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As cases mount, it’s widely accepted that more parents should get their children vaccinated against measles – but how do you persuade them to do so?

The West Midlands is seeing the worst outbreak of measles since 1990 with cases up 30 per cent. In London around half of all children haven’t had the two jabs that they need and some parts of the capital, it’s thought that around one in four youngsters goes to school without both doses of MMR injection vaccination. So serious is the situation that a national incident has been declared by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). In many parts of the country there are now campaigns to persuade more parents to get their children vaccinated.

Kirsten Watters, Director of Health and Wellbeing at the London Borough of Camden, and Immunisation Lead at the Association of Public Health Directors, appeared on the Today programme on Friday morning to discuss this problem. The way in which she tackled the tricky and potentially emotional issue of parents’ attitudes to vaccination was particularly interesting.

It might have been tempting for Ms Watters to tell parents that they should just get their children vaccinated and avoid buying into anti-vax hysteria. Yes, this approach might have been tempting – but it would probably have little effect. After all, if she did want to persuade parents in her area to vaccinate their children, attacking them and implying that they’re naïve, illogical or irresponsible won’t help.

Attacking people’s belief systems

Worse still, she would be attacking their belief systems and questioning their role as loving parents – two qualities that run deep in any human being and go to the heart of our self-identity. You might be able to marshal facts and evidence to knock down someone else’s argument and challenge their position but are you going to change their minds – and, more importantly – their actions? Almost certainly not.

If anything, you’ll simply end up entrenching their views. In this case, in order to try to encourage parents who haven’t had their kids vaccinated to do so simply by attacking their motivations and arguing that they don’t have sufficient understanding of the issue would mean requiring them to accept that they are wrong. The message is either you’re not smart enough to understand the issues or there is a serious problem with your values. Neither of these assertions is very attractive to anybody.

Whether she had planned to do this before going on the programme we don’t know but Ms Watters uses a technique to persuade parents which is something we talk about frequently in our workshops as a way of influencing and persuading the people around you. Rather than hit them head on with the well-rehearsed arguments about vaccine safety and efficacy in an attempt to try and make them change their minds and admit that they were wrong she introduces a new reason for the low take up – time, or rather the lack of it.

She talks instead about “busy lives” and explains that “parents have a lot to juggle and so it can be difficult to find time off work to go and see their GP or practice nurse. Often, they want to have conversations with health professionals in their communities to talk about vaccinations,” she says. “Parents do want to vaccinate – they’re just not getting those vaccinations at the right time – and that’s leaving children unprotected.”

A key to persuasion – adding new information

The addition of new information – in this case a lack of time – gives us permission or even an excuse to change our minds and do something that we’d previously said that we wouldn’t do.

“So really it’s a question of not being able to get any appointments rather than any kind of vaccine hesitancy?” suggests presenter Martha Kearney. As a journalist she’s hearing something new and unusual – two things that are always appealing to the public and so she’s very happy to take up Ms Watters’ suggestion.

This idea of new information is important because one thing we human beings pride ourselves on is consistency. We hate having to admit that we argued for one thing yesterday and something completely different today. It can make us look shallow, unprincipled, uninformed and, well, perhaps a bit stupid. After all, if we can do a 180 on one issue so easily, people might be thinking, what else will we jettison? Should they believe anything we say or argue for today if tomorrow we could well be speaking passionately in favour of the opposite point of view?

“When the facts change…”

Quite who said: “When the facts change, I change my mind,” is debatable but it does sound sensible and logical. Provided that it’s likely to be correct and accurate new information not only helps to make decisions, but it also allows us to explain why we’ve changed our minds.

Reframing the issue, introducing new information and ideas, or taking a new approach to it can allow the person that you’re hoping to influence or encourage to take a particular action to feel that they’re being consistent even though they’ve now agreed to do something new or take a different view. Whether it works for vaccinations, after Ms Watters’ interview, remains to be seen but many of the people who take part our workshops report back to use that adding extra information when they want to persuade someone of something works well for them.