The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Free beer? Free money? What data shows works on vaccine skeptics.

Tamaria Kelly, 34, drinks a free beer after receiving a coronavirus vaccine at the D.C. Health Department’s “Take the Shot” walk-up clinic. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

It has come to this — as it was perhaps always going to: Our growing national problem has led to free beer and free money.

Amid flagging vaccination rates across the country, the former reportedly led to the highest vaccination rate in Erie County, N.Y., last week and is also being tried in New Jersey and D.C., while the latter is catching on in states such as Connecticut and West Virginia.

Others have argued we need to relax federal guidelines on things such as masks and social distancing to provide an incentive.

But what actually works? Some data in recent days have painted a mixed picture. But there are clues within.

The write-up of an Economist-YouGov poll last week suggested the impact of de-masking and easing up on social distancing might actually be minimal. The reason, according to the analysis: Vaccine skeptics are already less likely to heed such guidelines in the first place and to think they are safe without them.

Just 19 percent of those who had received at least one dose of a vaccine said they thought it was safe for unvaccinated people to socialize with unvaccinated people indoors without a mask. But 63 percent of those who didn’t plan to get vaccinated said the same. The gaps were similar on traveling by airplane and getting on a cruise ship.

It’s a valid question to ask: If you think you’re already safe without a mask or without social distancing, particularly indoors, why would getting vaccinated be seen as an incentive?

One possibility, to my mind, is that this isn’t just about personal choices; it’s also about what you’re allowed to do. The vaccine-skeptic community overlaps significantly with those decrying mask mandates and other harsh mitigation guidelines. Even if you don’t believe you personally need to get a vaccine to be safe, what if it made society more open? What if it was pitched as the cost to returning to something more normal?

That’s certainly a less-personal incentive, given one person getting vaccinated won’t change the calculus of government officials. But it also doesn’t mean appeals involving the societal good are necessarily ill-fated. And we’ve already seen health officials seemingly respond to public pressure on relaxing post-vaccination mask guidelines.

So what about more-personal incentives?

It’s easy to read too much into the beer story in New York. Just because one site had a superior vaccination race in one week doesn’t mean it’s because of the incentive. (Perhaps people who were otherwise apt to get vaccinated just gravitated toward a convenient place where they might get something out of the deal?)

We’ll also have to wait and see whether $100 giveaways might change the calculus for certain people, for which we should have some decent data soon. It seems possible that it might not do so much for those who worry about the safety of the vaccines, but rather for those who are wishy-washy on the need to get it. But even then, the incentives thus far aren’t exactly immediate; they’re savings bonds and tax breaks that don’t result in an instant Benjamin in your pocket.

But there is some evidence this could be compelling for some people. Lynn Vavreck wrote for the New York Times last week on a UCLA study suggesting $100 might actually move the needle.

The ongoing survey of tens of thousands of people showed 34 percent of unvaccinated people said they would get vaccinated for a $100 reward. That was only six points higher than responses for a $25 reward, but it suggests there are unvaccinated people who could be swayed.

The question from there — particularly given the relatively small difference between a $100 reward and the $25 one — is how truly vaccine-skeptical those folks were in the first place. It’s also whether they might have otherwise been convinced — or even have already — by other factors.

For all the talk about vaccine skepticism and the very real hurdle it poses right now for stomping out the virus, the vaccine-skeptical portion of the population has been shrinking, as data from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows. In January, more than half the population was at least taking a “wait and see” approach. Today, that number is about one-third.

The UCLA study also, notably, did more to suggest de-masking and relaxing social distancing guidelines could have an impact than the YouGov survey.

“On average, relaxing the mask and social distancing guidelines increased vaccine uptake likelihood by 13 points,” Vavreck wrote. “The largest gains came from Republicans, who reported an 18-point increase in willingness to get vaccinated.”

So there’s your potential difference there between feeling freed up personally and societally.

Again, we must ask who is being convinced who wouldn’t otherwise. But the vaccine-skeptical community is often distilled down much too neatly into those who don’t trust the vaccines. Mixed in with them are lots and lots of people who simply don’t think it’s necessary or worth the trouble. That could be because they don’t feel like the pandemic is truly that serious or they don’t feel personally imperiled. Even within those latter groups, there are gradations.

Figuring out how to appeal to them is the next big front in the fight. It’s an undersold challenge for the Biden administration.

But it’s also a very difficult one. One reason: The UCLA study showed President Biden’s endorsement actually did more to dissuade Republicans, who are currently the most vaccine-skeptical group. So it seems it is indeed time to get creative.