WWhat should we do with people who refuse to be vaccinated or who continue to deny that Covid is real? The debate on this issue has been raging for months in the United States. “Respect them!” berated conservative commentators. “Shame them! Some urged. Others have counseled empathy for them as victims of misinformation.
But as the burgeoning Delta variant ushers in the “unvaccinated pandemic,” uncertainty over the persuasion of pandemic-resistant has given way to anger and despair. This was illustrated by the recent public reaction to a viral news video showing a Louisiana man recovering from a severe Covid-19 infection in a hospital bed, stating that he still would have preferred to be at hospital rather than accepting a vaccine. It was the first time many of us saw the human face of a puzzling phenomenon that medical professionals have told us about for the past year: patients deny the realities of the virus even when they are sick and die of it.
As Leo Tolstoy asked of another seemingly hopeless social problem – poverty – “what then are we to do? The sociology of fraud, one of my research specialties for ten years, offers some answers.
In 1952, sociologist Erving Goffman analyzed the art of swindling in a seminal essay, On Cooling the Mark Out. To understand the phenomenon, he identified a set of characters: first, the “operator”, who commits the scam; second, the “brand”, the target of the scam; and third, the “cooler”, an ally of the con artist who tries to console the victim once the fraud has become apparent “in a way that allows him to easily accept the inevitable and go home quietly.” .
Goffman observed that all “brands” come to understand that they have been defrauded. But strangely, they hardly ever complain or report the crime to authorities. Why? Because, Goffman argues, admitting that you’ve been duped is so deeply shameful that “brands” experience it as some sort of social death – the painful end of one of the many social roles we all play.
Instead, many “brands” simply deny the scam, claiming they were “in the game” all the time. It saves their pride and cheats social death, but it allows the scam to continue unchecked, trapping others. By prioritizing their self-image over the common good, “brands” are making a loose and selfish choice. Goffman does not hesitate to call this a “moral failure”.
In 2021, this “moral failure” takes the form of pandemic deniers infected with Covid and anti-vaccines fulminating from hospital beds: they have chosen to save face rather than save the lives of others. They could do it by telling the truth and exposing the scams, saying, “Covid is real, get vaccinated. Some do. But many will not. It’s hard not to conclude that some make a conscious choice to protect themselves socially and emotionally at the expense of the rest of us.
Goffman’s work suggests two parallel strategies for dealing with people who have engaged in misconceptions. The first is to make them experience the shame of what he calls “social death”. But the second, and perhaps the most productive, is to identify and deploy “coolers” to bring pandemic-resistant back into the folds of mainstream society.
The most effective “coolers” are the characters that “brands” trust, the people whose opinions they value. Most people are not interested in gaining the good opinion of just anyone. Rather, we care about status and “face” within specific communities that matter to us, what two other mid-20th century sociologists, Herbert Hyman and Robert Merton, called “reference groups”.
Everyone belongs to multiple reference groups, many of which overlap, including their families, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, and political affiliations. These groups not only structure our social networks, but perform a monitoring function: we generally trust the information gleaned from our reference group and seek the approval of others within it.
Covid and anti-vaccine deniers are like everyone else in this regard: they don’t crave validation or seek information from everyone. This is why the “respect them”, “shame them” and “empathize with them” approaches did not work and will not change anything. Respect, shame and empathy only have value and impact within specific social networks; well, too, with the reliability of the information. For someone who sees themselves as part of the Fox Nation reference group, the pandemic precautions recommended by the “lamestream media” should be ignored. But if the same information came from Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson, it would probably be taken much more seriously.
From a purely pragmatic point of view, it is good news for everyone that some influential conservative figures are starting to act as “coolers” to pandemic resistant ones by encouraging vaccination – even if the “coolers” have often been, as in Goffman’s theory, accomplices of the con. The reality check must come from inside the house.
But there are still too few Fox News hosts and Republican politicians encouraging vaccination, masking and other Covid precautions. We need more “coolers” – and we need them fast.
One way to do this is to search other reference groups in addition to the big media and politics, those who matter to pandemic and anti-vaccine deniers. Social media, as damaging as it has been in spreading disinformation, also makes it possible to identify and sometimes join groups that foment anti-vax sentiment.
Within these groups, we can identify influential members who might turn their backs on Covid denial and encourage them on their journey. We can send them a message to offer them support, especially if our reference groups overlap – whether it means sharing the same hometown or practicing the same faith. The more social space is shared, the better. We could offer to support them if they get trolled for expressing doubts about Covid denial. Or we could let them know that we would admire them for telling the truth.
These people may not have a television audience of millions, but they nonetheless have the potential to act as “coolers” for those in their peer groups – both online and offline. The higher their status within groups, the more influence they will have to reconcile their fellow travelers with the reality of the pandemic, perhaps allowing them to reintegrate into society, or at least preventing them from putting us in danger.