Our Perceptions of the Motivations of the Messenger Matter, as do our own Motivations

Our perceptions of the motivations of the messenger matters. Our motivations in seeking information are equally important. We’re less likely to trust a vaccine if we question the motives of the people advocating for us to take it. 

Motivations are relevant to this discussion in three contexts. The first is in the motivation of those urging others to get the vaccine. Messengers can build trust by being clear about their motivations by being clear about why they’re asking people to take a particular action.  

The second is people’s desire to get the vaccine because they’re motivated to return to what’s important to them or the people they care about.

The third is that people who are seeking information for their child are highly motivated. Heidi Larson has pointed out that one of the fertile grounds of rumors is people with a shared curiosity about a topic. She’s explained that people are more vulnerable to a rumor if they’re eager to find an answer. This is particularly relevant to why the “vaccines cause autism” argument has gotten so much traction in parent circles. It’s a big question and concern of parents that’s shared across multiple countries.

If I’m, for example, an immigrant, and I feel like ICE is going to be at that site, or the police will be at the vaccination site, or it’s going to be at a courthouse, I may not feel comfortable going there. Even if I feel very at risk for COVID and I very much want the vaccine, I might be hesitant to be vaccinated just because of how I’m going to have to access it. And so that’s something that we really need to think about, that it’s not just about intent, but that the practicalities of access will matter as well.

Emily Brunson, MPH, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology at Texas State University.

This kind of appetite can have positive consequences. When search algorithms take people toward incorrect, harmful information, it’s damaging. But intentional connections between the kind of topics people are highly motivated to search on and accurate information can be constructive. While public health authorities can be hesitant to enter the social media space, it’s becoming clear that if you’re not there, listening to questions and being there with a response, you’re missing an opportunity to connect parents with good information. 

For example, Neil Lewis Jr., Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at Cornell University, and Sandra Quinn, Ph.D. Professor and Chair, Department of Family Science and Senior Associate Director of Maryland Center for Health Equity, noted that due to centuries of policies that created and entrenched racial inequality, including in healthcare, African Americans sometimes question the motives of government, especially in regard to health. For instance, Sandra Quinn states: “One of the things we found in our qualitative work is that whites were more likely to question competence in government, but our African American participants, given the racial context of the US, were more likely to question the motives of government. . . in today’s context questioning the motives of government is going to be one of the factors here [for a COVID-19 vaccine]. So let’s say we approve a vaccine early. . . what the motives are behind it is going to be in question, whether the government has everyone’s best interest at heart.”

Paul Slovic noted that individual motivations differ for different groups and are tied to what is important to them. “There’s some people who are individualistic and they don’t want to be told to do anything versus people who are more sensitive to the needs of the community. And one of the motivations for taking the vaccine is not only to protect the people you care about and yourself, but to protect the community. So people differ there, and I think the strategies for communication and motivation have to be tailored to the individual and the idiosyncratic factors that drive them including who the communicators are.”


Learn about the motivations of your community and their information seeking behavior.

Be transparent about the motivations of the messenger.