078 – Tetanus icky not so sticky

Posted by  Anecdote International —October 6, 2020
Filed in Insight, Podcast

Sometimes when you want people to take action it can be harder than you expect. Listen to hear how a Yale University experiment exposed why small details are so important.

In this week’s episode of Anecdotally Speaking, Mark shares the story of Howard Leventhal, a Yale University social psychologist, who used behaviour change techniques to encourage senior students to get their tetanus vaccinations.

Mark first read the story in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Difference. If you would like to read more about Gladwell’s book, click here.

And a reminder that we are hosting a number of public workshops at the end of October for our virtual Storytelling for Leaders and Story-Powered Sales programs. If you are interested in attending, click here to find out more. We are looking forward to seeing some of you there!

For your storybank

Tags: research, university, behaviour change, data, social change

This story starts at 00:30

In the 1960s, Howard Leventhal, a social psychologist at Yale University, undertook an experiment to see if he could change students’ behaviours.

At the time, the University Health Centre was supplying free tetanus vaccinations. Leventhal wondered how he could influence senior students to get the vaccination.

Leventhal made two booklets. Both booklets contained the same information about the vaccination, but one was a low-fear version and the other a high-fear version. The low-fear version had a dispassionate description of the disease. The high-fear version had dramatic descriptions of the ramifications of not getting a vaccination and included graphic pictures of urinal catheters and tracheotomy scars. Half of the students received the low-fear version and the other half received the high-fear version.

The students filled in a questionnaire after reading the booklet. They all had a good understanding of what tetanus is, but the real test was whether they would get vaccinated.

After one month, only 3% of participating students were vaccinated.

Leventhal wondered if he had done something incorrectly, so he had the experiment validated by other academics. They confirmed nothing was wrong with the experiment.

Leventhal wanted to try it again. He used the same booklets but made one slight change. Both booklets had an additional page added with a map of the campus and a circle around the health centre. Also clearly marked were the times that the centre was open for vaccinations.

A month later, 28% of participating students had received their tetanus vaccination—an eight-fold increase.

Leventhal was looking to see whether fear influenced behaviour change. Ultimately, he found that it didn’t make a difference—the number of participants who had received vaccinations were split 50/50 between the high-fear and low-fear booklets.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.


  1. Paul Stuart says:

    Hi Gents – nice story.

    I think one other business point could be not to assume you know the reason why people aren’t doing something – its better to ask them!

    Kind regards, Paul

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