Finding common ground

Why talking to loved ones about vaccines matters now more than ever

The key to breaking through to the vaccine-hesitant might be found in moral foundations theory, writes Hannah Magnusson.


As Manitoba reopens and news articles turn to discussion of booster shots, it may feel like we’re finally leaving COVID-19 behind. But we’re not out of the woods just yet, as vaccine uptake in the province continues to plateau. 

The delta variant poses a serious threat to vaccinated and unvaccinated people. While vaccines are still effective against the delta variant in terms of reducing severe illness, hospitalization and morbidity, they are less effective against preventing infection. 

The latest data shows that fully vaccinated people are experiencing at best 88 per cent efficacy (Pfizer) and at worst 67 per cent (AstraZeneca). What’s worse, the longer the virus is able to circulate through unvaccinated people, the more it will be able to mutate further and produce increasingly dangerous variants, potentially putting us back to square one if it mutates in such a way that vaccinated people are no longer protected.

It is critical that we get serious about addressing vaccine hesitancy, and moral foundations theory may show us the way. This theory suggests that when we are faced with a moral decision (like whether or not to vaccinate), we make an instinctive judgment first based on our unique moral compass and then come up with an explanation to defend it after the fact. 

This is important. It means people who are vaccine hesitant don’t just wake up and decide that they want to be the villain. In their perception of the world, they are acting in a completely rational way. 

Research on vaccine-hesitant parents from before the pandemic showed that high-hesitancy parents based their concerns on two moral foundations: purity and liberty. Put simply, they viewed the vaccine as unnatural or disgusting and resented being told what to do in this regard. 

When talking to someone who is vaccine hesitant, it might feel natural to appeal to the care and fairness foundations with pleas to protect the vulnerable and do their part in ending the pandemic. This has not been shown to be effective, which many of us have already noticed firsthand.

Appealing to facts and reason doesn’t work, either. In fact, it might make things worse. Studies show that even when beliefs are changed (like convincing someone that vaccines don’t cause autism), it doesn’t change the desire to vaccinate and, in some cases, makes people even less likely to vaccinate than before. 

The key is to meet those who are vaccine hesitant where they are. According to a 2017 article published in Nature Human Behaviour, using statements like “boost your body’s natural defenses,” “protect yourself from the contamination of the virus” and “take control of your health, protect your freedom” speaks to the deep-seated moral convictions driving their behaviour. Rather than being rooted in an “us vs. them” mentality, it frames both parties as part of the same group and makes the message feel more trustworthy and credible. 

In times of uncertainty, we naturally seek safety and security. We just need to understand that what feels safe to us may not feel that way to others. With a bit of empathy and a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, we just might be able to bridge the divide and create a path out of this pandemic. 

Hannah Magnusson lives on Treaty 1 territory, homeland of the Métis Nation, on the shore of Lake Winnipeg. She isn’t quite sure what’s next for her, but is confident she’ll sort it out at some point.

Published in Volume 75, Number 25 of The Uniter (May 20, 2021)

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