Evoke the Right Emotions

It’s tempting to activate emotions like fear or shame to get people to take a vaccine. But fear immobilizes us, and shame is likely to achieve the opposite reaction we’re hoping for. Look to more constructive emotions like pride, hope and parental love to get people to act.

People form judgements and make decisions based on emotion, but when it comes to conveying scientific information, there’s a tendency to eschew emotion. Particular emotions can motivate people to action or immobilize them. Using emotions intentionally can close the chasm between intention and action.


We don’t want to feel the shame, but changing the behavior is not necessarily the easiest thing to do. . . This is something that’s been on my mind a lot with university responses to students about shaming them around various behaviors. What you’re asking them to do is lie to you on these daily checks, etc. It’s not actually getting them to stop doing those behaviors. So that’s something I want to be cautious about, is shame and stigma. Those appeals do not work in the way people think they do. It gets people to lie to you, and so we shouldn’t do that.

— Neil Lewis, Jr., Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at Cornell University

Emotions to avoid: 

Sadness. Sadness can be helpful in gaining short-term engagement, but isn’t helpful over the long term. We are motivated to maintain a positive sense of ourselves, and tend to ignore information that makes us feel bad about our choices or doesn’t affirm our worldview. 

Shame. It’s tempting to shame people for not choosing to get the vaccine. But as we’ve seen with mask wearing, shame activates people’s moral reasoning and they’ll find reasons why their choice is the right one to avoid feeling bad about themselves. 

Fear. Using fear appeals can be effective when there’s a clear call to action, but in this case, it’s more likely that fear appeals will immobilize people. Fear motivates people to assess information systematically, so we may pay more attention to information when we are afraid. Public health scholars have found a relationship between fear and perceptions of personal or group risk. If the risk doesn’t seem relevant to an individual’s life, they won’t experience fear and are more likely to disengage from or discount the message. If people are seeing messages that suggest that the risks of COVID-19 are minimal, they’re unlikely to engage. People can experience fear when the consequences of risk are uncertain and they feel like they do not have control over the outcome. So using a fear-based message could damage more constructive efforts to demonstrate how taking the vaccine offers control. 

Emotions that drive action:

Pride can be effective in motivating people to engage in altruistic behavior, because it motivates us in ways that improve our image in the eyes of others and that makes us feel good about ourselves. 

Parental love can be experienced by anyone, whether they’ve had a child or not. The emotion inspires us to protect those who are perceived as vulnerable. Research suggests that featuring children and baby animals is a way to activate parental love and increase compassion.

Lisa Fazio suggested a call to action beyond “getting” the vaccine for yourself, but using emotions via an aspirational approach. “The call to action is something that is elevated and aspirational and focused on the benefits and that sense of normalcy. The call to action is not getting a vaccine that is available to you. The call to action is, ‘Protect your family, protect your loved ones. Help the world get past this crisis.’”

Hope is a powerful emotion that increases feelings of efficacy and can motivate behavior change. Hope focuses attention on future rewards and possibilities, which can motivate people to take action to attain those outcomes. For people to feel hope they must see a future outcome as important, personally relevant, possible and in line with their existing goals and motives. Heidi Larson pointed out that hope is an emotion we under-leverage. Her work with mothers of Zika-affected microcephaly children showed that hope was deeply motivating to parents’ engagement.  

Fear with self-efficacy messages also can be effective. One thing to keep in mind is that when you try to elicit a single emotion, sometimes you will elicit mixed emotions and particularly as we get older. Among older adults, if you try to elicit a single emotion, a  mixed emotional reaction may result instead. So there’s some very interesting things that happen with that across the lifespan. But in general, it’s actually kind of hard to elicit a single emotion and have it stick as a single emotion. When we get fearful, we can end up experiencing lots of other thoughts and feelings that come along with the fear. I wonder if some of them were cognitive emotions, things like pride, things like parental love, these things that we not only feel, but we also think about and we elaborate on. . . I wonder if those might actually be more effective because of the whole elaboration process, but I don’t actually know of any data that’s looked at that specifically. Fear can be very immediate, but it can also be counter argued. Parental love, who’s going to counter argue it?

— Ellen Peters, Ph.D., Philip H. Knight Chair and Director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon


Avoid using shame, fear or sadness in calls to action. We are likely to tune out messages that use sadness or shame to retain our positive sense of self, and fear messages can be immobilizing.

Tap into hope, pride and parental love to motivate people to act and affirm their positive sense of self. 

A significant number of vaccine hesitant respondents responded positively to a hopeful message.

41% of vaccine hesitant individuals agreed or strongly agreed a COVID-19 vaccine was the “best chance” we have of ending the pandemic. 

Respondents would feel regret if their child got COVID-19 and they chose not to vaccinate.

 A large majority of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they would feel regret if they chose not to give their child a COVID-19 vaccine and then their child became ill.