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Poor communication is hampering German vax campaign

Kay-Alexander Scholz
August 14, 2021

Germany's government is begging people to get vaccinated but the campaign is sputtering. Psychologists see major communications problems — but how can things be improved?

A nurse administers a coronavirus vaccine to a youth
You feel me? Psychologists say images like this do more to scare people than motivate them to get the shotImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

A masked individual, often in a protective suit, bends over a patient, pokes a needle into their arm and injects a syringe full of fluid. Such scenes have been omnipresent on German television these days. They can also be seen on streets everywhere in nationwide advertising campaigns — a symbol of sorts.

"Psychologically, this dramatized scene doesn't really offer a good argument for getting vaccinated," psychologist Stephan Grünewald told DW. For most people, he says, the image is just scary. It is important to recognize the power of images, he argues.

The psychologist also suggests the government should deal more intensely with people's inner reluctance if it wants to inspire more of them to get vaccinated. He says, "a lot of subconscious, irrational factors" are at play.

Medical experts, too, such as Uwe Janssens, have called for more patient education, suggesting psychologists help address people's fears.

"If the saying is that half of business is psychology, then you can say that it's three-quarters of a pandemic," according to Grünewald.

You have to create trust

Most people have a deep-seated fear of a syringe that introduces something into their body, psychologist Peter Kirsch tells DW. But a typical vaccination image puts extreme emphasis on that act — again and again.

Kirsch says the technology used to fight the coronavirus has made things a bit more complicated as well, noting the fact that most people can't really imagine what "mRNA vaccines and genetic engineering are."

Moreover, most people are also risk averse, which leads them to "make decisions after weighing their own risk." That said, research on decision-making has shown that risk is often overvalued when weighed against benefit. 

A key factor for those who evaluate risk seriously is trust — an area in which politicians have performed poorly, says Kirsch.

As an example, he points to the "uproar that erupted over the question of whether or not to vaccinate young people," or the efficacy of wearing face masks. In both instances, politicians first answered the question one way before making a u-turn shortly thereafter.

Kirsch says the shift from "it's not needed" to "it's mandatory" forfeited a trust that is still missing today.

You have to create incentives

The current question "vaccination: yes or no?" creates other questions of trust. Kirsch, for instance, led a study that looked at the relationship between an individual's general trust of institutions, politicians, the business community, and media outlets and their willingness to get vaccinated. His study found a significant correlation: The greater an individual's belief that institutions work, the greater their willingness to get vaccinated — and vice versa.

Skeptics are often more likely to have a "conspiracy mentality," says Kirsch. "These are people who tend to see hidden powers — with their own agendas — secretly pulling strings behind the scenes." That gives them a sense of "self-empowerment," meaning "people no longer feel bound by the rules and norms of society." It is difficult to do anything to combat that attitude.

Offering incentives is one potential way to spur action, for instance, some authorities in Germany have recently started offering a free bratwurst or burger with every vaccination. Still, Kirsch admits, undecided individuals will need more than that to convince them to get the jab.

Negative incentives, like rules that say unvaccinated people will have to pay for the coronavirus test so that they can go to the movies might also prompt the undecided to get vaccinated. But Kirsch says he would actually take it a step further: "You have to make people understand that they will have to give up certain things if they don't want to get vaccinated."

Compulsory vaccination?

There has been a lot of discussion in Germany about the idea of restoring certain social freedoms to the "recuperated and vaccinated" but not to those who refuse to get vaccinated. The logic is that this would pressure those who are undecided, though Kirsch admits, "we'll be running against a wall with die-hard anti-vaxxers."

So mandatory vaccinations after all? "For the last year and a half, the federal government has been saying vaccination won't be made mandatory," says Kirsch. "A u-turn now would only feed into the anti-vaxxers' narrative and 'Querdenker' conspiracy theorists who think politicians have something else in mind."

Sanctions for the Unvaccinated

This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton