Vaccine hesitancy poses one of the most significant public health obstacles in the fight against COVID-19. In a discussion delivered virtually on June 16, 2021, AgeLab researchers Dr. Lisa D’Ambrosio and Nadja Born described the results of a nationwide survey they conducted in late summer 2020, along with fellow AgeLab researchers Dr. Martina Raue, Samantha Brady, Taylor Patskanick, and Lexi Balmuth.
The survey’s goal, D’Ambrosio and Born explained, was to explore how different conceptual framings around COVID-19 vaccines might influence people’s emotions and attitudes toward vaccination. In late August and early September 2020, the researchers presented survey respondents with a variety of messages concerning the yet-to-be-released vaccines, featuring statements such as “Some experts expect a vaccine will be available and broadly distributed as soon as spring 2021” and “Experts say that life will not fully return to normal until a vaccine is developed and widely administered.” These messages varied according to their valence—that is, whether they conveyed a optimistic or pessimistic tone—as well as their projected timing of vaccine availability.
Message framing, said D’Ambrosio and Born, did influence respondents’ attitudes. For instance, a message suggesting a rapid timeline for vaccine availability elicited relatively positive emotional reactions from respondents, as well as an elevated sense that they would be able to control COVID-19’s effect on their lives.
In a twist running contrary to prior findings from similar studies, however, reports of positive emotional responses did not correspond with a greater intention to get vaccinated. In fact, the researchers discovered that positive emotions, controlling for other variables, often accompanied a slight downtick in reported intent to pursue vaccination. “We are exploring some potential explanations for this result,” said D’Ambrosio, “but right now we are still puzzling on this a bit. We did see that beliefs about vaccine risks and benefits were associated, as we would expect, with intention to be vaccinated, but it may be, for example, that emotional intensity – not just the report of the emotion – is more important for predicting people’s intentions to vaccinate.”