URI professor finds hope a powerful tool against vaccine hesitancy

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A University of Rhode Island professor has found that messages of hope may help allay some fears surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.

Medhi Hossain, an assistant professor of marketing, conducted a study in January and February of 2021, as vaccines were being rolled out.

He found that suspicion of vaccines’ efficacy is at the root of vaccine hesitancy for many, and that suspicion appears to be exacerbated by loneliness and social disconnection, both byproducts of the pandemic.

During the four-week study, 420 participants were divided into three groups, each receiving different versions of videos, flyers and other communications focused on pandemic-related public health guidance and vaccination.

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Groups received information framed in three different ways – protection, situational control or hope.

“We found that the hope framing – that if you follow these norms during the pandemic, you will have a hopeful future – was significantly more effective than the other two. Hope is what reduces their concerns and motivates them to get vaccinated,” Hossain said. “If this framing is used and delivered at a larger scale, we are cautiously optimistic that it will have a broader impact in reducing hesitancy by influencing people at a psychological level.”

Urging a message of hope includes promoting simple protective measures, Hossain added.

“We find that positive coping behaviors – such as wearing masks in public, practicing hand hygiene – remain the same, while negative coping behaviors – binge eating, watching too much TV, drinking – reduce over time with such communication,” he said.

The study focuses on psychological factors contributing to vaccine hesitancy, not religious or political beliefs, Hossain pointed out.

“We were looking into only the psychological factors because they can be influenced through day-to-day communications that come from the federal agencies,” he said. “These other factors are deeply rooted in your beliefs. So that is difficult to change within the scope of short-term communication.”

Hossain is planning to present the study’s findings at a Society for Consumer Psychology marketing conference in March.

Elizabeth Graham is a PBN contributing writer.

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