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Paying people to get vaccinated doesn’t work (but nagging them might), study finds


Bonuses given by governments to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 are having no effect and could even be making some people less likely to get the shot, according to a new study released this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States.

Since the shots became widely available in North America, governments at all levels have been throwing money and quirky prizes at people to increase the rate of vaccinations. The incentives have been especially prevalent in the United States, where the number of people who have received a single shot hovers around 66 percent, compared to nearly 80 percent in Canada.

Another study released earlier this month found no statistically significant increase in people getting vaccinated after a weekly $1 million lottery draw was announced to much fanfare in Ohio.

Even the raw numbers suggested early on that the results of these incentives would be underwhelming. Despite a small uptick in vaccinations after incentives were announced, it usually tapered off quickly in most jurisdictions.

In the NBER study, researchers tried to drill down on the particular effects of a few different methods for encouraging people to vaccinated. The researchers randomly assigned members of a particular health plan either a cash bonus, one of a few different health messages or a simplified vaccine appointment scheduler. After 30 days, the researchers then followed-up with each study participant to find out if they got vaccinated.

While the financial incentives showed no positive effect, and even reduced the likelihood of vaccination among Trump supporters in the study, a safety-focused health video caused a small boost in the vaccination rate.

A similar health video focusing on the negative consequences of not getting vaccinated caused the biggest reduction in the chances that a study participant would get a shot.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

Although a few previous studies noticed a significant increase in people’s intention to get vaccinated after cash prizes were announced, the NBER researchers found that these intentions rarely turned into action. The video that focused on the negative consequences of not getting vaccinated actually caused the biggest boost in people’s intention to get vaccinated, but ultimately made them less likely to get the shot.

Graphic credit: Janice Nelson

The researchers noted a few limitations of the study, most importantly that the participants of the study were recruited from a single health plan and so there’s no guarantee that these results will generalize beyond that group.

In Canada, where vaccine uptake has generally been strong, the federal government has focused on a few highly-targeted programs at specific groups, rather than splashy cash prizes. In Alberta, where the vaccine rate has lagged behind the rest of the country, the government unveiled a lottery with three $1 million cash prizes to be drawn throughout the summer.

In the U.S., states announced a bevy of prizes, lotteries and other inducements to get people vaccinated, with tens of millions of dollars going out the door. Private sector employers have also rolled out bonuses to encourage workers to get the shot.

Is ‘fact-check’ journalism doing more harm than good for media outlets?


The election of Donald Trump in 2016 took a burgeoning media innovation, the journalistic “fact-check” story, and made it a staple of just about every major outlet in North America.

Trump’s penchant for obvious and easily disprovable untruths (and the sheer volume of them) was novel. Trump wasn’t the first politician to lie to voters, of course, but by North American standards, he took it to another level.

In his first few months of office, news organizations had created a cottage industry of counting and debunking the former president’s lies.

The growth of global fact-checking operations grew by nearly 100 percent from 2014 to 2019, according to a recent census by the Duke University Reporters’ Lab. The census found 342 global fact-checkers in the world this year, compared to 277 in 2018 and, despite a slow-down in the last two years, the numbers are still growing.

Media outlets like CNN, the Washington Post and the Associated Press conduct fact-checking, along with standalone organizations that do it exclusively. Facebook has even felt compelled to launch a fact-checking operation for its own platform after reports of misinformation during elections.

And all this in a media industry that appears to be contracting in just about every other way. But amid this steady global growth, it’s worth asking the obvious question: is fact-check journalism accomplishing its goal to better educate the public?

Fact-checking is a double-edged sword

After years of research, the answer seems to be that fact-checking has some effect, but it may not be exactly what the fact-checkers are hoping for. In short, it’s a double-edged sword.

A recent study in the journal Mass Communication and Society by a team of American researchers found that fact-check journalism seems to be effective at correcting people’s mistaken beliefs, but that it can also make them more hostile to the media organization and the journalist publishing the story. Other research has shown that it rarely changes readers’ perception of a candidate.

The researchers believe this shows that there are two parallel psychological paths here. The reader is updating his knowledge of the world, while still engaging in “self-serving information processing.” In other words, the reader’s fervour for their preferred candidate or party stays the same, even though they may have led them astray on the issue in question.

The study is just the latest to show the fundamental challenge of fact-check journalism, mainly that it runs up against the powerful force of motivated reasoning.

Whether liberal or conservative, our brains are “more likely to think information we get is true if it confirms our predispositions and less likely to think it’s true if it contradicts our preconceptions,” said Brendan Nyhan, an American political scientist at Dartmouth College who has studied and written about the topic extensively.

It coincides with a growing sense among political scientists that voters are taking cues from parties on how they should feel about issues, rather than vice versa.

“Partisan voters take the positions they are expected as partisans to take, but do not seem to care about them,” wrote John Zaller, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

If voters are getting their positions from the parties, rather than evaluating the issues on the merits, it can partly explain the limited benefits of a fact-check story.

People rarely change their minds about a candidate

Nyhan’s research shows a similar conundrum, mainly that fact-check journalism can successfully help people update their knowledge about an issue, but rarely changes their mind about a candidate.

“Ultimately, we find no evidence that changes in factual beliefs in a claim made by a candidate affect voter preferences during a presidential election,” reads a 2019 paper by Nyhan and other researchers.

This echoes similar research, which shows that a reader can process new information from a fact-check story, understand that a politician has made a false claim, and then retain their original beliefs about the politician who made the claim.

It seems that readers go even farther with their opinions about media outlets: They see the media outlet that conducted the fact-check as even more biased than they did before reading the story, even if the story helped them learn about the issue.

Do fact-checks miss the forest for the trees?

The researchers who wrote the journal article at Mass Communication and Society recruited 510 volunteers through an online survey to read a fact-check story about Trump’s claims about gun laws in Chicago. The participants were then asked to evaluate the former president’s claims and rate the bias of the news source.

Trump’s assertion was that Chicago had the strongest gun laws in the nation and yet was still a “total disaster” in terms of crime. The information about Chicago’s gun laws was a few years old and Trump had a propensity to overstate the level of violence in the city.

Although the study seems to back up previous research on fact-check journalism updating readers’ knowledge, this study is limited to a single story and, although researchers controlled for a “Trump effect,” it was being conducted in the unique media environment that swirled around the former president. It could be that Canada, or the U.S. in the post-Trump world, wouldn’t show the same effects.

The Chicago gun laws fact-check story used by the researchers is also a good illustration of the more nebulous issues with this kind of journalism. The fact-check piece corrects several incorrect statements by Trump, but fails to tackle the substance of what he was arguing.

Trump said Chicago has the strongest gun laws in the nation and the highest crime rate: both inarguably false statements. But, it’s also true that Chicago has a high crime rate (ranked seventh in murder rate) and has strong gun laws (Illinois gets an A- and is ranked 8th in this scorecard).

Trump’s inability to get these basic facts right was obviously a concern for the media and the public, but it could be at the expense of ignoring the broader issue. It could be that readers sympathetic to Trump, or his argument, would reasonably consider the fact-check’s angle on the issue to be biased, because it focused on the narrow untrue statements, rather than legitimate concerns about the efficacy of some gun laws.

Nyhan said that although success of the genre and the results of fact-check journalism are mixed, he still believes it can serve an important purpose by keeping politicians in check.

“In particular I think it provides an important check on political elites who don’t receive very strong negative feedback or repercussions when they make false or misleading statements,” said Nyhan.