Do incentives for the COVID-19 vaccine work? Experts weigh in

Posted at 6:53 PM, Jun 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-02 18:53:42-04

The push is on to get more people vaccinated by President Joe Biden’s July deadline. Many businesses and cities across the country and in the Tampa Bay area have gotten creative with incentives for the vaccine, and experts are weighing in on if those incentives work.

“When the vaccines rolled out, I was just thrilled and excited to just get my staff vaccinated as fast as possible,” said Gigglewaters owner Rachel Wilson.

At Gigglewaters in Safety Harbor, first came an education campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine, bringing in a local pharmacy to a staff meeting to talk safety and offer up shots. Wilson says they also turned to incentives.

“We did a $50 gift card for any of our staff members that got vaccinated, or we just gave them $20 cash. At some point, I was like, ‘We will make it rain!” said Wilson.


Wilson thinks the gift cards helped. Tyler Neal, a Gigglewaters employee, says it was a little bit of a motivator.

“I wasn’t really worried about that. It was just nice of them to say, ‘Hey, look I trust this. Look, I’m even willing to do this for you,'” said Neal.

The idea of incentives isn’t new. Early on, Krispy Kreme offered a free doughnut with proof of vaccination. The city of Tampa has its “Ticket to Outside” campaign, part of an effort to reduce hesitancy and increase shots in arms using incentives, like free aquarium tickets.

States like Ohio have a lottery. An Associated Press analysis reported the number of people in the state 16 and up who got their initial COVID vaccine jumped 33 percent in the week after the state announced its million-dollar incentive lottery.

ABC Action News asked Nichole Lighthall, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida, if she thinks incentives for vaccines work.

“The principles state that they should have some efficacy, but they also state that the most efficacious incentives are going to be ones where people get a guaranteed reward. And that’s what my money is on,” said Lighthall.

Lighthall explained people weigh gains and losses differently, and she said in terms of dire consequences, losses loom larger than gains.

“When people think about vaccines and the incentives behind them, one of the basic psychological principles is that when you think about vaccine side effects or things like that, even if the chances are quite remote, that risk is something that we’re very keyed into,” said Lighthall.

Lighthall also explained sure gains are better than risky gains, saying even when the reward is huge, people would probably prefer a 100 percent sure incentive.

“What would you prefer: for me to give you $10, or for me to give you a 50 percent chance of $20? You could walk away with nothing, but if you take what is offered for sure, you know that you’re going to get this prize,” said Lighthall. “Likewise, if we look at the loss side, what would you prefer: for me to take a dollar from you for sure, or to have a 50 percent chance that you will lose $2? There’s still a chance that you might not lose at all. That loss experience when we’re faced with the vaccine, we’re trying to dampen down the experience that this is negative, that people are going into the vaccine scenario with fears and concerns, and so giving them a really clear, sure positive in that experience can, I think, be very beneficial.”

Lighthall says it can’t just be about incentives because the evidence for that is not super strong, instead emphasizing vaccine efficacy and the science, making the experience comfortable, and make it easy to get the vaccine.

For Neal, one incentive is clear.

“The biggest incentive I think people are not realizing is that you could save a life. You could save somebody else,” said Neal. “The cash and everything is great for me, but I feel like the biggest incentive is the one that doesn’t even have to be given.”