It all starts with trust

Our willingness to put a foreign substance into our bodies is highly dependent on trust.

Do we trust the vaccine? Do we trust those urging or requiring us to get the vaccine? Do we trust those developing it, and their methods and testing? Do we trust that the vaccine will keep us safe and not make us sick? Do we trust those administering the vaccine, and the environments in which it is offered?

There is no perfect turn of phrase or collection of terms that can lead people to choose to take a vaccine or reduce their hesitancy to do so. It is tempting to think that if we simply share consistent information about the availability and efficacy of the vaccine, people will trust that information and behave accordingly. However, this information deficit model of communication is not enough.

The human brain struggles to process uncertainty and complexity. It’s not surprising that hesitancy regarding a COVID-19 vaccine is so rampant, and that it’s easy and understandable to put trust in those around us who are expressing hesitancy and our own gut instincts, rather than trusting institutions.

The factors driving a lack of trust

Some of the factors driving the lack of trust within certain communities include:

Inconsistency. Sharing health advice as our understanding of the science evolves may be perceived as inconsistency. If we look at the health messaging during the pandemic: many were told masks didn’t work. Then that they did. Or that focus of infection was on surfaces, then we learned that the real threat was aerosolization. For those who are already skeptical, all of this can sound like inconsistency, which erodes trust.

False balance happens when a story or news account gives equal weight to two perspectives, or “both sides.” We perceive them as being equally weighted and valid, leaving us to decide for ourselves which is true. This happened in media coverage linking the MMR vaccine to autism, when in fact just one poorly conducted (and ultimately retracted) study showed a link between the two. We saw a similar trend in early reporting on climate change: the scientific community almost unanimously agrees on the effects of global warming, but many news outlets included commentary from a few dozen climate-skeptics scientists, creating the perception among some that there is a chasm in the scientific consensus. 

The wrong messages, sometimes shared as personal stories, can be hard to overcome—especially those that seem politically motivated and don’t show compassion or a link to science. Stories of individuals being harmed by vaccines, whether they are true or not, can undermine larger campaigns. It’s easier to empathize with the experience of just one person than it is to empathize with the experience of the millions of humans whose health has already been protected by vaccines.

Abstraction is harmful, because when messages aren’t concrete, our minds fill the empty space of abstraction with our own sense of meaning and bias. If you aren’t providing concrete details, people who hear your message are filling that “empty space” with what is known or familiar to them. This may be the case with communicating about the process of developing a vaccine, without concrete information on the process we fill the void with our own assumptions about safety and efficacy.

If a messenger appears to be motivated by factors that conflict with the recipient’s moral values or is part of an “out-group” the recipients of the messages won’t trust the messenger: Research suggests that when one encounters messengers with perspectives different than theirs, they’ll ascribe the most extreme beliefs to them if the message counters their own perspective.

Timing matters. And as tumultuous recent events have shown, factors like elections, diagnoses and announcements about the status of vaccine trials have rapidly shifted the landscape and people’s perceptions of their efficacy. It’s important to be thoughtful about these contextual factors as you release information, hold events, or launch campaigns. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic who do you get reliable health advice from?

Scientists and health professionals are the most trusted sources of advice during the pandemic.