Is scaring people such a good policy?
At least in Italy, every day the media are full of pandemic news, and hence it is becoming more and more difficult to stumble upon something genuinely interesting. Yet this article by Adam Grant for the New York Times certainly is. It deals with the sort of communication governments pursued during the pandemic. My main takeaway is the following sentence:
Fear generally works best for motivating one-time acts, especially those that feel risky. Last year, fear was probably an effective way to motivate people to get their first vaccine. But it tends to be less effective for driving repeated behaviors such as getting a second dose and a booster.
Whatever we think of the merit of their decisions and the measures they took, experts and governments just assumed that scaring people was the thing to do. Even today, with the Omicron variant, more and more European governments are doing just that. The problem, Grant suggests, is that fear-based communication is not sustainable; what happens with the passing of time is that we end up in “the boring apocalypse” (the title of his piece).
Since 2020, scientists have made astonishing strides in learning how to prevent and treat Covid-19. Health authorities should be applying the same scientific discipline to communications about Covid. Some promising approaches include informing people that a shot has been reserved for them, inviting them to do their part in reciprocating the enormous sacrifices of health care workers and inquiring about what would motivate them to consider a vaccine.
Public health experts can also improve how the message is delivered. It’s not helpful to keep defaulting to what some vaccine skeptics dismiss as “fear porn” about Covid-19, or trying to neutralize fears of immunization with blanket statements that vaccines are safe and effective (How safe? How effective — and for whom?). Experiments show that communications become more convincing when they address counterarguments and acknowledge uncertainty. A more persuasive and honest message is that of course vaccines have risks, but the best available evidence suggests that the risks of Covid-19 are both far more likely and far more severe.
While Grant’s piece is original and worth pondering, it also makes you wonder why, with all the experience we have with communications, and with the constantly growing body of research on the subject (which is likely to be more familiar/more accessible to decision makers than immunology literature is), governments tended to screw up communicating about Covid-19, and now flirt with vaccine mandates without considering the downside. I may be influenced by the terrible communication we had in Italy, where the pandemic was moralised and became a battlefield for politicised scientists.