The Why #24: Why are people so scared of the vaccine?

By Dan Monheit, 23.7.21

Question submitted by Jemma, Morningside

Ah, the vaccine. Whether you’re for it or against it, medically trained or a year 10 biology dropout, everyone in Australia has got their take.

If the scare campaigns, government warnings, or Aunt Kathy’s latest Facebook post didn’t dissuade you, then the story about the girl who got permanent insomnia, your wife’s second cousin who had a severe allergic reaction, or the friend of a friend who’s now bedridden with smallpox and can’t count to 10 probably did the trick.

Statistically speaking, you’re far more likely to crack an egg with a double yolk, get hit by a meteorite, or be named Emma (near miss Jemma) than die from a vaccine designed for the specific purpose of preventing you from dying.

So why oh why do we believe the Debbie Downers of the word?

Come on down to Dr* Dan’s clinic and let’s take a shot at working out what’s at play. If all goes well, there might even be a lollipop in it for you.

Availability Bias

The Availability Bias is our tendency to use the information that comes to mind fastest as the basis for our decisions. Essentially, if an example of something is easy to recall, we’re more likely to think that it’s common, representative and/or true. Events and memories that are recent, emotionally intense or personally significant leave stronger imprints, making them quicker to spring to mind.

In 1973, Amos Tversky and Danny Kanehman undertook a seminal study that asked participants whether more words begin with the letter K, or if more words have K as their third letter. Have a go yourself — I’ll wait.

If you’re anything like the vast majority of participants (70%), you’ll have concluded that there are way more words that begin with the letter K than words that have K as their third letter. Unfortunately, like them, you’d be wrong. In their (and your) defense, it is much easier to think of words beginning with K (Kangaroo, Kettle, Kitchen) than words with K as their third letter (Bakery, Acknowledgement, Duke) — which is exactly the point we’re trying to make here.

Availability bias is why we think we’ve got a higher than realistic chance of winning the lottery, getting eaten by a shark, or being permanently and horrifically disfigured by a Covid shot. The never ending news cycle, sensationalist headlines and horror stories we hear from our friends about negative side effects influence us more than they rationally should. When we think about getting the jab, our brains instantly draw on these isolated, emotionally charged stories instead of the millions upon millions of incident free — and ultimately boring — examples of people being vaccinated and then just going about their lives.

Given the importance of recency, brands that just show up on a consistent basis are halfway there. To stay more available for longer, dial up the emotion, the vividness and the drama your product, service or brand can deliver.

(*Dan may or may not be an actual doctor)

Behaviourally Yours,

Dan Monheit

PS If you missed the last edition, you can still check out why your pay rise buzz wears off quickly here.

Bad Decisions Podcast
Learn more about the Availability Bias on episode 2 of the Bad Decisions podcast.

Got a question?
Is there something you’ve always wondered about?
Send it through to AskDan@hardhat.com.au

Want more?
Check out Dan’s Occasional Address about Imposter Syndrome for Monash University.

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