Last year we wrote about the problem of “vaccine fatigue,”1 which can cause some people to simply tune out vaccination campaigns — not just for COVID-19, but also for the flu.2
This fall there will be yet another round of vaccination decisions to make. In addition to updated vaccines for COVID-19 and the flu, many Americans will be eligible for new vaccines to prevent Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).3 Experts are worried that vaccine fatigue may once again be a barrier to widespread vaccination.4
Fortunately, research has shown how to position vaccination to make it more appealing. Positive emotional messages like altruism, happiness and hope are the most effective way to encourage vaccination.5
The reason this works has to do with how we think about life’s challenges. Some people believe that their health is mainly controlled by outside forces — things like fate, chance or genetics. And to some degree this can be true.6
But others believe that health is something that is largely in their own power to control.7 Another term for this is “agency.”8
People who believe that we can control our health often experience more favorable health outcomes and psychological well-being than those who don’t.9
The feeling of agency and control in life is something that can be strengthened with use.10 Vaccination is one of the concrete steps we can take to reinforce our sense of agency and control.11
We do need to recognize that people can have a variety of reasons to not be vaccinated. The same messages won’t work for everyone.12
With these caveats, research on vaccination messaging has found several themes that have been proven effective. While some of these themes can overlap, here we have grouped them as positive, protection and community messages.
[NOTE: This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended as medical advice. Anyone who has questions or concerns about getting either a flu vaccine or a COVID-19 vaccine should consult their care provider.]
1. Positive emotional messages
Positive emotional messages include feelings like altruism, happiness and hope.13
Focusing on the positive is not the same as ignoring the problem. For one thing, there really is tremendously good news to share about vaccinations.14
A hopeful or optimistic approach might start by recalling that historically vaccination has saved more lives than any single factor except sanitary drinking water.15
- Smallpox was completely eradicated by vaccination in 1977. In the 77 years prior, smallpox caused between 300–500 million deaths worldwide.16
- Worldwide, immunization now prevents up to 5 million deaths every year from diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza and measles.17
Vaccines for COVID-19 are another success story. Scientists were able to deliver a safe and effective vaccine in less than one year. (The previous record was four years.)18
The long success story of vaccination is certainly a cause for optimism.
2. Protection messages
Many people respond well to messages about protecting themselves and their loved ones against severe disease.19 A study conducted shortly after the first COVID-19 vaccines became available showed “self-protection” as the second highest ranked reason why people agreed to be vaccinated.20
So, while it may seem obvious, it never hurts to remind ourselves just how effective our vaccines really are.
Vaccination is a strong, positive action that virtually anyone can take to protect themselves against disease. That should go a long way towards making us happier and more hopeful.