . People who will not accept innovation for fear of change or mistrust.
Rogers estimated the percentage of the population for each attitude (see graph below) and subsequent studies showed that the same pattern was common in settings, industries, and countries around the world.
Theory of Diffusion of Innovations by Rogers (1962) and critical leap by Moore (1991) / De Plc.gif: Original creator Vvdberg at nl.wikipedia. Derivative work: Osado – Plc.gif, CC BY-SA 3.0
A theory with limitations and critics
Nowadays, academics from economics, sociology, or marketing accept the model and apply it to demographic and market studies. Popular culture has accepted it too, as a famous video by Simon Sinek shows .
As a theory, it has not been definitively proven or refuted. In fact, it has been proven that it cannot be applied to certain systems and that it is not enough to explain how some commercial products succeed (the iPhone, for example) and others fail ( the DeLorean , for example). But in 1991, Geoffrey Moore backed up the idea by developing an explanation of why it doesn’t always work and how to overcome the limitation.
I believe that Rogers theory is applicable to the case of vaccines. And that summarizes why almost half of the people in many countries say that they do not want to be the first: it is because they are part of the “late majority” and the “laggards” that, as the previous graph shows, account for 50% of people.
The theory in practice
In democratic countries, where (I insist) getting vaccinated is not mandatory, Rogers’ model predicts that 2.5% of the population will naturally feel “pioneer” and will volunteer within hours of starting the vaccination campaign. They are people who will ask their doctor where they can be treated, even before the first doses arrive in the country. They will do it because they are brave, or because they feel responsible for themselves and others. There will also be those who like to be up to date with everything.
But when the pioneers show that they are still healthy and that the vaccine did not harm them, the “first followers” will arrive. They will not have to be called: they will also volunteer themselves, or ask everywhere when it is their turn. They will line up quite long and offer money (or time) to be vaccinated. And when they do, another 13.5% more of the population will be added to the list of those vaccinated.
Now, what makes an innovation succeed or fail?
This is where the Rogers theory (and the vaccination campaign) comes into play. Earlier I mentioned Geoffrey Moore. He discovered that the success or failure of disruptive innovations (the vaccine is) is determined at a critical point: that of the leap from the “first followers” to the “early majority.”
If the latter accept the innovation, then the vaccine will reach 50% of the population and success will be practically certain. But if not, failure will inevitably follow. Well, what makes the early majority adopt innovation?
Very simple: storytelling! In other words, the story that the “first followers” will tell others about how the experience was for them. That will make the early majorities believe (or not) that the vaccine works.
So forget what the politician or the TV news says. If your brother and friend who have already been vaccinated tell you that the medicine works, you will go to get vaccinated. Because you will see that it works for them and you will not want to be different.
The other way around: if your vaccinated friend tells you that the treatment is not working for him, or that he was treated poorly, or that the substance caused him serious pain, you will not accept the medicine. As simple (and complex) as this: the story of someone you trust can save your life or keep you in quarantine for many months .
What’s the lesson in terms of storytelling?
When getting vaccinated is a voluntary option and it is necessary for people to quickly convince themselves to do so, it is essential to build stories that give confidence. Especially to motivate the “pioneers” and the “first followers” to try.
But then, in the interest of all, we must facilitate communication between these two groups and those who have misgivings. And, in this, I think that we all play a critical role: political authorities, scientists, media and producers of the vaccine. But also you and me, as citizens.
When the authorities, the scientific community and the media spread the success stories and normalize the image of the vaccine, they do a great job. Manufacturers who report favorable and certified results for their products do well too. In Spain, the percentage of people who say they would not take the vaccine decreased to 28% in December. And that is a success.
But you and I also have a role. You should know that every time you share a joke, a cartoon or a meme about the vaccine on your social networks, or that you send cynical comments without having the slightest idea of what you are saying, you contribute to making the “precocious majority” feel less confident and it takes longer to get vaccinated. You are helping the virus to last.
You should also know that there are political groups, lobbies and ideological currents that, from absolute ignorance, slander or seek conspiracy theories where there is none. Their interests are evil and they pursue power and influence, if not evil for evil’s sake.
Better ignore them. Better still if you don’t give them any space in your conversations. Rather listen to your doctor first.