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VACCINATION – “50% of French adults have received at least one injection”, welcomed Emmanuel Macron during a trip to the Lot on Wednesday, June 2. These few words are not trivial. “If 26.6 million French people have done it, why not you? Whoever is not vaccinated will end up saying to himself that it is probably he who is wrong, ”decrypts Eric Singler, boss of the Nudge Unit, a division of the BVA institute which has advised the Elysee since the beginning of the epidemic.

With this formulation, Emmanuel Macron mobilizes a cognitive bias. He tries to put a certain social pressure on those who have not yet stretched out their shoulders. Insist on the number of French people vaccinated against Covid-19, send a personalized SMS, offer a coffee after the vaccination, make appointments more fluid … These little things called “nudges”, boosted by neuroscience and data, can accelerate the vaccination campaign. As long as you use them wisely.

The government is fond of these techniques, at the intersection of marketing and cognitive science. Statistics on the number of TousantiCovid-19 users? Nudge. Saying that the application is “popular” helps to make it more popular. Self-attestation? Nudge. When he fills it out, the citizen realizes that going out in a pandemic is not trivial. Outside Covid-19, there is the famous fly in the urinalysis, placed in the center. The men aim at her: there is less urine on the floor. Nudge.

To mobilize again, while the early volunteers give way to the undecided, the recalcitrant and people without access to care, the government is launching a new communication campaign this Saturday, June 5. His messages will most likely be “nudged”; that is to say, stuffed with neuroscience and cognitive biases, sorts of deceptive shortcuts into which the brain regularly falls. Be careful, neuroscience does not mean lobotomy. Here, we are not going to radically change someone’s opinion, but rather push them to act.

One of the keys to breaking the vaccine glass ceiling

At the origin of this “engineering” of decision-making, Daniel Kahneman, an economist and Nobel laureate of the 1960s, rewarded for having demonstrated that man is much less rational than he appears. Human decisions are often driven by instinct and emotion. The nudge revolutionized the marketing of the 2010s, notably dictating the positioning of products in stores. They are owed the chewing gum at checkout or the “20 users are currently viewing this deal” messages on travel sites. In 2008, Barack Obama had a nudge cell. Since then, these theories have completely invested the political field. At the risk of using them excessively.

By refining political communication, this science is intended as one of the keys to breaking the vaccine glass ceiling observed in the United States and the United Kingdom, two countries with more than 60% of first-time injections. “We are aiming for a soft stomach, those who tell themselves that it is not the right day to have a little fever, or that they will have plenty of time to do it afterwards,” explains Eric Singler. Understand those who are rather in favor of vaccination, but who have not yet taken the plunge. “One of the great lessons of behavioral science is that as a human, you can be convinced of certain things… and not do them”, he explains.

The nudge also consists of eliminating friction, the small barriers that repel vaccination. This is for example what Olivier Véran wanted to do, Wednesday, June 2, by announcing two additional weeks of beating to make the second vaccination appointment. The nudge is above all common sense. Facilitate, streamline, so as not to lose any volunteers. And make it all attractive. “The nudge also plays on the small reward, to trigger the act. We need to help people see the immediate benefits of vaccination, ”explains Eric Singler.

Beers, guns and selfies for the vaccinated

Immediate benefits are at the heart of vaccine mobilization policies across the Atlantic. “With the vaccine, a summer of freedom, of joy, all Americans celebrating together”, chanted Joe Biden on June 2, on the occasion of the opening of a “month of action”. America rewards the vaccinated with free beers and guns in the state of West Virginia. Quebec is setting up selfie zones in vaccination centers for an anthology of shoulder and V shots with the fingers. Improving the user experience, so that people talk about it with a smile – which makes you want more than a story punctuated by grimaces – is one of the precepts of nudge.

A coffee for the vaccinated French? Why not, responds Eric Singler, but be careful not to deviate from the act that must be done above all to protect his health and that of the population. “There is no question of pushing the consumption of alcohol or of giving weapons”, we say ironically to the cabinet of Olivier Véran. But the reward, we think about it. “The health pass is already one in a way,” blows Éric Singler. Vaccinated people escape repeated PCRs.

A person films himself being vaccinated in Washington, USA, where volunteers are offered free beer (photo taken May 6, 2021).

How much of a game-changer are these “nudges”? A study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that SMS messages intended to push influenza vaccination were 11% more effective when personalized: “A dose is reserved for you / waiting for you”. Before the coronavirus, $ 32 million was saved in hospitals in Pennsylvania (Penn Medicine) by reversing the default choices in American prescriptions, boosting the prescription of generic, less expensive drugs.

But behavior during the health crisis is more unpredictable, sometimes more clear-cut. Studies by King’s College Lion and the London School of Economics – two of the most famous English universities – on the nudge around Covid-19, show that its effects are rather weak, of the order of a few percent and especially that they fade quickly.

The risk? Turn away from the essential

“Who still respects the RATP markings on the ground to space out the Ile-de-France residents?”, Henri Bergeron, research director at CNRS, professor at Sciences Po, tensed. The nudge is a kind of varnish, a last useful adjustment which, s’ it is overused, risks diverting from the essential. “In the context of a vaccine glass ceiling, to enroll a few more people, why not. But we just change the choices available to people, their level of information. This limited vision ignores the much more determining socio-economic factors ”, he adds.

“We focus too much on communication. We will have to go find people, especially. Mobilize local actors, even outside of care. Associations, local figures, parishes and mosques ”, underlines Jérémy Ward, sociologist at the Sorbonne, specializing in vaccine controversies and regularly consulted by the Haute Autorité de Santé.

In a note published at the end of May, Our public services, a collective of enarques and scientists call for a change of gear, at the risk of leaving on the side “20% of the population” of age to be vaccinated. For them, the government must accelerate and decentralize its policy of “going towards”, going where inequalities are a barrier to vaccination. Poor areas are the least vaccinated, according to health insurance vaccine data released Friday, May 28. The nudge is not a magic solution, annoy some researchers, who see in the use of these techniques a macronist trait, preferring to distribute the dressings where it would require a major surgery.

See also on Then24: When Macron found it “shocking” to vaccinate the youngest before handing over the poor countries


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