Sept. 21 (UPI) -- The campaign to vaccinate the U.S. population against coronavirus began last spring with long lines and thousands of eager volunteers, but by summer, uptake rates had slowed dramatically.
Across much of the United States, vaccination rates have seemingly plateaued, despite aggressive outreach campaigns by public health officials, politicians and celebrities.
In a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, researchers at Princeton University claim to have developed a better way to encourage vaccination and masking.
Tests showed a more targeted approach succeeded in motivating people to sign up and show up for vaccination appointments. Researchers also successfully encouraged social distancing and mask wearing.
Previous studies have tried to make sense of the negative views of people hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but in the new study, researchers decided to ignore people against vaccination altogether.
"We think we're onto something unique that hasn't been tried yet in the COVID-19 context," Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology at Princeton, said in a press release. "I kept thinking, there's a group of people that public service announcements are never going to reach, because they already agree."
Instead of targeting hardened vaccine skeptics, Princeton researchers tried to motivate holdouts who claim to support vaccines and masking.
"Oh, they may not be the most enthusiastic, but they already agree that vaccines are good, and people should take them," Cooper said. "But they are the ones who find excuses. 'Oh, it's too difficult.' 'I couldn't do it now.' Those are the people who aren't going to be reached by the other methods going on, but who can be reached with our method."
Researchers targeted people whose actions don't align with their stated beliefs.
"In a recent study, between 80 and 90% of adults agreed that wearing a mask is an effective method to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but only 50% of the respondents said that they 'always' or even 'mostly' wore a mask when in close contact with other people," Cooper said.
"It is critical to get people to behave in accordance with the CDC guidelines, not just believe that they are the right things to do," Cooper said.
To motivate those who don't always practice what they preach, Princeton researchers used a technique called "cognitive dissonance," which asks a person to hold two contradictory things in their mind at once.
Studies have shown the technique is an effective tool for behavior modification.
Researchers first encouraged study participants to advocate for public health policies using phrases like: "It is important to wear masks" or "Vaccinations will help us end the pandemic."
Princeton scientists then had participants ruminate on the times when they failed to follow their own advice.
Cooper insists mindfulness alone is insufficient to change a person's behavior. People must first be encouraged to actively support public health campaigns.
For the study, researchers used to advocacy and mindfulness to motivate some study participants. Other groups of participants were encouraged only to advocate for public health initiations, while others were asked only to be mindful of contradictory behavior.
A week after the initial intervention, researchers surveyed participants about their behavior.
They found those who were asked to engage in both advocacy and mindfulness were more likely to report following masking and social distancing guidelines.
Participants who engaged in advocacy and mindfulness were also more likely to have made appointments to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
The researchers said they hope to see the findings make a difference outside of the academy.
More specifically, co-author and graduate student Logan Pearce would like to see church groups and community leaders hold contests in which participants submit compelling arguments for masking, social distancing and vaccination.
Contestants could submit videos, essays, poems or drawings. In order to qualify for a prize, however, the participants would be required to engage in a period of mindfulness by dwelling on times when they failed to follow their own guidance.
"I can use cognitive dissonance in my life to change my own behavior, and I want to help other people do that, too," Pearce said.