Mandates, not nudges, are needed to ensure public health at this stage of the coronavirus vaccination rollout, according to Professor Richard H. Thaler.

Professor Thaler, a proponent of using nudges to promote people’s health and financial well-being, says vaccine resistance is now a serious public health issue.

“We’re now in the United States well into the third stage where we’re dealing with people who have very strong opinions that they should not get a vaccine,” Professor Thaler said speaking via Zoom at a University of Sydney Business School event.

“I’m not sure what those things are based on. But as I’ve written about recently, I think we are past the point of nudging when it comes to the vaccine. And the reason for that is vaccinations are a simple case of an externality. If you’re unvaccinated, you can make me sick, well, probably not from Sydney, but you can make your students and colleagues sick. And you don’t have the right to make me sick.”

Professor Thaler, who along with Professor Cass Sunstein wrote the original Nudge book in 2008 has just released Nudge: The Final Edition.

According to Professor Thaler nudges gently guide people “without requirements or economic incentives. Informing people about the benefits of vaccinations and making it as easy as possible to get a shot are in this category.”

While not many governments have mandated universal COVID-19 vaccinations, Professor Thaler points out that many organisations – including his own workplace – have now taken that step in the interests of employee health.

“The University of Chicago has decided, if you want to come back to school in the Fall, you have to be vaccinated. If you’re a student, you have to be vaccinated and [also] if you’re a faculty member.”

“That’s not a nudge, that’s a mandate. Now, as far as I know, no government has taken that step. But we’re now seeing mandates of various sorts, by employers, by universities, by sporting events and concerts. There was a huge outdoor music festival in Chicago a few weeks ago called Lollapalooza, you had to be vaccinated if you wanted to attend. And it seems like that was pretty effective in preventing a big spreader event.”

More than 600 universities in the US have mandated vaccinations as a condition of attending campus and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has declared that all Department of Education employees must have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine by September 27, a move that will impact 148,000 education workers.

Watch Professor Thaler discussing how nudges impacted the response to COVID-19


This is part of a series of insights related to Coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact on business.

Sydney Business Insights is a University of Sydney Business School initiative aiming to provide the business community and public, including our students, alumni and partners with a deeper understanding of major issues and trends around the future of business.

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