Changing Minds with Safe Freedom

We have a situation. 

Many Americans refuse Covid-19 vaccines that will save their lives and the lives of others. Institutional pleas have failed to persuade these vaccine deniers. Scientific data are not working. Public health advertising is not making headway. Even seeing is not believing. According to reporting, not even the Delta-variant-near-death experience of her husband could persuade a woman to become vaccinated. 

This does not mean that people’s minds cannot be changed. Just understand that changing minds requires someone to reconceive an idea that is part of their thinking.

Unfortunately, in many instances facts, data, experts or science make people dig in their heels. When confronted with information that goes against their beliefs, politics, hopes and concerns, people become even more set in their ways. 

Social science research on behavior change indicates that asserting science, facts or data to change minds generates a “backfire effect”. And, since the Covid-19 data are changing rapidly, changed scientific data-based recommendations are scorned.  Recent media report that some people are now aggressively hostile when urged to take a vaccine.

Thinking that people do not understand the truth or cannot grasp the ramifications is an ineffective way to change someone’s conduct. Name calling or public shaming will not work either.

If we wish to change people’s minds, we need to understand that most people do not think like scientists. Wanting people to change their behavior is not a losing battle. It just requires a different strategic approach. The best way to change behavior is to provide an alternative, desirable solution to their concerns. 

There is a behavioral principle that marketers use. This principle can possibly help. 

The principle starts with problem-solution. Problem-solution is the oldest and still most effective form of persuasion. This means getting to the root cause of people’s beliefs. What is the reason why people believe so strongly? Why is that belief important to them? How does that belief make them feel? What is the problem that is solved by their beliefs? Psychologists know that problem-solution is the way to alter behavior.

And, one of the most effective approaches to problem-solution is creating a paradox promise.  A paradox promise focuses on the fact that people have contradictory needs.  People want solutions that solve their conflicting needs. Behavior change success depends on developing compelling, trustworthy paradox promises that deliver relevant, differentiated experiences.

Many successful brands use a paradox promise. Think about Gore-Tex. It is a preferred addition to your fleece jacket or your hiking boots. This is because Gore-Tex is both breathable and water repellent. Charmin toilet paper is both soft and strong.  Diet Coke’s introductory and continuing brand promise is great taste with no calories. Peloton indoor exercise equipment addresses togetherness while alone: alone and together.  The Peloton community is global, connected and supportive while it is composed of individuals, most of whom have never met. Peloton members exercise together in classes but they exercise as individuals working out from home.

The idea of satisfying contradictory needs to create compelling solutions is not just a marketing concept, however. Paradox promises are behind many of the ways in which we wish to live our lives. We live in a world of contradictions. 

We want less government money spent on universal programs while we do not want changes to Social Security or Medicare. We will agree to spend money on infrastructure as long as someone else pays the bill. We want to belong to a nation and want to be valued for our individuality.  We want to belong to a union of countries and want to keep our nationality. We want low interest rates so we can buy a house while we want higher interest rates for our savings accounts. We extol free speech but want to eliminate language we find offensive. We want the liberty to avoid a vaccine but we do want give women the liberty to manage their reproductive rights

We will not take a vaccine that the FDA has not yet formally approved but we will beg for yet-to-be-tested experimental drugs when we are stricken with coronavirus. We want to be rid of Covid-19 but we will not be vaccinated.

Reporting in The New York Times indicates that unvaccinated people say they reject the Covid-19 vaccinations because of possible side effects (53%) and waiting to see if it is safe (40%). This leads us to believe that health safety is key – either personal safety from side effects or general safety generated by reading or seeing how the vaccines affect others. On the one hand, then, health safety seems to be a leading factor in vaccine unwillingness. 

On the other hand, there is our true love of freedom. Freedom is inherent in our individuality and our American ethos. We want the freedom to say what we wish to say, to congregate with whom we wish to congregate, to be free to think whatever thoughts we wish to think, to bear arms, and to feel imposed upon when there are too many government restrictions. One writer for The New York Times believes that vaccine deniers define freedom as the privilege to do whatever they want to do. For these individuals, freedom is defiance of rules regardless of public interest.

Whatever one’s definition of freedom, freedom and health are currently contradictions. Freedom can be free-wheeling, independent, creative and unrestricted. Freedom can be rough and undisciplined. Health safety is inclusive. Health safety is disciplined. Health safety requires standards, regulations, requirements and participation. 

In Bloomberg, a reporter wrote about a legal case in Indiana. Indiana University decided that students would need to be vaccinated to attend school. Eight students sued. The judge ruled for Indiana University. The judge’s opinion underscored the need for “reasonable” regulation to avoid harm to others. According to the Bloomberg story, the judge ruled that if there were not a vaccine mandate, Indiana University would not be able to operate as it should operate. Further, he did not say that Covid-19 restrictions are limitless. He reminded the courtroom that the Constitution still exists. In other words, as the article highlights, the Indiana judge was able to find a legal solution to the contradictory needs of “public safety and personal liberty.”

This is the paradox promise of safe freedom.

Safe freedom is a paradox. It delivers benefits to everyone. And, safe freedom may be the compelling, persuasive solution for the unvaccinated to change their behavior. You can have your personal freedoms and your health safety. 

For the unvaccinated, the message of health safety and individual freedom is essential. The vaccine deniers want to do what they feel is correct. They do not want others telling them what to do. They want personal liberty but they also want to be safe. The benefits of safe freedom are being healthy and free… having individual freedom with personal security.

Beliefs are difficult but not impossible to change. In a Wall Street Journal interview, the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said she was struggling to develop a compelling message about vaccines. Analytics will not work. Vaccine deniers believe that science, data and facts do not make sense. They also believe that their personal liberty is at stake. It may not seem rational. It may not be logical. However, their position is an emotional tug-of-war between personal safety and individual freedom. Publicly bashing their opinions will not break the bonds to their beliefs. Generating a better solution to their emotional concerns is the way forward.

There is a crisis now. 

There does not appear to be any other reasonable alternative for public safety than vaccines. Rather than weigh public health against individual freedom, perhaps we should follow the thinking of the Indiana judge. Let’s solve for both personal liberty and public health. Let’s achieve safe freedom.

Learn more about paradoxes like this one: Navigate how to satisfy conflicting needs, and look beyond single-minded solutions with the insights and guidance in The Paradox Planet.