Research into patterns of American thinking about vaccines can help us do a better job of noticing, analyzing, and responding to ideas and questions we hear again and again.
Communications on social issues routinely backfire, because we have not accounted for the prior understandings and assumptions that many people bring to the topic at hand. Understanding existing patterns of American thinking on vaccines can help us notice, analyze, and respond to parents’ and caregivers’ assumptions in a systematic and evidence-based way.
Mindsets are widely shared ways of thinking about a particular issue—what some might call the “pictures in our heads.” We all use these mindsets to help us understand how things work, reason about why things are the way they are, and form attitudes and opinions on what should be done.
Of course we know that no two people think in exactly the same way. Each parent/caregiver has a unique constellation of values, attitudes, and beliefs that are grounded in their personal experiences and the individuality of their child. But it is also true that there are patterns in public attitudes and opinions that we can notice and understand.
Noticing how people might express different mindsets can help us become better communicators, because it can help us make sense of where others are coming from. If we can quickly identify and assess our parents’/caregivers’ concerns, we can find strategies that will help us engage in more effective conversations with them about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Rather than relying on broad demographic categories that fail to capture variation within a so-called opinion group, looking at “audiences” in terms of mindsets will ground the expressed concerns and lived experiences of a wide variety of individuals—a way to respond personally yet systematically.
To start your conversations, ask questions that get unvaccinated families talking, and listen for evidence of mindsets that undermine confidence or uptake:
Mindset #1: The Disease Isn’t a Big Deal
Some parents/caregivers may indicate they do not consider the COVID-19 vaccine to be a priority that deserves immediate attention or action. They may express the idea that COVID-19 does not present an immediate danger or serious threat to their child, so they are not in a rush to get their child vaccinated. These mindsets take away from a sense of urgency.
People might express a lack of urgency in a variety of ways:
I just haven’t gotten around to it.
My child’s immune system is strong enough without it.
Children don’t get all that sick with this disease.
Some might need it, but my kids don’t have underlying conditions.
It doesn’t stop you from catching COVID, so what’s the point?
Mindset #2: I Don’t Trust “Them”
Some parents/caregivers may be hesitant to vaccinate their children because they distrust the medical establishment, corporations, politicians, or the government. This hesitancy can reflect deep and legitimate concerns about these institutions, such as past and present racist practices in medicine or knowledge about profit-motivated practices of “Big Pharma.” While the thinking behind these types of institutional distrust is different, for the most part, the strategies for responding to them are similar: Build personal trust. (Review our resource “Building Trust in the Moment” for ways to do this.)
People might express institutional distrust in a variety of ways:
Big Pharma cares about the money, not people.
The medical establishment doesn’t care about people like me.
I don’t think my doctor/provider really cares about ME.
The medical establishment is racist—so I don’t trust it.
This isn’t something the government should be involved in.
Mindset #3: I Am the Gatekeeper for My Kid’s Body
Families may sometimes reason that being a good parent involves keeping harmful substances from entering their child’s body. When this reasoning is applied to the COVID-19 vaccine, people think of it as an artificial substance that, because it was made by people, might be flawed or dangerous. This mindset contrasts the purity of nature (“natural remedies” or “natural immunity”) with the fallibility of humans.
People might express thinking about bodily purity in a variety of ways:
We don’t like to take too much medicine.
We avoid anything artificial. We stay away from sugar and processed foods and rely on natural remedies.
I prefer natural immune boosters.
My child already had COVID-19, and their immune system fought it off.
Mindset #4: I Need to Protect My Child From the Vaccine
When making medical decisions like vaccination, parents and caregivers can understandably adopt the mindset that their primary responsibility is to protect their child from harm. When this mindset is operative, families will focus on risks and potential harms rather than the benefits of vaccines.
People might express a protective mindset in a variety of ways:
My child, my choice; this is about my rights as a parent.
To protect my child from harm, I need to avoid this vaccine.
My child is so scared of needles, getting the shot is more damaging than getting sick with COVID.
I have a child with autism, so the vaccine seems extra risky to me.
The side effects of the vaccine are worse than actually getting COVID.
This vaccine is just too new to trust.
Vaccines could cause problems in the future that we do not know about now.
I couldn’t live with myself if something went wrong.
Mindset #5: I Listen to Other Sources
Parents and caregivers may reason that there are many valid sources of information on any topic, not only scientific or medical evidence. When this mindset is activated, it can lead people to question, devalue, or outright reject the scientific consensus that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective.
People might express a science skepticism mindset in a variety of ways:
My research on the internet suggests that I should not vaccinate—or at least wait.
I’ve heard really bad things about the vaccine from people I know…
Someone I know had a bad experience after getting vaccinated.
Nobody I know is getting their children vaccinated, so I’m not sure if I will.
Once you have identified the family’s concerns, select one to target for change. See our resource “Moving Mindsets: Techniques for Redirecting Thinking” to select a direction for your response.
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