Strategies for Communicating with People Who Are Not Vaccinated to Build Confidence in Covid-19 Vaccines

The emergence of the delta variant offers new opportunities for reaching people who are not vaccinated. Research from the behavioral and social sciences offers strategies for communicating with vaccine-hesitant individuals as the pandemic evolves.

Highlighting New, Personally-relevant, and Salient Information to Influence Change

Social science research demonstrates that people want to be consistent with what they have previously committed themselves to, either by word or action. Trying to influence people who are not vaccinated by suggesting that they have made a wrong decision is unlikely to succeed, because it undermine recipients’ view of themselves as good decision makers.

Instead, providing new, relevant information or noting recent changes allows people to release themselves from an earlier choice. One can say, in effect: “This is something you could not have known at the time, but that you would want to take into account now, as any good decision maker like you would.” Such new events or information could include:

  • The emergence of the more transmissible delta variant,
  • The increased numbers of people who have decided to become vaccinated,
  • The large and growing amount of safety data available,
  • The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine,
  • The fact that COVID-19 now poses increased burdens of severe complications among people who are not vaccinated, and
  • The growing evidence that vaccines provide significant protection against the most serious complications of COVID-19, including death.

Moreover, using new information is likely to work if the information is presented in ways that are personally relevant and salient.  Presenting vaccine safety data alongside stories of individuals may be more convincing than generic statistics or percentages.  

Amplifying Approval from Relevant Social Groups

Individuals look to their social groups—whether that’s their neighborhood, church, workplace, or friendship network—for social cues on how to behave. These groups serve as a frame of reference for individuals as they make decisions. Social approval of vaccination from relevant social groups can be an important factor in their decision making.

For example, amplifying stories of individuals who are in people’s reference groups and who regret their decisions to not accept vaccines may lead hesitant individuals in that group to review their stance. These stories may also highlight why different people reassessed their decision and chose to be vaccinated.

Using Trend Information

Presenting information on the trends in the number of people getting vaccinated, instead of the total number of vaccinated individuals, can be a useful communications strategy for encouraging vaccination. Highlighting trend data draws upon the psychological phenomenon of “social proof,” in which people assume the actions of others in an attempt to reflect socially acceptable behavior for a given situation.

An unvaccinated individual, for example, may see the growing numbers of people receiving the vaccine and conclude that it is the socially acceptable choice. Demonstrating such trends is more likely to be persuasive if the information includes a specific example of a person who has changed their mind.

Working with Trusted Messengers

Studies have shown the value of identifying trusted messengers that can promote a pro-vaccination message. Trusted messengers are different for different people, but they often have prior relationships with a group and are relied on for information, advice, or assistance.

Usually, this trust is developed over time, but communicators can harness trusting relationships that are already in place. For example, the Michigan State Extension Office engaged local community leaders and farmers to answer questions about COVID-19 from others in rural communities.

Tackling Misinformation and Disinformation

Misinformation is untrue information, factually or contextually, that is shared or distributed. If that information is intended to deceive, it is often referred to as disinformation.

While debunking false beliefs is difficult, risk communication research has shown that countering misinformation and disinformation requires public communication that has three characteristics:

  1. provides clear, definitive information through official channels;
  2. provides information that is consistent—even when information is tentative—so such public authorities are speaking with a single voice to reduce information overload; and
  3. provides transparent communication about the situation.

While the evidence regarding what works for combatting misinformation and disinformation is still emerging, there are some practical steps that decision makers can take to counter misinformation and disinformation:

  • implement transparent and timely communication strategies,
  • promote trusted sources of information,
  • facilitate communications staff in developing a strategy to counter misinformation and disinformation campaigns,
  • integrate communication strategy into existing emergency and public health response protocols,
  • build public resilience to misinformation and disinformation, and
  • collaborate with industry and social media organizations.

To learn more about other strategies for communicating about vaccines, visit:

Learn More

These rapid expert consultations were produced by SEAN (supported by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) and the Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats (supported by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Science and Technology Policy).

Read the guidance online at

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SEAN is a network of experts in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences poised to assist decision makers at all levels as they respond to COVID-19. The network appreciates any and all feedback on its work. Please send comments to