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Paying people to get vaccinated might work – but is it ethical?

A shot and a small fortune could entice some to get vaccinated. skodonnell/Getty Images

Paying people to get vaccinated might work – but is it ethical?

A shot and a small fortune could entice some to get vaccinated. skodonnell/Getty Images

Paying people to get vaccinated might work – but is it ethical?

A shot and a small fortune could entice some to get vaccinated. skodonnell/Getty Images

Paying people to get vaccinated might work – but is it ethical?

A shot and a small fortune could entice some to get vaccinated. skodonnell/Getty Images

The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots.

A shot and a small fortune could entice some to get vaccinated. skodonnell/Getty Images

Christopher Robertson, Boston University

A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.

On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.

The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.

As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.

In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren’t really in need of that level of care.

In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.

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