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Opinion: Should we pay people to get vaccinated for COVID-19?

Freddy Centeno, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from health care worker Danielle Davis.
Freddy Centeno, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccine from health care worker Danielle Davis, right, at pop-up vaccination event at Reams in Magna on Monday, May 3, 2021. The Salt Lake County Health Department is doing vaccination pop-up event with its mobile health center.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox and state lawmakers are thinking about offering incentives to lure unvaccinated Utahns into getting a COVID-19 shot.

Apparently, wads of cash are out, even though the Biden administration has said states could use their stimulus money for this. Lotteries are illegal in Utah, and while paying people to get a shot wouldn’t technically be a lottery, it also wouldn’t be fair to the many people (myself included) who already got shots for nothing.

Instead, think discounts, or maybe even products, offered by private companies in exchange for the free advertising or goodwill such a thing might provide.

But, really, would this work?

And, perhaps more importantly, what would this say about modern Americans, and especially Utahns? That people are willing to be good citizens, but only for a price? Is that a good message to reinforce?

Behavioral science suggests such a thing could backfire. Humans tend to view financial incentives in ways that seem counterintuitive.

For instance, researchers in Haifa, Israel, conducted an experiment in 1998 involving day care centers that were having problems with parents arriving late to pick up their children. Six of the centers imposed fines for late retrievals. Surprisingly, this caused the rate of late arrivals to double.

The fine apparently had replaced any moral concerns about being considerate to day care workers, who were having to stay late, with a feeling among some parents that they could buy the right to come late.

Samuel Bowles, head of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute, said Bogota, Colombia, solved its problem of reckless taxi drivers by hiring clowns to roam the streets. Each time they saw a driver doing something unsafe, they would make an exaggerated show of mocking them, to the delight of onlookers. Regular people were, in turn, asked to identify and report good drivers, who were rewarded with honors.

Writer Sara Button, who reported on a Bowles’ lecture for a Stanford University website, wrote, “Our society is far too complex, our problems far too nuanced, to manage solutions solely by relying on a cost-benefit analysis of human behavior.”

What does this have to do with getting people vaccinated? Perhaps nothing, other than to suggest that money and goods don’t always provide the incentives we may think they do. It might even devalue the notion of civic duty.

And no, I’m not suggesting the state hire clowns to make fun of people who won’t get a shot, just as I don’t think public shaming will get people to use less water in a drought.

The New York Times recently linked this issue to studies cited in a paper called “Tom Sawyer and the Construction of Value.” The name refers to a scene from a Mark Twain book in which Sawyer persuades friends that whitewashing a fence would be a fun thing to do. The studies suggest that paying people to do something they’re not sure about can actually make them less likely to do that thing.

The Times noted one study in which a professor wanted to get students to attend a reading of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” Half the students were offered money to attend, while the other half were simply told to go. It turned out the students who were offered money were less interested, probably because they thought it must be a really boring thing to do if they were being offered money for it.

By the same token, people offered money for a shot might think the vaccine is unusually risky. Why else would the government pay them to do it?

Of course, there are a lot of other factors involved, especially, and always, politics. In a recent poll conducted for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics, Republicans and those unaffiliated with either major party were much more likely to say they would never be vaccinated than were Democrats.

Recent studies at UCLA looked at whether an endorsement by former president Donald Trump would change this division nationally. The Times reported it did little, other than to make Democrats less likely to get shots.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the number of new COVID-19 cases has begun to inch up again in Utah. The state has gone from a seven-day average of 205 new cases on June 2 to 279 on June 15.

The delta variant is taking hold, and while the recent uptick should not be alarming, and vaccinated people apparently aren’t at risk, those who deliberately won’t be vaccinated are putting other vulnerable people in jeopardy.

So, it’s natural state leaders would look for ways to provide incentives. My advice is simple. Just beware of the unintended consequences.