Getting people–others or ourselves–to do something that’s not obviously pleasurable is immensely tricky. Never mind if you want to start an exercise routine, eat healthier, or motivate someone to get their Covid-19 shot, the underlying challenge is always the same: In the short-term, it’s easier, less painful, or more convenient to simply avoid doing the “right” thing. So what can we do, in spite of that bias towards immediate gratification, to overcome the mind’s inbred inertia?
Of course, there has to be a spark of intrinsic motivation, otherwise everything else will be futile. A committed anti-vaxxer will, most likely, remain beyond reach for almost anything we can do, just as someone who’s fundamentally against exercise will not magically turn into a marathon runner unless something drastically shocks their basic belief system. Sometimes, these things do happen: These days, anecdotes abound of once determined vaccine-skeptics whose first-hand experience with the disease turned their convictions upside down, just as a diagnosis of early-stage diabetes can be a powerful nudge towards a healthier way of living.
But if our main objective is to get enough people vaccinated–as opposed to getting everybody vaccinated–we needn’t be too concerned with such extreme cases. There’s no need to overturn the beliefs of the last conspiracy theorist, just as it’s not useful to force yourself to take on a particular kind of exercise that really isn’t the right one for you. But if we want to avoid another wave of overburdened hospitals and ICUs, we have to reach those people who are not fundamentally opposed to getting their shot, but just haven’t gotten around to do so for whatever reason. Structurally, that’s similar to when I was–for years–intellectually aware that I should quit smoking, that my dietary habits were unhealthy, and that better sleep and exercise would be good for me, but I didn’t change my ways despite that knowledge.
There’s a powerful, yet often overlooked solution for problems like these: Simply making the desired behavior the default. A striking example is the way how organ donation schemes in different countries are organized: In Austria for instance, you’re a donor by default, whereas in Germany you explicitly have to sign up to become one. Thus, Austria has a consent rate of more than 90%, compared to Germany’s mere 15%. It’s safe to assume that there’s no fundamental difference in people’s willingness to participate between citizens of the two countries. It’s simply that inertia holds many Germans back from opting in to that system, whereas the same force inhibits countless Austrians from opting out.
How does that apply to vaccinations? When I was in school, getting inoculated against tick-borne encephalitis, among other things, was simply the default. Parents only had to sign a consent form, and children would get the shot during school hours. I don’t remember anyone in my class who didn’t participate. But it’s hard to imagine that, had parents had to drag their kids to the doctor themselves in their spare time, nearly as many would have gotten the vaccination. In fact, I myself didn’t get the required booster shots for years after I finished school, just because it was too much to bother and the immediate benefits were not visible.
What about exercise? Well, when I finally did decide to pick up running, I failed to make it stick countless times (as I explained here). That only changed when I turned running from something I had to deliberately plan for into an inherent part of my routine. By removing just a few obstacles, such as having to allocate time in my weekly schedule and always subconsciously weighing that against other priorities, did I manage to establish it sustainably as a part of my life. Nowadays, I don’t have to think much about when, and if at all, to do it. It’s simply part of my default routine.
I’m sometimes asked how I find the time to read so much. The answer, again, is defaulting: I made it a habit that, whenever I’m at home and have nothing specific to do, I pick up a book. Before I established reading as my go-to activity though, I would have watched some crap on TV or mindlessly scrolled social media instead. Now these hours are spent in a much more productive and enjoyable way. Simply by default.
But let’s turn back to Covid-19 for a moment.
My dad isn’t a vaccine-skeptic per se but I’m embarrassed to admit that he received his shot only two weeks ago. Despite my nagging every time we spoke during the last couple of months, it took him much too long to finally do it. During all that time he was highly vulnerable to a perfectly avoidable threat to his health, probably to his life.
But what if his doctor had called him in June and asked him to come by next Tuesday for his pre-determined appointment to get vaccinated? Or, if our state-wide health insurance had written to him to please show up at this and that day and time, because his assigned dose of the vaccine was waiting for him? I’m convinced that he, and many others, would be immunized by now already, if we simply had leveraged the power of defaults to overcome people’s inertia to do the right thing.