The US vaccination goal has shifted from herd immunity to simply getting as many needles in arms as possible. But the underlying obstacle remains the same: how do you persuade people to get the shot?
In recent weeks, vaccine incentive programs have bubbled up all over the country, but few have garnered the attention of Governor DeWine’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery. Last Wednesday, Abbigail Bugenske (age 22) won the first of five million-dollar prizes and Joseph Costello (age 14) won a full-ride scholarship to college. While critics remain, the Associated Press analysis concluded the state vaccination rate is up 33% since the announcement. President Biden endorsed Ohio’s program last week, and other states have begun similar lotteries.
Originally I was skeptical of the Vax-a-Million lottery. I argued to put $100 in the pocket of every newly vaccinated person because people usually prefer a sure thing over some chance of a larger payout. But Governor DeWine leveraged another aspect of prospect theory, namely that individuals tend to overweight low probabilities. That is why we buy insurance, go to casinos, and play the lottery to begin with. Governor DeWine simply applied this behavioral trait to his vaccination strategy. And, perhaps unwittingly, he employed an additional persuasion tactic—he generated ‘social proof’.
Social proof, a term coined by Robert Cialdini, suggests that people alter their behavior to be more like people around them. Imagine it is your first day at a new job. You are in jeans and everyone else is wearing a suit. What will you wear tomorrow? Not only do humans have an innate desire to fit in with others, we are more receptive to suggestions if people similar to us have already engaged in that behavior. That is why we ask friends for Netflix recommendations and visit Tripadvisor before planning a vacation. We seek the advice of others because we think we will like what they like.
Social proof is more effective when the desired behavior is observable. For instance, people are more likely to wash their hands when others are watching. This is one reason social proof was a useful persuasion tool with mask-wearing. Even people who didn’t ‘believe in’ masks wore them to not stand out from the group. But vaccines are invisible. Sure, you can get a sticker or button, but there is less social pressure to conform to the group because there is no visible proof that the group exists.
The genius of the Vax-a-Million lottery is that it manufactured its own social proof by leveraging social media. Every article about the program has hundreds or thousands of comments pushing the dialogue toward vaccination. Not all are positive, but there is a chorus of “I got my shot and feel so relieved!” and “My whole family is fully vaccinated!” Giving space for these comments creates a public forum where people can observe the group mentality. It underscores that many people—your friends, neighbors, fellow Ohioans—are engaging in the same behavior to achieve a shared goal.
How do we maintain this momentum and offer more social proof to those still on the vaccine fence? It could be as simple as changing the headline. Instead of highlighting the number of people who have not received the vaccine, focus on the percentage who has. With more people getting vaccinated every day, this group continues to expand, and the desire to be a part of it will too.
[This piece was originally published in the Columbus Dispatch.]
Framing the Argument
Our brains only have so much capacity, so how you frame the argument is critical. The following frames have been unsuccessful for the vaccine hesitant:
These frames failed for a variety of reasons. In many ways, we rebooted the problems we had with masks: indifference, defiance, skepticism, mistrust, misinformation, Trump-loyalty, and selfishness. Failure to achieve herd immunity will have long-lasting effects not just for those 30% but the global population. To prevent these negative externalities we need to bypass logic, emotions, and heartstrings, and frame the message around incentives.
Positive & Negative Externalities
A negative externality occurs when a third party incurs a cost due to some transaction between two other parties. Consider a person smoking a cigarette at the table next to you in a restaurant. Marlboro produced the product, Joe Smoker bought and consumed it, but you incur the cost of that exchange (secondhand smoke). The key is that Marlboro and the smoker chose to engage in the exchange and you did not, and while they receive net gains, you suffer a net loss—a negative externality. (Note: I have nothing against smoking; it was just the easiest example).
With vaccines, the exchange produces positive externalities. Pfizer makes a vaccine, Joe Sore Arm receives it, and because that transaction mitigates the spread of COVID, society-at-large benefits. We are not part of Joe’s decision, but we benefit from it. Joe’s exchange is especially beneficial to those individuals (e.g., immuno-compromised) who are unable to complete their own exchange. Whereas the smoking example is a win-win-loss, vaccines represents a win-win-win.
There are two ways to overcome externalities: penalize or incentivize the exchange that causes it. Policies are often put in place with the express purpose of reducing negative externalities. Smoking bans in restaurants reduce secondhand smoke; highway speed limits reduce fatal accidents. The problem is that policies created to reduce negative externalities are often framed as infringements on personal freedoms (e.g., the smoker gives up his right to smoke; the driver loses his freedom to drive fast). The aim of these policies is not to restrict individual liberty; the restriction is just the simplest means to an end.
When no policy is in place to penalize negative externalities, individuals are not motivated to change their behavior. Heaps of evidence proved the effectiveness of masks, yet with no real punishment for not wearing one, many refused. Similarly, we cannot fine people for not getting the vaccine. Vaccine passports could be viewed as a penalty, but besides ethical issues, framing the argument this way only makes vaccine hesitant folks dig their heels in more.
The other policy option is to use the carrot rather than the stick. Often, humans just need a nudge to alter their behavior in a way that leads to positive externalities. The government subsidizes the installation of solar panels. This represents a net gain for the homeowner, and because it lessens the strain on the power grid, a net gain for the entire community. Companies create wellness programs that reward healthy living. The employee benefits through better health, the company benefits through increased productivity, and society benefits by a net reduction in health insurance premiums.
Cash Payments for Vaccine Hold-Outs
All sorts of companies are offering incentives to induce vaccinations, but free donuts and hotdogs might just not be enough for the final 30%. Creating a COVID sweepstakes could work, but why not offer people cold hard cash to take the vaccine. A recent study finds that offering $100 would be effective. But who among the unvaccinated population would be nudged by cash incentives?
Anti-vaxxers don’t get the measles vaccine so why would they get one for COVID? Conspiracy theorists think the vaccine causes infertility, so that’s another non-starter. Some people cannot or should not receive the shot for a variety of reasons (e.g., medical conditions). Skeptics don’t trust all the data in the world, so $100 probably won’t overcome that hurdle. That leaves us with what I call the Apathetics. Apathetics aren’t anti-vaccine, just indifferent. Perhaps they’ve already had COVID, the CVS is too far of a drive, they don’t like needles, they feel healthy enough, they just don’t feel like it. This is the target market that may be nudged by a $100 payout.
Thirty-percent of Americans is roughly 100 million people. Of those, let’s say one-third (30 million) are Apathetics. Giving each of them a $100 bill with their shot means that, at a cost of 3 billion dollars, we could move our total vaccinated population from 70%-80%. Is it fair? Not really. Is it worth it? Yes. Every new infection is a chance for mutation, so when you consider the externalities, it’s a bargain. Three billion dollars to move the needle on herd immunity is a message frame I can get behind.
One network that often goes overlooked is our challenge network, a term coined by Adam Grant. Basically, while we all like people who give us praise and support, if we want to improve, we need someone to push back, someone to disagree with us. (There’s no “Try harder” button on Facebook). This seems intuitive. If you shoot foul shots at 50% and your coach says “Keep up the good work!” you may feel satisfied, but you may never improve. If you want to increase that percentage, you need critical feedback, like “Let’s break down your form and work on the follow-through.” This is initially harder to hear, but will help you in the long run. The coach challenged you.
Chances are you have a few of these people in your life already. The teacher who gives a full-page of red-inked comments, the personal trainer who makes you do a burnout, the friend who helps you kick a detrimental habit, your AA sponsor. A challenger is not exactly a motivator (e.g., “You can do anything you set your mind to!”), or a contrarian (“I wouldn’t do it that way.”), or a devil’s advocate (e.g., “Sure…but”), or even a mentor (“Here is what I would do.”). The challenger moves from vague platitudes to specific advice with the singular goal of making you better at something. Anyone who says “You may not like me now but you will thank me later” is challenging you. Grant outlines why we should create a challenge network in Think Again. I’m interested in how to do it.
The first step is to identify candidates:
By now you probably thought of a few people who fit those criteria. How do you make them a part of your challenge network? This is where it gets tricky. Most people are conflict averse, meaning we avoid confrontation. Remember the whole point of this person is to challenge/confront you, essentially inviting conflict where it doesn’t need to be. We are also loss averse, meaning we’d rather not lose a friend than gain one. Asking someone to be brutally honest with you runs the risk of damaging—or even losing—that personal relationship. So to create a challenge network you have to overcome both conflict and loss aversion, which amounts to a risky proposition.
But it may not be as risky as we think. In general, individuals believe that others will respond negatively when asked sensitive questions. We think it will come off as too personal, offensive, abrasive, or inappropriate. Compare questions like “How about this weather?” and “Did you catch that game last night?” with “Are you close with your parents?” or “What is something you struggle with?” While asking about the weather may not move the needle on a friendship, it runs no risk of damaging it either. However, research by Maurice Schweitzer shows that people are generally more open to these types of questions than we think. Further, there is a real opportunity cost of not asking sensitive questions because you never deepen that relationship, leaving relational capital on the table. Schweitzer’s takeaway is that the chances are slim that we will ruin a friendship by asking a sensitive question, and the benefits outweigh the risk of moving out of our conversational comfort zones.
Applied to building a challenge network, you essentially have to reverse the order of the sensitivity. You are not asking for sensitive information about the person, rather, you are asking for critical feedback, which is sensitive information about yourself. Instead of asking “What do you struggle with?” you are saying “Please tell me what I struggle with.” This places pressure on the challenger, which is why we don’t like to do it. As a teacher, after a colleague observes my class, I may ask, “What did you think?” to which the auto-reply is “Great job!” Not much is gained in that interaction. But If I were to ask, “How do you think I could improve student engagement?” I might receive feedback that makes me a better teacher. However, immediately you can see the potential for conflict. Hearing something like, “You talk to fast,” “You don’t ask enough questions,” or “You use too much jargon,” may be simultaneously true and offensive, which is why we often default to the low-hanging fruit questions. But the opportunity cost here is self-improvement, and so it is in our best interest to overcome this obstacle.
So how do you create this network? Consider the person you identified and follow these 8 steps:
Networks are essential to the human experience, but we tend to shy away from those that challenge us. Critical feedback is a necessary ingredient for personal growth, and the benefits of building a challenge network outweigh the potential risks. Find someone who will challenge you to be your best self.
So let’s look at the terminology. According to dictionary.com, a coincidence it is “a remarkable concurrence of events of circumstances without apparent causal connection.” We are pretty familiar with this term. Let’s say you flip a coin five times wearing a hat and five times without, hitting five heads and five tails, respectively. This is a coincidence. The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
A coincidence implies correlation; a hate crime, causation. Flipping heads is perfectly correlated with wearing a hat, but wearing the hat did not cause you to flip heads. Alternatively, in a hate crime, a bias motivates not the crime itself but the choice of victim. If you can identify that the reason a crime was committed against a particular person is a bias against a group to which that person belongs, it can be classified as a hate crime. A hate crime, by definition, is not coincidental.
The Atlanta shootings seem like more than coincidence. When 6 of the 8 victims are Asian women, a bias against ethnicity and gender seems likely. Put in context with the 3,800 attacks against Asians and Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic, it feels more like enemy action. However, it is difficult for a crime to be officially labeled a hate crime in part because it is challenging to prescribe someone’s motivation. Hate crimes against some groups are more obvious because they are often accompanied by a horrible symbol that underscores the motivation. The bias is less apparent for crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, but it doesn’t make it any less vile. In some ways, this obscured racism makes it an even tougher problem to solve. And the harder a problem is to solve, the more likely we are to be solution averse.
The same way someone can be loss averse (we’d rather not lose $100 than find $100) or conflict averse (we’d rather eat the burnt steak than send it back), we can be averse to solutions (we’d rather avoid the problem than solve it). This seems counterintuitive. If something is wrong, the rational action is to fix it. If you break your arm, you get it set and cast. If you need a gallon of milk, you go buy it. If the grass is long, you cut it. But there are some problems we wish to avoid. And what is the simplest way to avoid a problem? Pretend it doesn’t exist. It can be something as simple as that noise your car engine is making (“I’m sure it’s nothing”) or the growing stack of paperwork on your desk (“I’ll get to it eventually”). But it also occurs with bigger issues, and is especially costly when the problem is shared by a group of people. It is much easier to deny climate change exists than try and find ways to address it.
Racism is a problem that suffers from collective solution aversion. For some, it is easier to deny it exists, to sleep better knowing that it’s not real and therefore there’s nothing to be done. For others, the aversion may stem from the complexity and effort required. Like the equation on the chalkboard in Good Will Hunting, you just stare at it hoping someone else comes along to take care of it. You may wish you could solve it, but it is too complicated, too ambiguous, impossible. In the end, we are paralyzed by its complexity, so much that it no longer even represents a problem, rather it becomes a static part of life. You can’t erase it but you can’t solve it. It is just etched into the chalkboard of our subconscious.
There is no doubt that as a country we struggle with different types of discrimination, racism, and misogyny, the institutional and structural centuries-long problems that manifest as inequality, poverty, etc. While recent movements have brought our attention to certain forms of discrimination (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo), others are less conspicuous, such as discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans. However, this racism is now apparent. TV personalities making fun of Kamala Harris’s name pronunciation, the former President calling COVID-19 the Kung-Flu, attacks on Asians for ‘bringing the virus to the US’. In reality it’s not new, just more blatant. The same way that the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd made it impossible to ignore racism against the Black community, silence is no longer a luxury we can afford with our Asian and Asian-American community. It is a problem we cannot choose to ignore.
As a country, we won’t ever ‘solve’ racism, but we can acknowledge the problem exists, and that it targets many groups of people. One step toward acknowledgement is getting the words right. Shooting six Asian women is not a coincidence. 3,800 attacks on Asians and Asian Americans since the start of the pandemic is not a coincidence. (The fact that the shooter is always white and always male—also not a coincidence). While motivations are inherently difficult to define, statistics are quite clear. Based on Ian Fleming’s quote, these events would be enemy action. Based on the FBI definition, they would be hate crimes. Based on the eye test, this is a problem, one shared by society, complex in nature, ambiguous in potential outcomes. It is a problem to which we cannot be solution averse because justice can only begin when ignorance ends. Unfortunately, there is no Matt Damon character to come along and solve this problem for us. But there is plenty of chalk to go around for everyone willing to try.
Psychologists call this the mere exposure effect. Essentially, the more familiar we become with something, the more we tend to like it or feel comfortable with it. This has positive repercussions. Has a person you didn’t initially get along with eventually ‘grown on you’? Did you used to hate broccoli? Did you think you didn’t like Taylor Swift until your wife convinced you to listen to her for an entire road trip? How much easier was your Zoom call yesterday than 11 months ago? Do you have quinoa in your pantry right now?
However, the mere exposure effect is not always constructive. For instance, do you like Tom Brady more or less after each Super Bowl? How do you feel about the company that airs the same commercial every fifteen minutes? On a scale of 1-10, what are your thoughts on snow right now? But the effect can be more adverse than dislike; it can create indifference, complacency. It normalizes things that should not be normal. Consider climate change. “Last year was the warmest on record” is a recurring phrase and, as a result, has lost its bite. Similarly, “X number of people died of COVID yesterday” blends into the background noise of our lives. The reporting of daily statistics is now familiar, and though we may not ‘like’ it, we have become comfortable with it. The mere exposure to these message has calloused us to their intended effects.
At its worst, the mere exposure effect can desensitize us to lies and misdirection. The more something is repeated, the more it is believed—whether or not it is true. This is the evil cousin of the mere exposure effect known as the illusory truth effect. How many times have you heard that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu? Even though it is not true, we have become accustomed to the comparison. Subconsciously it is more conceivable, more palatable. The rhetoric of the last presidential administration has made us—not by choice—more comfortable with deceit and purposeful distraction. Each twisted fact, baseless claim, and outright lie consistently spewed from the White House dulled our senses, numbing our reactions.
But the most hopeful outcome of the mere exposure effect is that it normalizes things that should be normal. The most salient example of this came watching the inauguration last month. During the ceremony, they mentioned how Kamala Harris was the first Black person, first Asian, and first woman to hold the office of Vice President. Further, she was sworn in by the first Latina on the Supreme Court. I was waiting for banners and confetti to drop. However, the coverage quickly moved to Joe Biden—the 46th consecutive male and—with the exception of Barack Obama—white president. At first, I was disappointed. It felt like the terrorist attack on the Capitol, coupled with four years of discord and dissension, overshadowed the magnitude of the moment. This was historic, this showed progress from a nation which, at other points over the past four years, seemed to be slipping backwards in time. We needed to be shouting this from the rooftops: Look what we can do, look how we have changed, how far we’ve come in the 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified.
However, these thoughts quickly shifted. Something isn’t normal if you have to announce it or point it out, and women Vice Presidents should be normal. We will be in a better place when this is not newsworthy, when we have a second, third, fourth women President, an umpteenth Black President, an ‘I-stopped-counting’ LGBTQ+ President. This important because the mere exposure to someone like you doing something you want to do instills confidence. Years ago I was given a book called What the Best College Teachers do. On the cover is a white middle-aged man with graying hair, and the author is also a middle-aged white man with graying hair. The takeaway: college professor is a profession for someone like me. I have been exposed to tailwinds like this my whole life, which makes me feel more comfortable pursuing this career. It feels not only achievable but expected.
Just as we had eight years to watch Barack Obama address the world as President of the United States, we now have four years to watch Kamala Harris as Vice President (and potentially President in 2025). The fact that it is already becoming less newsworthy shows we are on the right path. We don’t make a fuss over trivial things, we expect them, and President should a normal, achievable, even expected career path for every U.S. citizen.
Familiarity breeds comfort, and there are certainly things that seem crazy today but will one day seem mundane. Maybe Bud Lite will reboot their burger commercial with crickets replacing quinoa? Maybe Taylor Swift will be your most-listened-to-artist on Spotify next year? Maybe we’ll want to wear masks on a plane? But more importantly, the mere exposure effect can convey that what once seemed impossible is anything but. It can normalize what should be normal. Bug burgers can wait, but hopefully very soon we will not feel the need to count how many female or Black or Asian or Latina or LGBTQ+ people are CEOs or head coaches, members of Congress or members of SNL, or President of the United States.
According to thermodynamics, chaos is the natural evolution of any isolated system. That is, things tend to become more—rather than less—chaotic over time. Molecules default to speeding up rather than slowing down, creating energy, randomness, and disorder. Entropy, or this degree of randomness, will never decrease in an isolated system unless influenced by the external environment. A glass of water tends to get warmer, not colder, as the molecules speed up and create thermal energy. The only way for the system to lose heat is if something outside the system (e.g., an ice cube) acts upon it to absorb some of that energy. The heat is not lost, just transferred.
Like the glass of water, everything in the universe gradually declines into disorder, or entropy. Think about your kitchen utensil drawer or vegetable garden. If you don’t actively manage them, will they become more ordered or more disordered over time? But there is an edge of chaos, a point right before complete disorder, and January 6 could represent that edge of chaos in the United States. Amidst the pandemic, a fumbled vaccine rollout, a new, more contagious strain of the virus, the highest death & infection rates, and the general effects of social isolation and fear, we had a domestic terrorist event where armed insurrectionists breached the capitol upon instruction of the president. America had reached the edge of chaos.
This was not a shock. It was the natural, expected progression of the entropy brought on by Trump, or what I call enTrumpy. Its molecules (i.e., his loyalists) have been increasing in energy for years, moving closer and closer to complete chaos and disorder. Applying the second law of thermodynamics, the expected result of ever-increasing enTrumpy is a climactic event thrusting us to the edge of chaos, a glass or orange water reaching its boiling point.
Ironically, while Trump has touted ‘law and order’, that is precisely what he avoids. From day 1, he has embraced the quote from Petyr Baelish, using disruption and chaos to climb the ladder to the Republican nominee and presidency. Law and order means that events are predictable, they follow a pattern. That way to power is more like a staircase, with each step requiring competency and governed by decency and reason. Power through chaos is a free-for-all where the strongest grabs the first rung on the ladder, climbing with disregard for rules or decorum.
Essentially, Trump has always known that if shit hits the fan, anything can happen, so he keeps slinging it up there. He’s like a child at a party given the first crack at a piñata. He knows there are rules, but instead peaks under the blindfold, busts it open, and grabs all the candy for himself while wielding the bat. Sprinkle in some name-calling, narcissism, a big ego, hate speech, and you have yourself a bully. A bully creates chaos to gain control and achieve power. The events of last four years prove this point. Each hate-filled Tweet and lie-filled video was a rung on his ladder to power and dissension. (It’s no coincidence that some of the flags at the incited terrorist attack had the flag of a fictional country, Kekistan, named for Kek, the god of chaos.)
But we have not reached complete chaos. We are at the edge. Chaos theory says that organisms self-adjust at the brink, employing creativity, flexibility, and innovation to avoid chaos. This is known as ‘adaptation to the edge of chaos’, and humans have already shown our capacity to adapt. Think about the creativity, flexibility, and innovation displayed across the global community to avoid complete chaos from the COVID-19 pandemic. So how can we come back from the edge of Trump’s chaos? How can we decrease the enTrumpy in the glass of water? We drop in ice cubes, i.e., we give him the silent treatment.
Silence is often characterized as cold. We give someone ‘the cold shoulder’. A terse reply is ‘chilly’. You ‘ghost’ somebody by ending all communication with them—how cold! We can transfer the heat and energy away from him simply by not giving him the space in our minds or mouthes that he has fed on the past 4 years. Giving voice to a person is a choice. We chant ‘Say His Name’ and ‘Say Her Name” to make sure we don’t forget George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Silence is not an option with #BlackLivesMatter. Conversely, Donald Trump is a name I hope we never have to say or hear again. The best way to take power away from a bully is to ignore them. If the other kids simply walk away from the piñata—or don’t invite the bully to the party—the power dissipates. Loyalists praying to their fake Trump god will realize his America is just as fictional as Kekistan. As the silence grows, the rungs on his ladder will get more and more slippery.
Trump certainly needs to be held accountable, responsible, and liable for his actions, but we do not owe him our collective headspace. While it is natural to enjoy watching the powerful fall from grace, it isn’t helpful for a country trying to restore itself to order and civility. Starting January 21, we shouldn’t need to think about him anymore—courts and governments will take care of all the messy bits.
Trumpism is not going away. It is only a matter of time before a savvier, more capable disciple takes up the mantle. Once again a strong, unified voice will be required to keep us from the edge of chaos. But in this moment, silence may be our loudest expression, an ice cube to slow down enTrumpy.
For some of the world. More specifically, for rich parts of the world. At this point, most of us have used some algorithm to calculate our place in the vaccination line. There is a general consensus on who should receive it first, and even a viral campaign to change the NYTimes Person of the Year from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to front line health care workers. Nursing homes and health care professionals is a logical next tier. Then the debate begins as to the pecking order. Fast food and factory workers? Grocery store employees? Child care providers? Teachers? Eventually we have the ‘Zoom Class’, folks who can do their jobs virtually. (There is no virtual cheeseburger). While not easy (e.g., childcare), these people have the ability to maintain physical distancing procedures not possible for other workers. For instance, an accountant can keep working from home, making sure the Kroger employees receive get the vaccine first.
This is decidedly not a post about the pecking order in the United States. This is a post about the ethics of the global distribution of the vaccine. As a shock to nobody, the wealthiest nations are securing a disproportionate number of vaccines for their citizens compared to the poorer ones. In fact, while some countries have preordered more than their total population (USA, EU, Japan, Hong Kong, Israel) 2x their population (Australia, Chile, UK), or even 4x their population (Canada), lower income countries are grasping at the remaining syringes on the shelves, hoping the get enough for those frontline workers, elderly, and health care providers mentioned above. Which raises the question: should a Zoom Class worker in Canada receive a vaccine before a factory worker in Bangladesh?
To help answer questions of equality and wealth disparity, I find John Rawls’ Theory of Justice helpful. The theory has received criticism and is much more complex than this, but essentially, Rawls argues that your lot in life is pure chance. We have no say into what circumstance we are born: wealth or poverty, high or low social status, we cannot control our gender or race, our physical strength or appearance, our intelligence or sexual orientation. Rawls calls this the original position, and from this vantage point, we view the world through a veil of ignorance. If you were ignorant to your position in the world, how would you wish wealth and prosperity to be distributed? How would you want policy decisions to be made? How would you develop global principles of justice?
According to the theory, if every human subscribed to this logic, the most rational arrangement would be to distribute wealth in a way that maximizes the prospects for those least well-off in society. It’s as if life is a five-card Poker draw with a huge pot in the middle. You could be dealt a Royal Flush, a 2-3-4-8-9 off-suit, or anything in between. If nobody is allowed to see their cards, would you place a bet? Or would you ask to split the pot?
Of course, the problem with this analogy is that we have all seen our cards. We know what we’ve been dealt, so no justice decisions can be made objectively. In my sustainability class, I pose it this way. Imagine you were born tomorrow and fell into one of three categories: there was a 10% chance you would be advantaged (wealthy parents, high social status, smart, good-looking), a 50% chance you would be Average (middle-class parents, moderate social status, average looks and intelligence), and a 40% chance you would be Disadvantaged (impoverished parents, low social status, unattractive, low intelligence). Given those odds, how would you want the world to work?
Most students choose option B or C (even though humans tend to overvalue low odds). This is an acknowledgement that the current system is flawed, perhaps unjust. Had you peeked at your cards and saw you were holding a Full House, maybe you are just fine with inequality because you are likely to win the pot. But behind a veil of ignorance, the safe—and smart—bet is to make sure everyone gets enough, including yourself.
It is a tricky conversation, particularly when you add things like gender, race, or sexual orientation. Because it does not mean that any one person is better than anyone else. In fact, that is the point. Each person has the same intrinsic value; however, certainly some folks are better ‘off’ than others. White people enjoy benefits that Black people do not just as men experience privilege simply by their gender. Even things as arbitrary as height influence how individuals fair in life. This is not to say hard work doesn’t count, but there are unseen headwinds and tailwinds at play.
Applied to the COVID-19 vaccine, in the simplest terms, if you were born into a poor country you will probably wait longer for a vaccine than had you been born in a rich country. Is this fair? Did Person A choose to be born in El Salvador while Person B chose Japan? At the national and state-levels, decisions are being made based on equity, as those who need the vaccine most will receive it first. But when we aggregate to the global scale, the distribution does not seem equitable or even equal.
This is not an attack on capitalism or nationalism. Countries look out for their citizens, states for their states, communities for their communities, and families for their families (see every disaster movie where the protagonist doesn’t mind everyone dying as long as their kids are saved). In my heart of hearts, I am happy the US has secured so many vaccines. By chance, my spot in line is ahead of someone born in Kazakhstan. There is no veil of ignorance. We all have a clear view of our position in life, and it is natural to use this information in our decision-making.
I am not proposing a solution; I cannot even articulate the ‘problem’. There is so much about this crisis that we don’t know, and I trust that experts and policy-makers are doing their best with the information they have. This is merely a point of view. I believe the following statements are both true: People want what’s best for them; People want what’s best for others. The difficulty arises when these two statements are at odds with one another. The former will usually win the day because it is human nature to make decisions subjectively. More than that, it is rational and logical (Darwin was onto something). But taking an objective viewpoint to distributive justice leads to morally prudent decisions, and perhaps pushes us closer to balancing an unbalanced world.
Of course, this positive development comes amidst a backdrop of negative ones. We eclipsed a quarter of a million deaths, hospitalizations and cases are soaring, and we seem to break our daily record every day. We have learned so much about prevention strategies (e.g., masks, the three V’s), yet the usual suspects continue to act as a stronger influence on our collective behavior than logic and judgement. We suffer from ‘pandemic fatigue’, we downplay the virus, and we ‘just want to live our lives’. Lockdowns, curfews, and mandates are back on the table, and as we move into the colder months, cases are expected to keep climbing.
But why? The finish line is in sight…if still blurry and off in the distance. It makes some sense to ‘just want to live your life’ if this pandemic might literally last your lifetime. But things are different now. We don’t have to wear a mask indefinitely. We don’t have to social distance forever. We now have a finite period of time. Which leads me to the question: can America pass the marshmallow test?
We’ve all seen it before. A child sits in a room with a marshmallow in front of her. She can either eat the marshmallow now or—if she can wait 15 minutes—receive an additional marshmallow. Usually the child is left alone and cameras track each agonizing second of the internal struggle. There are volumes of research on this experiment and what it tells us about the child (one study even tracked the kids from the initial sample to see how they performed on their SATs), but in a nutshell, the study determines our capacity to delay gratification. If we assign the utility, or value, of eating one marshmallow a score of 10, then you can have either 10 units of satisfaction now or 20 units later. The key differentiating variable (apart from how much you enjoy marshmallows) is the ability to handle the temporal distance between the 10 and 20 units of value. Can we wait 15 minutes to double our value or is it not worth the effort?
With Thanksgiving and Christmas arriving before the vaccine, we are presented a similar dilemma. More than ever, we all (even introverts) crave time with friends and family. These holidays represent peak companionship. We engage in our favorite traditions, we nurture our most important relationships, we create new ones, and we celebrate our communal and social bonds. For many it is the most joyous time of the year. That joy stems from togetherness—literally lots of loved ones gathered together from near and far in enclosed spaces, eating, drinking, talking, singing, shooting champagne corks off in your backyard (that one may be just my family), and general merry-making. Togetherness is what we seek more than anything, and in a cruel irony, the year we need it the most is also the year we shouldn’t.
Getting together with loads of people this holiday season represents the first marshmallow. It would be immediately gratifying. Like the kids in the experiment, it is tough to not give into the temptation. The second marshmallow is getting together with friends and family post-vaccine. To me it will be sweeter, but it goes back to value assigned to our marshmallow proxies.
Let’s say the value of getting together with loved ones on a normal Thanksgiving is 100, and this Thanksgiving is 200. I do believe the lack of social interaction would make the hugs warmer and the conversations richer than the average Turkey Day. However, the risk of giving COVID-19 to (or getting it from) a loved one would detract from this value. That detraction depends on the individual, but for me it is at least 200. The potential of someone I love getting sick because of me takes that value to 0. That is just the risk itself. If the person actually did get sick, that zero utility turns into disutility with a life of regret. If, instead, I wait for the vaccine before I visit family and friends, the value is more than double, it’s incalculably higher. The joy of embracing my nieces and nephews, singing karaoke or Christmas carols with friends, making merry—without spreading disease—can almost not be assigned a numeric value.
I realize that the above calculations are all about probabilities, so for once, let’s use our irrational behavioral tendencies to our advantage. Prospect theory demonstrates that we irrationally overweight low probabilities. This is why we play the lottery, go to casinos, and buy insurance. There is a 37:1 (2.7%) chance of hitting your number when you spin the Roulette wheel, yet we throw a $20 chip on the board and think, “This is my lucky day.” Perhaps that is because the utility received if it is your lucky day ($700; even though the odds are 37:1, the payout is 35:1 because, well, the house always wins) outweighs the low probability.
Similarly, the chance of a Coronavirus infection is low. The odds are that your Thanksgiving get-together will not be a super-spreader event creating clusters of Coronavirus outbreaks. But the disutility of infecting someone is, well, you can’t really put a price tag on it. Spreading this disease—and its ripple effects—can be catastrophic. So if we are willing to throw $20 on a 2.7% chance of a lucky spin, maybe we can adopt our Roulette logic to the Coronavirus and think, “This is my unlucky day.”
This is a tough post. I realize that every Thanksgiving is somebody’s last and that every situation and circumstance is unique. For some, that first marshmallow is simply worth the risk. While the vaccine is imminent, there is no official deadline for this pandemic to end. The global sigh of relief is pending but we cannot circle a date on our calendars. But if we can wait, if we can hold off on that literal togetherness, that second marshmallow might be even sweeter than the first. Christmas in July, anyone?
Essentially, we are biased to the first piece of information we receive, placing more value on it than subsequent information. This initial data point acts as the ‘anchor’ from which all other information is weighed and judged, and ultimately it impacts the final decision. We do this all the time. Think about what you would pay for a bottle of wine, a T-shirt, a gallon of milk, etc. You have established a reference price for these products based on past experiences, and you are now anchored to them. It can be an effective decision-making tool. If a gallon of milk cost $1 or $10 you would think something is up. Retailers know this as well. When a product goes on sale, why don’t they remove the old price and just show the new one? Because they know consumers like to see “Was $20 – Now only 10!” If we are anchored to the larger price, the smaller price conveys that we are gaining more value in the exchange.
How does this apply to early voting? A recent The Daily podcast entitled “The Shadow of the 2000 Election,” talked about that infamous election was shaped by Gore conceding when the results were still in question. From thereafter, it was a Bush victory with Gore contesting the results; instead of an undecided election with both candidates calling for a recount. In the collective mind of the country—and propagated by the media—America had chosen a president, and now Gore seemed like a sore loser. This perception was shaped by Bush being anchored as the winner in the minds of US citizens. This made any efforts from Gore incredibly challenging because he was playing from behind. Our initial impression of the electoral results had been made, and it was incredibly challenging to overcome.
In my sales class, we discuss the importance of first impressions. When we encounter a new person, we have somewhere between 3 and 30 seconds to make our first impression. Every interaction afterward moves our assessment from that starting point—that anchor. That is why they are so important. If you begin a job interview my mispronouncing the name of the company, you have an uphill battle to gain any sort of credibility. If on your first date, you beep from your car and s/he runs through the rain to get in, you also have set the bar quite low. In both cases, you have anchored yourself low on the continuum of ‘good employee’ or ‘good date’ and have to move from low to high. You have also created a ‘halo effect’, where the interviewer or your date will make assumptions about other aspects of your character based on that snap judgment. Imagine instead that you start the job interview by correctly pronouncing the company name and a few specific, hard-to-find facts that made you want to apply. Or if you rang the doorbell, escorted your date under an umbrella, and opened the car door. Here you dropped anchor at a much more favorable place on the continuum. The same halo effect will occur, only this time it works to your advantage. The employer may assume your preparation means you are also a critical-thinker. Your date may translate your courtesy to integrity. And given the confirmation bias (another blog), both parties may look for ways to affirm those positive [or negative] attributes to keep you close to the initial anchored perception.
Back to early voting and the 2020 election. As of this writing, over 66 million early votes have been cast, which points to record levels of voter turnout. This is important because when the first projections are released, we will have our reference point for the rest of the election. We will be anchored to the initial leader, making subsequent judgments from that first impression. If you are thinking that this shouldn’t matter, you are correct. Votes are tangible, simply count them up and don’t worry about perceptions. But it very well might matter for two reasons. First, President Trump has made it clear that he is willing to do anything to throw this election into turmoil. As Petyr Baelish says in Game of Thrones, “Chaos is a ladder,” and Trump embodies this idea (e.g., his Coronavirus response). The closer the initial results, the easier to poke holes in them. absentee ballots, voter fraud (, etc. The wider the margin, the harder it becomes to challenge the results. At some point, even the most narcissistic person must come to grips with the will of the people. This first impression, then, has the ability to give momentum to either campaign.
Secondly, while there is no evidence that voter fraud is even a thing, the term has somehow gained a foothold in the American vernacular (again, stemming from the 2000 election). This is important because this election will be—and to some degree, already has been—decided by courts and the legal system. Make no mistake, Trump’s best prospect at re-election is through litigation, and once again, perception matters. Trump has challenged voting by mail, drop boxes, absentee ballots; he has added restrictions to disproportionately impact minority communities; he has sued states for allowing votes to be counted after certain days; he has sued governors to stop expanded mail-in voting; he has appointed countless judges to do his work for him (e.g., a New Jersey judge decided to ‘throw away’ 50,000 ballots—which is a big deal considering Trump won 2016 by 77,000 votes). The goal of all of these actions is to reduce the number of presumed votes for Biden. Plain and simple. The best way to counteract is to be so overwhelmingly ahead, that even the courts cannot come to the rescue.
In normal times, we would all sit back and think about how crazy it is that the President of the United States is actively trying to limit the ability of its citizens to vote. Somehow in 2020, that is a given, and so we have to instead think of ways to overcome this dictatorship-adjacent move. That is why early voting matters. The more we can anchor the perception of a Biden win in the minds of the citizens, the harder it will be—even using purposefully deceitful tactics—to move the anchor. Regardless of the initial results, the Trump administration will challenge the methods, the media, the poll workers, governors, state laws, ballots, even voter intentions, so we should try to make it as wide a gap as possible to overcome. The heavier the anchor, the harder it is to move.
Reflecting on this and with an impending election, another mechanism came to mind as a tool to understand irrational behavior regarding our choice in November: the sunk cost fallacy. It’s important to clarify now that while this will pertain to Joe Biden versus Donald Trump, it is not an election-specific idea. The premise is simple and particularly relevant in a system where elected leaders can serve two (or more) terms and in a society where our political identities are focal points in social dialogue.
So first, what is the sunk cost fallacy? Imagine you go to the movies (I know this requires real imagination in 2020). You pay $12.50 for a ticket, settle in your seat, and the lights go down. The movie starts slow, then gets confusing, the plot is disjointed and the characters one-sided. About halfway through, you realize: this is a bad movie. Now ask yourself, would you a) walk out or b) finish the movie?
If you are like most people, you would finish the movie. Why do we do this? If the movie is two hours, you could use that second hour for anything: call your mother, do some laundry, meet a friend, read a book, even start watching a good movie. One reason we ‘stick it out’ is due to the sunk cost fallacy. This is irrational behavior. You cannot ask for a reimbursement of $6.25. The entire $12.50 is gone forever and, therefore, should be irrelevant to the decision to finish the movie. The first hour is also gone and should theoretically hold no bearing on how you spend the second. However, we want to ‘get what we paid for’, and so we push on.
This is a common influence on our decision-making. Consider an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pay up-front and that money has been irrevocably spent before your first bite. At that point, the rational individual wishes to maximize utility by eating a satisfying meal. However, we keep adding to our plate wanting to make the most of the sunk cost. We knowingly decide to feel worse later (food coma, indigestion, etc.) for the knowledge that we got our money’s worth now.
This is common in relationships. How many of us have a friend or relative that detracts from our overall happiness, yet we continue the relationship because ‘we have been friends for twenty years’? Or the toxic friendship that you don’t quit because you’ve put in the work and don’t feel like starting over. You’ve made relationship investments that provide no returns, but rather than cut your losses, you stick it out, hoping to eventually get that ROI.
This concept can be applied to all elections, but I’ll focus on this November. In 2020, our political affiliations are worn on our foreheads. This can be quite literally as wearing a bright red ‘MAGA’ hat or less literal as putting a #BlackLivesMatter sign in your yard. There is a general consensus that he will be objectively considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. It is reasonable, then, for 2016 Trump voters to feel cognitive dissonance, and implement logic to justify the decision. “He speaks his mind and I like that.” “I’m just happy he’s not another politician.” “He’s a good businessman” (a now debunked claim). That is what makes it possible to hold two realities in your mind simultaneously.
The sunk cost fallacy enters the scenario when we have a chance to make a very similar choice: the 2020 election. The next vote could act as an extension of the dissonance created by the first vote, providing an opportunity to reconsider the choice. The options are to double down on the initial bet (Trump) or vote from a clean slate without considering the bet you made in 2016 (Trump or Biden). The key is to not think about your 2016 vote as a mistake—or to think about it at all. That only creates cognitive dissonance and has no bearing on how you vote in 2020. But the sunk cost fallacy will compound the cognitive dissonance associated with the 2016 Trump voters and lead them to vote for him again in 2020. Meaning, rather than view the upcoming vote as its own distinct decision, Trump voters may see it as a continuation of their 2016 vote. By voting for him again, it affirms that they made the right choice the first time (why else would they vote to re-elect him?). While irrational, we do this all the time. Consider when you have taken one side in a friendly debate and slowly realize that either you are wrong, you had incorrect data, or you actually agree with your opponent. Which is easier to do: change sides or continue holding your ground?
I can relate. Let’s return to the movie analogy. When Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out in theaters in 1999, I was beyond excited. I thought it was going to be the greatest movie of all time. I wore a Jedi robe to the midnight show, walked in the theater, cheered when the lights went down, and then it started. As everyone knows, it was pretty terrible (apart from Darth Maul). However, not only did I not leave the theater, I decided I would profess that I loved it anyway and, to validate the point, I would return to see it ten more times in the theater. Each time—and yes I really did go 11 times—I entrenched myself as a staunch supporter of the movie, even though I knew it was bad. And each time, I accrued 2 hours and 16 minutes more of the sunk cost of initial decision, requiring more effort to overcome my cognitive dissonance.
All you have to do is replace the movie title with Donald Trump, the Jedi robe with MAGA hat, and Darth Maul with the pre-COVID Stock Market, to see how tough it can be for a 2016 Trump voter to not vote for him in 2020. I do realize that many people who voted for Trump think he is a great president and will be proud to vote for him again. I just hope that the small number of people who voted for him in 2016, but wish they hadn’t, will not let a sunk cost determine a future decision. Your choice in 2016 holds no bearing on your choice in 2020. The beauty of elections is that they are distinct. You do not have to proclaim that a previous vote you made was wrong or that you are switching sides, you simply have to vote in the current election using your best judgment. By the same token, nobody should vote for Biden purely because they voted for Hillary in 2016. Their choice should also not be a continuation bet, but instead a frank evaluation and discrete decision. Every election is a chance to wipe the slate clean and make a new determination. This one is important and needs our most rational cognitive decision-making capabilities.