Ali Girard


Lessons in Change from Flu (Shot) Season

This fall I diligently attended one of UBC’s many free flu clinics to receive my shot, same as every flu season. In my mind, getting the flu shot is common sense – I mean, only crazy anti-vaxxers avoid them, right? Or so I thought, until I spoke to my boyfriend, my sister, and a close friend who’s a nurse. All three avoided the flu shot.

Surprised (and a little irritated), I tried to make my case to them. In the end, it was no use. However, these conversations did help me to gain some insight into why people resist changes that are objectively beneficial. Here are three conclusions that I’ve drawn:

Experience is more persuasive than evidence

When I asked “why?” I heard one of two responses from each person:

“I never get the flu shot and I never get sick.”
“I always get the flu shot, and I just get sick anyway.”

Anecdotal evidence drives me nuts when you’re talking about science. Funnily enough, it’s usually the same way with one of the people on my list. So I tried the rational approach: links to fact pages from the CDC, pointing out illness and hospitalization reduction rates, and articles explaining the concept of herd immunity.

The impact? Not even a dint. The fact that they hadn’t been sick in previous years left their desire to get the shot close to zero. No amount of numbers or scientific concepts would persuade them the act. It can be the same in organizations. Think of phrases like “we’ve tried that before” or “nothing really ever changes”. People will always trust their experience over the fancy projections in your PowerPoint presentation.

Discomfort diminishes altruism

Change implementers, the ones giving the PowerPoint presentations, are often blinded by the big picture. They’re pushing for change because they see all the benefits across a given group (and quite often don’t have to go through the associated discomfort). They promote altruistic reasons for change while overlooking the harsh reality: most people aren’t motivated by the “greater good.” Typically, the first, and largest consideration is, “what’s in it for me?” If it’s discomfort of any kind, they will avoid the change.

This is obvious when you look at the example of a flu shot. Go out of your way to have a needle stuck in your arm and compromise your immune system for the sake of the people you bus with? Nuh-uh.

Ill-defined groups amplify this effect. The general public is not typically a group that your willing to feel discomfort for. If you knew you were going to pass the flu on to your grandma, however, you might think more carefully about getting the shot.

Doubt spreads – fast

This year in BC flu shot rates are down for health care providers, especially nurses. One influencing factor is that the BC Nurses’ Union is questioning how well the vaccine works. Sometimes, planting a seed of doubt like this (especially from a position of authority) is all it takes to deter behavioural change. It makes the decision easy for people – why bother if it’s not going to work? Then, they turn around and make the same argument to others at the water cooler or the dinner table.

So here I am, left with three things that discourage people from changing. What strategies do you use to address or avoid them?

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One Comment

  1. Luke Lafreniere |

    I have experienced this… more than once. It’s life saving vaccines that really gets to me.

    Honestly I just try to share any and all facts, studies, and evidence that I may have and hope for the best. One thing that is highly frustrating is something you brought up actually… The idea that ones small insignificant use case is some how relevant on the grand scheme of things. Also ignoring major variables like herd immunity…


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