Change Social Norms to Help Gain Acceptance

As humans—particularly those who live within collectivist societies—we are strongly influenced by our perceptions of what others will do, the informal and formal norms.

Taking a social norms approach to change focuses less on changing beliefs and more on changing perceptions of what other people like us are doing. Increasing vaccine uptake requires two kinds of norms-change strategies. The first would focus on reducing vaccine hesitancy. The second would focus on changing norms of communication styles among public health experts. 

To apply social norms theory to driving change, it’s useful, according to Lisa Fazio, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, to find the influencers and get them to change their mind, which can have big downstream effects. So, for example, if you were working in schools, you would target the kids who have the most connections with other kids and have them be the one implementing change. Identifying those influencers is going to have a bigger effect than just random people.

And, according to Emily Brunson, applying social norms theory can work at a national level, too, if you can identify the influencers and get them on board. As an example, she points to a live conversation between basketball star Steph Curry and infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci held on Curry’s personal Instagram account.

The majority of what I found is that parents are making decisions based on what they hear from other people, it’s not even looking at things online or reading social media, it’s actually what they’re hearing from people that they know and trust. And then you have some people, a much smaller group, who are doing actual research, but for those people that are making decisions based on what other people are doing and telling them, that’s, I think, where the trust is. And instead of looking to try and build trust in, especially federal institutions right now in the United States, that’s problematic for various reasons, it’s really coming down to working more at a community level and working with communities and finding spokespersons within those communities who are trusted, who can then share that message. And so that’s the way to end up having that trust built in. It’s not necessarily going through the FDA, at this point it’s going to be going to the mom in that Somali community, it’s going to be going to that reverend or priest in that Southern Baptist community. So it’s going to be looking at more of a community level for who can be a trusted messenger.

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

There is a common belief among communicators within the public health and scientific communities that people make choices based on information. This approach is called the information deficit model, and for many this form of communication is a norm. But, as this guide shows, our choices and behaviors are influenced as much by our emotions, worldviews, moral values, identities and perceptions of what people like us are doing. So an important part of changing how people think about vaccines is changing how public health officials communicate about them. 

Emily Brunson stated, “Most parents when they make decisions they’re going to go to their mom, they’re going to go to their friends who have kids and say, ‘Well, what did you do?’ And that’s really how many people make these decisions. Most people are, for lack of a better word, lazy decision-makers in terms of just, ‘I just want someone else to tell me what to do, someone that I trust.’ And so the social network component is a huge factor.”

I’m going to quote Dennis Mileti, who’s a sociologist of disaster who has worked a lot on public warnings. And basically in these crisis periods, everyone is swimming around in—I think he calls it a soup. It’s a soup of information. While there may be preferred messengers, people are getting a lot of incoming. And the more that there is a repetition of a key message the more it sinks in. So while someone may really place a lot of faith in what their practitioner or their healthcare provider says to them, if it is reinforced from other sources as sources and messengers, that’s a good thing.

— Monica Schoch-Spana, Ph.D., Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security


Shift perceived norms with your identified community with messages that highlight others within their social network who are getting the vaccine, not those who aren’t.

Work with influencers to shift these perceptions.

If you’re using experts to communicate on the topic, move away from the information deficit model to science-informed frameworks like this one. 

Most survey respondents agreed that a COVID-19 vaccine should not be mandatory.

Reflecting strong social norms about personal choice, majorities across all four countries agreed or strongly agreed that people should have a personal choice as to whether to take a COVID-19 vaccine.