Engaging Complex Populations: It Takes a Village…or Does It?



As with any identifiable group that shares a point of view on a topic of interest, the capacity to understand why people do what they do is often a mystery. Why anyone would turn their back on a cure for one the most contagious viruses in history certainly qualifies as a mystery to most of us. Fortunately, we have advances in science to lead us to new models to explain these paradoxes.

What area could be more challenging than figuring out how to get buy-in from the many sectors resisting the vaccine. All share the symptom of resistance but for decidedly different motivations. There are vaccine resistors who have made an authentic lifestyle choice to reject the vaccine because of their perception of its impure nature. Some are motivated by resistance to the government’s order to submit rather than it being a lifestyle choice. And then some lack trust within marginalized communities due in no small part to the historical record of abuses in the U.S. healthcare system and healthcare research, as well as from resistance associated with mandates by the government which exacerbate unease in such marginalized communities. There are also those in the military sector who have chosen to not avail themselves of the vaccine because of its emergency use status rather than full and conventional FDA approval, which, once the latter is achieved, will require them to be vaccinated as part of their readiness responsibilities. Many people are befuddled by the behavior of the anti-vaccination movement and the resistance from marginalized communities around COVID-19. Even healthcare professionals are not immune to the negative sequelae of these issues, and as such there are those still reluctant to get the vaccine, which most of us would consider to be unhealthy, imprudent and contrary to science.

In response to these challenges, we have created a revolutionary multifaceted approach to manage, monitor and minimize resistance, in essence, to make a profound difference. Our integrative approach will deploy the most effective and promising scientific validated solutions available and do so in a manner that optimizes outcomes. When we blend a person-centric approach that is consistent with one’s values, aspirations, choices and preferences with well-established instinctual motivators, we advance our understanding of why we do what we do. This is a critical starting point in understanding how to engage others and to develop tools for more effective engagement. It is essentially how we network and interact and motivate ourselves. It gives us an answer to why people react, respond and decide as they do.

The model of WHY is rooted in a different starting point.1 These are our worldviews that guide our decisions as to the lives we lead. All people navigate across these varied facets of their lives such as their health, wealth, relationships, security, communications and, in general, their future. By constructing a new starting point that captures one’s foundational instincts, personalities, values and decision-making strategies in a worldview that guides them through life, it’s fundamental to how a person thinks, believes and engages with the world.

Hot topics leave indelible marks on our psyche. They must be approached with sensitivity and handled with care. Sometimes these issues may have explosive implications either because of the response they elicit or because they occupy a prominent place in one’s taxonomy of issues to debate.

Choice is not all cognitive; it may come from a deeper, ever-present place. Neuroscience has developed to a stage where we can identify consistent instinctual motivations that occur across certain groups of people who think similarly to each other. Sometimes they think dramatically differently. Recognizing this difference is the first lesson in this reformulation of reality. Acknowledging that there are authentic differences of opinion helps one to better understand how they themselves think and establish the boundaries to their reality. This new starting point is how we can strategically message to different worldviews.

Understanding why people react as they do and knowing how to approach them in a nonevaluative and non-confrontational way makes all the difference as to outcomes. We must resist the urge to become impatient with others who have views contrary to our own. This realization is important if we are to reach a common ground with others so that we can get the nation vaccinated.

Our goal is to unpack and understand not only the uniqueness of a given perspective but also craft a strategy to communicate with one another. What may be attractive to one may be repugnant to another. Using non-judgmental language is a critical starting point for reaching across to others, and avoiding emotionally loaded language, images or concepts that create visceral responses are important tactics to use. This can also reduce the urge of others to deflect, deny or distort messages.

In many ways. understanding the worldview of a person with anti-vaccination inclinations is more akin to deciphering their moral philosophy than any triggering behavior tied to a logical sequence of causes and effects. In fact, we know well that their authentic belief in their resistance is tied to a zealous expression of the instinct for purity. The inspiration might have come from religion, or a powerful leader who demands purity from his followers, or a spiritual revulsion at the thought of ingesting something impure or a lifestyle that authentically led to a diet and habits that naturally included abstinence from all forms of impurity.

Typically, this group also comes with a similar resistance to being told to conform to what government or leadership might think they should do. If this should include succumbing to an edict to take a vaccine because it is good for you, it is typically met with a double dose of resistance. When we analyze the traditional public healthcare messaging campaigns that encourage us to get a vaccine, these directives and transactional deal-making are almost inert in the face of such passionate resistance.

We have found that to be successful in this endeavor, we start by instructing the individual to resist any coercion that they feel in the process of considering the vaccine proposal. In many cases, this goes a long way to disarming their fury, and we can then continue to deescalate any conversation to a lower emotional level. At this point, a person might be able to consider reclaiming their power in this dialogue and proactively deciding to prevent more impurities from entering into their bodies via a full-scale infection from the virus. This is much easier to navigate than the Faustian choice that it started as.

Regarding our work within marginalized communities, we can say that their challenges are much more straightforward than those of the antivaccine conundrum. However, it requires the wisdom of the community to succeed and an understanding of the intricacies of the mosaic of trust, behavioral engineering and authentic communications. We have had success when we have marshaled the goodwill of a community to collaborate in the deployment of our behavior engineering model. Further, when we embrace the community on their terms, we find that trust follows, and success occurs. We also know that there are no shortcuts for this process to develop. But when it is deployed, the outcomes have been startling to observe. Engaging people in a manner that significantly impacts their behavior is facilitated when we understand the science behind what drives that person’s choices.

Living well is about balance and mindfulness and savoring life as well as how we navigate adversity. COVID-19 has pushed the limits of autonomy and has caused us to rethink how we interact with others, reassess our priorities and move beyond self-absorption, conspiracies and negativity to a sense of community. Exercising control of our lives and destinies during and after this crisis is critically important. We need to understand that our lives are fundamentally “person-centric.” Knowing this can help us lean on the building blocks of our own identities. In this case, this knowledge is the power for us to see and accept our differences as we navigate the pursuit toward our common interests.

dennis robbins

Dennis Robbins’ (MPH, Harvard, PhD, Boston College) distinguished cross-industry career spans multiple sectors of health, wellness, healthcare, digital innovation, medical and surgical devices/ technology, publishing, entertainment, ethics and policy. His work on person-centricity™ has stimulated a major shift in how we think about people and help them to become and stay healthier, adding years to their lives and life to their years.

Dr. Robbins was a National Fund for Medical Education Fellow, Visiting Scholar and Research Fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. He has advised presidential and White House commissions, U.S. Supreme Court Cases and chaired a nationwide Military Health think tank. He serves/served on several advisory boards and national organizations including the American Heart Association’s Center for Technology and Innovation Board.

Dennis was a major force in the Hospice Movement and shaping the hospice Medicare benefit. His legacy of 11 published books and more than 400 articles and editorial board positions are complemented by a plethora of keynotes. He has been recognized such national media publications as Forbes, Medical Economics, Modern Healthcare, Hospital Ethics, and Managed Healthcare Executive. Website: www.DennisRobbins.com

robert raleigh

Robert Raleigh, PhD, is the founder and managing director of PathSight Predictive Science, a six-year-old company that is focused upon understanding and influencing the human interface on today’s complex globally connected human network. This work is built upon insights from the fields of data, neural and behavioral sciences. PathSight runs counter to the impulse to reduce behavioral change to a short list of magical variables. Rooted in the outcomes of a 40-year-old strand of research into moral judgments, PathSight embraces the complexity of the task by deploying a multi-layered model of individuals. The uniqueness of the PathSight Model is found in its capacity to sort people by their non-verbal, biologic instincts that informs their personal identities and their orientation toward the world. PathSight views behavior change as a process that accounts for personal, contextual, and situational narratives to achieve predictable outcomes. To deploy this model PathSight constructs population models, engagement strategies and a rigorous measurement paradigm. PathSight is currently being deployed in the healthcare, sports, entertainment, and training verticals.

In 2021, Simon & Schuster published Raleigh’s new book entitled The Search for Why, a revolutionary new model for understanding others, improving communications and healing division. Raleigh graduated from Hobart & William Smith College and earned his PhD at Syracuse University.


1. Raleigh, Bob. The Search for Why: a Revolutionary New Model for Understanding Others, Improving Communication, and Healing Division. Tiller Press, 2021.

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