What Can We Learn from Laggards?

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 Laggard – n. One that lags or lingers; a straggler.

A few years ago I was working in schools helping to introduce a new behavior management system to teachers. After several months, I noticed some educators were eager to adopt new systems to support their students. Others seemed ambivalent or indifferent. A few appeared resistant to have me anywhere near their classrooms.

My oldest daughter is 11 and asks me at least once a day when she is going to get her own phone or tablet. Her pleas are some version of…Dad, why are you dragging your feet, everyone else has one? We are at a stalemate with neither side budging. If anything, I have become more steadfast in my opposition to the idea.

Recent data indicates 30-35% of the U.S. population eligible for an authorized COVID-19 vaccine remain unvaccinated. [1] Since the COVID-19 vaccine distribution began in the U.S. on December 14, 2020, over 150 million people have been vaccinated. Vaccination rates peaked in early April 2021 with the U.S. giving out more than 3 million COVID-19 shots per day. But, rates have declined ever since. [2] Among the many reasons given for this decline, vaccine hesitancy is one. Another are laggards.

Vaccine Rates 2021

Laggards are the last ones in a system (e.g., school, business, family) to adopt an innovation. We have lots of labels for laggards late adopters, lingerers, idlers, slowpokes. They are generally not viewed favorably.

Laggards typically resist innovations and are content to be last in line. Decades of research have shown the adoption of new ideas or behaviors occurs differently for each of us based on personal or environmental factors such as socioeconomic status, peer group membership, cultural/religious beliefs, age, or levels of education.[3]

Roger's bell curve

Adoption groups were popularized by a researcher called Everett Rogers and later referenced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. [3,4] Those of us scrambling to be first in line are the “innovators” or early adopters, a relatively small % of the overall population. People that love to try out the latest and greatest thing and let the rest of us know if it’s lifechanging or useless. Most of us land in the middle of Roger’s bellshaped curve as the early or late majority. Look to the right side of this picture and you will see the laggards waiting and wondering what all the fuss or hype is about!

Quietly hedging their bets and mitigating the risks/expenses assumed by early adopters, laggards stick to their landlines or flip phones over opting for higher-priced cell phones. Laggards make decisions based on what was done previously rather than looking ahead. They act from more traditional values than most of us and often face more precarious economic circumstances. Laggards must be thoroughly convinced an idea is a good one before they will adopt it. Laggards’ vigilance may be critical when stakes are high or when something may be “too good to be true” (laggards will spot it first). Getting your program or idea adopted by laggards may be a sign it has broad reach and lasting impact.

Being a laggard takes work!

As much as I deny it, I become a laggard when it aligns with my lifestyle, values, or worldview. I recently noticed my inner-laggard when faced with my daughter’s unrelenting requests for a mobile device. I embraced behaviors and attitudes scientists have observed in laggards. I became dogmatic, lacked empathy for her point of view (e.g., what do you know?”), and even grew fatalistic (“my daughter’s mind is being programmed by an algorithm). On the other hand, I found my laggard-side was grounded in my deep-seated belief to delay, stall, and regulate her exposure to YouTube or SnapChat at all costs. For me, being a laggard has felt lonely, uncomfortable, and at times tense (just ask my daughter). It takes a lot of effort to be last, especially when those close to you want to move ahead with or without you!  

Vaccine hesitancy & laggards

Hesitant parents

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the U.S., a sizable group of people and pockets of the country remain hesitant toward getting vaccinated. There have been a variety of explanations for why people are choosing to remain unvaccinated, even as more contagious strains of the virus emerge. Such as, fear that vaccines are dangerous (e.g., side effects) or just not viewing COVID-19 as a threat (I was already infected & survived it).

Long before this pandemic hit,vaccine hesitancy was a phenomenon studied by social scientists. Opposition to vaccines dates back to the 1800s when parents, clergy, and journalists mounted a grassroots campaign against a vaccine for smallpox. [5] There is a temptation today to reduce vaccine hesitancy to political affiliation, lack of education, or just plain stubbornness. While these factors may play a role, the root causes are likely more complex and nuanced.    

What can we learn from laggards to ensure beneficial supports, policies, or ideas reach all of us instead of some or just a few of us?

Learning from laggards

1. Channel your inner-laggard. Were you ever reluctant to adopt an idea, product, or routine? Can you recall being skeptical or resistant to join the herd? Why were you hesistant? What helped you overcome your ambivalence? In hindsight was stalling or just saying “no” the right call? Acknowledging our inner-laggards may help us reframe others’ resistance as more reasonable versus an obstacle or a personal attack (e.g., he isn’t a team player”, “she doesn’t like me). Laggards may also bring to light issues or concerns with our idea, program, or approach that we never considered. If we view laggards as a “distant” or “foreign” others, we are unlikely to change their mind or ours to help spread a new policy, practice, or behavior.

2. Think local. Research on vaccine hesitancy has found “local vaccination cultures” can influence others’ beliefs or knowledge about the origin or potency of a disease [5]. Many organizations use formal (staff meeting, handbook) and informal (coffee breaks, lunch) channels to share information. It is just as important to be attuned to the messages, stories, and misinformation circulating outside in the staff parking lot as those discussed in the boardroom. Are there strategies in place to reach different types of adoption groups (e.g., late adopters, laggards)? Are we using terms and language that resonate with those we perceive as most reluctant or hesitant to adopt?

Billboard for Spanish speaking citizens

3. Social norms matter. What if we think about vaccination as a social norm that can increase vaccine acceptance? Strong evidence indicates we are highly influenced by social norms and peer pressure.[6] When vaccines are authorized for children under 12 years of age, parents will certainly influence vaccination rates in their communities. As researcher Dr. Emily Brunson observed, ”parents are making decisions (about vaccines) based on what they hear from other people they know and trust…instead of trying to build trust in federal institutions right now, it’s going to be that mom in a Somali community or that reverend or priest in that Southern Baptist community that will make the most difference.”[7] It’s good to be aware of “near-peers” — the friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors that remind us most of ourselves and heavily influence our decisions.

4. Team with laggards. Those of us leading change typically don’t recruit or seek the advice of laggards. It is more common to surround ourselves with early adopters who have embraced our idea or mission. The problem with this approach is that we routinely leave out laggards in our organizations that could become saboteurs instead of allies. For example, I found teachers who initially were against having me in their classrooms became my most fervent supporters. Teachers who I had labeled as laggards had vetted my ideas far more than I thought – they were gatekeepers in disguise!

5. Study laggards. We need to spend time and energy understanding why laggards act the way they do. Why do people abandon ship, resist innovation, or appear to stand in the way of progress? Not surprisingly, it’s hard to recruit laggards for research projects. After all, they are generally not interested in testing out a new program or product. Instead, we typically recruit early adopters, already on board or bought in. To better understand laggards, we need to know more about why individuals, communities, and even whole countries decide to optout, even when it may be risky or costly to do so. Our laggards need to inform the development and adoption of new school curricula, work policies…..oh, and…vaccine campaigns.

As the pandemic ebbs in the U.S., there are many lessons yet to be learned. Vaccine hesitancy offers us a rare opportunity to learn from laggards to improve our response to our current circumstances and the next crisis. Laggards are among us and we are laggards. Instead of pressuring those at the end of the line to move up, change, or get out of the way, maybe it is time to understand why they chose to be there in the first place. 


1. https://usafacts.org/visualizations/covid-vaccine-tracker-states/

2. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/01/28/960901166/how-is-the-covid-19-vaccination-campaign-going-in-your-state

3. Rogers, E. M. (2010). Diffusion of Innovations (5th Edition ed.). New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

4. Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York, NY. Little, Brown.

5. Eve Dubé, Caroline Laberge, Maryse Guay, Paul Bramadat, Réal Roy & Julie A. Bettinger (2013) Vaccine hesitancy, Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics, 9:8, 1763-1773, DOI: 10.4161/hv.24657

6. https://covid19vaccinescommunicationprinciples.org/the-principles/social-norms/

7. Graupensperger, S., Abdallah, D. A., & Lee, C. M. (2021). Social norms and vaccine uptake: College students’ COVID vaccination intentions, attitudes, and estimated peer norms and comparisons with influenza vaccine. Vaccine39(15), 2060–2067. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaccine.2021.03.018

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