Jessai Flores

A Yale study found that individuals are more willing to receive COVID-19 vaccinations after learning that the vaccines protect others, compared to public health messages emphasizing individual protection. 

The study involved 5,000 participants, who were presented with 11 campaign messages encouraging people to receive COVID-19 vaccines. After showing participants the different messages, researchers recorded their intention to get vaccinated and willingness to persuade others to do the same. The study, published in the journal Vaccine last month, found that messages emphasizing the vaccine’s ability to protect others were the most effective in encouraging COVID-19 vaccination amongst participants. 

“If I want to persuade you to get vaccinated, I appear more effective by pointing out that vaccination is an others-regarding act, [rather] than a self-regarding act,” said Gregory Huber, professor of political science and author of the study. “And one way to think about that is everyone already understands that vaccination protects themselves, but they may not think about the fact that vaccination protects others.” 

Current vaccination campaigns are not talking about the vaccine’s ability to protect others enough, Huber added. According to Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and another author of the study, how vaccines reduce COVID-19 transmission remains “muddled” in public health communication in the United States.

To raise vaccination rates among children and teenagers, for instance, Omer said that public health campaigns should emphasize how children are not only getting vaccinated for themselves, but also for their friends and grandparents. 

According to Omer, the United States lacks a coherent national communication strategy about COVID-19. There should be national “continued medical education,” which teaches healthcare providers how to talk about COVID-19 vaccines with patients, he said. 

“One thing that is surprisingly consistent across countries is that healthcare providers are the most trusted source of healthcare information,” Omer said. “And we don’t leverage that enough.” 

The United States, however, is unusual because attitudes towards vaccination are very polarized, Omer said. It differs from other democratic countries like India and Israel, where vaccination hesitancy exists but a national consensus on the benefit of vaccination prevails.

To address polarizing attitudes towards vaccination, the study’s researchers experimented with messages that could appeal to people with different beliefs. Huber called it “value consistent messaging,” which uses different language to appeal to liberals and conservatives. 

“We know from political science and psychology research that liberals rate very high on equity concerns,” Huber said. “So if you say something’s unfair, liberals get very upset. On the other hand, conservatives care a lot about whether an outcome is just, which is a slightly different conception of fairness.”

One of the messages used in the study described getting the vaccine as “being brave.” The message was intended to counter public figures who have described not wearing a mask in public or not getting vaccinated as an act of bravery, Huber said. Participants were more likely to want to persuade others to get vaccinated after reading the re-framed bravery message, the study found.

The study’s findings also revealed that personal persuasion can be useful in raising vaccination uptake, as people are less likely to listen to the government and more likely to listen to people within “their own social network,” according to Huber. 

Huber and his colleagues are working on more research about vaccination campaigns, including an upcoming paper that will discuss effective ways to increase vaccine uptake among white evangelicals.

Another published study by the same research team found similar results for masking; participants became more willing to wear a mask after hearing that masks protect others. 

“I think we have learned that the vaccine is not the panacea we thought it would be,” said Erin James, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Institute for Global Health and lead author of the study. “We also need to continue doing things like social distancing and wearing masks until we reach herd immunity.” 

As of September 2021, 19 percent of eligible adults in the United States are still unwilling to get vaccinated, according to an NPR poll