Here’s why your efforts to convince anti-vaxxers aren’t working

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W hat should we do about people who refuse to get vaccinated, or who continue to deny that Covid is real? Debate on this issue has raged for months in the US. “Respect them!” scolded conservative commentators. “Shame them!” urged some. Others counselled empathy for them as victims of disinformation.

But as the surging Delta variant ushers in the “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, uncertainty about persuading pandemic holdouts has given way to anger and despair. This was exemplified by the recent public reaction to a viral news video showing a Louisiana man recovering from a severe Covid-19 infection in a hospital bed, stating that he would still rather have had to be in hospital than accept a vaccine. It was the first time many of us saw the human face of a puzzling phenomenon which healthcare workers have been telling us about since last year: patients denying the realities of the virus even as they lay sick and dying from it.

As Leo Tolstoy famously asked of another seemingly hopeless social problem – poverty – “what then must we do?” The sociology of fraud, one of my research specialties for the past decade, offers some answers.

In 1952, the sociologist Erving Goffman analysed the art of the con in a seminal essay, On Cooling the Mark Out. To understand the phenomenon, he identified a cast of characters: first, the “operator”, who perpetrates the con; second, the “mark”, the target of the con; and third, the “cooler”, an ally of the con artist who attempts to console the victim once the fraud has become apparent “in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home”.

Goffman observed that all “marks” eventually come to understand that they have been defrauded. But strangely, they almost never complain or report the crime to the authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, admitting that you have been conned is so deeply shameful that “marks” experience it as a kind of social death – the painful end of one of the many social roles we all play.

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Instead, many “marks” simply deny the con, claiming they were “in on it” the whole time. This saves their pride and cheats social death, but it allows the con to continue unchecked, entrapping others. By prioritising their self-image over the common good, “marks” make a cowardly, selfish choice. Goffman doesn’t shrink from calling this out as a “moral failure”.

In 2021, this “moral failure” takes the form of Covid-infected pandemic deniers and anti-vaxxers ranting from hospital beds: they have chosen saving face over saving other people’s lives. They could do this by telling the truth and exposing the con, saying: “Covid is real, get vaccinated.” Some do. But many won’t. It’s difficult not to conclude that some are making a conscious choice to protect themselves socially and emotionally at the expense of the rest of us.

Goffman’s work suggests two parallel strategies for dealing with people who have committed themselves to false ideas. The first is to let them experience the shame of what he terms “social death”. But the second, and perhaps the more productive, is to identify and deploy “coolers” to coax the pandemic holdouts back into the fold of mainstream society.

The most effective “coolers” are figures that the “marks” trust, people whose opinion they value. Most people aren’t interested in earning the good opinion of just anyone. Rather, we care about status and “face” within specific communities that matter to us, what two other sociologists of the mid-20th century, Herbert Hyman and Robert Merton, called “reference groups”.

Everyone belongs to multiple reference groups, many of which overlap, including their families, neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces, and their political affiliations. These groups not only structure our social networks, but serve a gatekeeping function: we generally trust information gleaned from our reference group, and seek approval from others within it.

Covid deniers and anti-vaxxers are just like everyone else in this regard: they don’t crave validation or seek information from everyone. This is why the “respect them”, “shame them” and “empathise with them” approaches haven’t worked and won’t change a thing. Respect, shame and empathy only have currency and impact within specific social networks; so, too, with the trustworthiness of information. For someone who considers themselves part of the “Fox Nation” reference group, pandemic precautions recommended by the “lamestream media” are to be disregarded. But if the same information were to come from Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, it would probably be taken far more seriously.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, it’s good news for everyone that some influential conservative figures are beginning to act as “coolers” in relation to pandemic holdouts by encouraging vaccination – even if the “coolers” have often been, as in Goffman’s theory, complicit in the con. The call back to reality has to come from inside the house.

But there are still too few Fox News hosts and Republican politicians encouraging vaccination, masking and other Covid precautions. We need more “coolers” – and we need them quickly.

One way to do this is by seeking out other reference groups besides the big ones in media and politics, ones that matter to pandemic deniers and anti-vaxxers. Social media, as damaging as it has been in spreading disinformation, also makes it relatively straightforward to identify and sometimes to join groups that foment anti-vax sentiment.

Within those groups, we can pinpoint influential members who may be turning their backs on Covid denialism, and encourage them in their journey. We can message them offering support, particularly if our reference groups overlap – whether that means sharing the same home town, or practising the same faith. The more shared social space, the better. We might offer to back them up if they get trolled for expressing misgivings about Covid denialism. Or we could let them know that we would admire them for telling the truth.

Those people may not have a television audience of millions, but they nonetheless have the potential to act as “coolers” for those in their reference groups – both online and off. The higher their status within the groups, the more influence they will have in reconciling their fellow travellers to the reality of the pandemic, perhaps enabling them to rejoin society, or at least preventing them from endangering the rest of us.

  • Brooke Harrington is professor of sociology at Dartmouth College

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