Would you drink your own urine?

The other day I spotted a story about an American anti-vax agitator named Christopher Key, who recently posted a video for his followers on this COVID “cure”:

“The antidote that we have seen now, and we have tons and tons of research, is urine therapy,” Key stated. “When I tell you this, please take it with a grain of salt. This vaccine is the worst bioweapon I have ever seen. Now drink urine!”

A lot to unpack here. First, is a grain of salt the appropriate seasoning for urine? Or do you need a dash of something else to really bring out the flavour? Also, what “research” could Key have done? And who’d want to visit that lab?

Key acknowledged that some people might think he’s “cray cray” (his words), but added that it’s people who take the vaccine who are actually “foolish”, and that a glass of pee is the real magic cocktail. “God’s given us everything we need,” he said in his video.

Yes, we do have everything we need: science, medicine, drugs and vaccines. That’s not good enough for some. They’ll opt for bleach, horse de-wormers and urine.

How do we convince the unvaccinated? For that matter, how do we get the most people possible to wear masks, abide by temporary restrictions, isolate if infected, etc.?

Two years into the pandemic, and these are still key questions for our governments and for all us, whether we’re talking to people through official marketing and communication channels, or our own interpersonal communications. Our individual well-being depends on collective actions.

Three things to keep in mind.

1. Don’t just throw more facts on the pile

Research shows that people seek evidence and experts that agree with their own preconceived notions. That’s confirmation bias. (And if I believe that, I surely sought research that proves it.) As stated in one article about our pandemic views, we see what we want to see, and believe what we want to believe.

If facts alone work, they would have already. So what might sway behaviour?

We already see that incentives do. Marketers give consumers access to exclusive events and opportunities all the time. That’s essentially vaccine passports, a gateway for us to participate in certain parts of life.

Quebec has been in the spotlight for both the carrot and stick approaches. Right after Quebec announced that vaccine passports would be required to enter alcohol and cannabis stores, appointments for first doses quadrupled. Quebec is also thinking about imposing a no-vax tax, i.e. a significant health care levy for the unvaccinated. That one might cause more societal divisions, and no doubt will be challenged.

A study by Sinéad Lambe, a research clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford, found what ultimately moves the vaccine hesitant. Participants in her study were given different pieces of information about the vaccine, emphasizing safety, the collective benefits of reducing transmission to others, or personal benefits. What resonated most was the self-interest message.

Lambe says other research suggests that, overall, vaccine hesitant people have less trust in society, “so they might feel slightly excluded, and may be less likely to be motivated by the collective benefits.”

2. Aim at the heart

Here’s another reason why facts alone aren’t enough. When trying to persuade people to buy into any product or service – or, say, follow public health advice – logic takes a back seat to emotion.

Marketing and advertising has always looked to appeal to hearts as well as (often instead of) minds. In the logic vs. emotion debate, the latter wins. Research has shown that upwards of 90-95% of our decisions and behaviours are shaped unconsciously by the emotional brain system.

Would we make better decisions if we could strip away emotion as a factor? A neuroscientist named Antonio Damasio found out what happens, and it’s not good. He wrote about it in a book called Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.

There’s a great article about Damasio’s findings, which describes how only being able to use logic to make decisions destroyed the life of a man named Elliot. He had a tumour that affected the frontal lobe of his brain. After the tumour was removed, Elliot’s life went downhill. He lost his job, money and marriage. Cognitively, he was fine. On every test of intelligence, memory, language and perception, everything was normal. Yet Elliot now couldn’t make a decision and seemed detached from his own life.

Damasio gave Elliot another test – look at images that were emotionally charged (burning buildings, terrible accidents, people in peril), and describe how you’re feeling. His reaction to seeing each picture was neutral. The tumour had impaired Elliot’s ability to feel emotions. When faced with a decision, he could enumerate and assess various options. He just couldn’t layer on the emotional element and was paralyzed by indecision.

“The cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options, and made his decision-making landscape hopelessly flat,” Damasio wrote.

We don’t always make rational decisions, but we need feelings to guide them. So public health and other messaging should consider those too.

3. Acting against the common good in a pandemic is nothing new

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, there were no vaccines. But there were mask requirements in some locales, as well as anti-spitting ordinances. While these were modest constraints compared to today’s pandemic rules, not everyone obliged. From a piece in History.com:

“As one Red Cross PSA put it, ‘the man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.’ Yet even though compliance was high, some complained that the masks were uncomfortable, ineffective or bad for business. Officials were caught in public without masks. Some dissenters even formed an Anti-Mask League.”

We’ve seen other sentiments that parallel today.

For instance, in 1919 Toronto had a smallpox outbreak. Various officers of health ordered a mass inoculation of schoolchildren and all civil servants to get shots. An article on TVO.org details some of the reactions:

  •  anti-vax rallies;
  • unsubstantiated claims from anti-vaxxers that shots could spread syphilis; and
  • arguments that paying school taxes gives parents the right to send their unvaccinated children to class.

Even earlier, during a smallpox epidemic in Montreal in 1885, a leading anti-vaxxer (who happened to be a doctor) published a pamphlet that spread misinformation. Among that one’s claims:

  • the illness was overblown;
  • the vaccine was ineffective and in fact harmful; and
  • the whole effort infringed on personal rights and was an abuse of government power.

All of this sound familiar? Just a reminder that history echoes, and that we should keep perspective too. A certain segment of society is always a tough nut to crack. But it’s only a slice.

In Canada, about 77% of the total population and 87% of those ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated, not bad in percentage terms. Yes, that still leaves a huge number of people in absolute terms. But many are still persuadable, with the right messaging and approaches.

Andre Picard, health columnist at the Globe & Mail, wrote that:

“There is the tiny, loud minority of vaccine deniers. But there are also a lot of misguided people who are victims of misinformation, frightened and facing practical barriers to accessing vaccines. There are those with well-justified historic mistrust in the system. The unvaccinated are not all ‘bad’, selfish or ill-intentioned people. We should continue to positively promote vaccination, make it more accessible and, when need be, make life a little more miserable for the unvaccinated and a lot better for the vaccinated.”

We can never count on everyone to do the right thing for the common good. But there is a genuine cure for that: incentivize, hit emotional buttons with messages, and frame the facts around self-interest.

As for the hardcore holdouts, if all else fails, maybe slip the vaccine into their spoonful of urine.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

January 12, 2022


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