Vaccines: trusting experts is not the same as listening to them

A study confirms that the public trusts science but needs to be listened to.

Andrew Brookes/AGF

Trust in scientists increased during the pandemic, as reported by the international Wellcome Global Monitor 2020 study on how Covid-19 influenced people's perception of science. But are experts and doctors the most suitable figure to convince people to get vaccinated? This is the question prompted by a research conducted by Italian researchers from the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, the International Security and Development Center in Berlin, and the universities of Helsinki, Trento, and Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, the results of which were recently published in the journal Vaccines.

According to the study, debunking, i.e. disproving false or anti-scientific beliefs by experts, is able to influence the propensity to vaccinate, that is to say to increase the stated intention to vaccinate and to inspire a positive opinion towards the protective capacity of vaccines for oneself and others. Despite this, the study did not find a significant increase in the number of vaccinations as a result of the experts' messages.

The research

The experiment set up by the researchers focused on Italy, and involved 2,277 people between March and June 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign, which was a unique opportunity to test the usefulness of interventions to encourage public health choices. The researchers compared the effectiveness of pro-vaccination information messages from members of the expert community versus messages from a general audience of non-experts. The sample was divided into two groups, the experimental and the control one. At ten-day intervals, for seven times, the researchers recorded the vaccination status of the two groups, their intention to vaccinate, and their opinion on the vaccine's ability to protect others and themselves.
At the end of each survey, the participants were shown informative messages that could answer doubts about vaccination that had previously been raised by the participants themselves. For the experimental group, the messages were presented as being supported by the majority of the medical and scientific community, and for the control group as being supported by the majority of a group of non-experts. The information gathered by the researchers in the following interval was then used to test the effectiveness of the previous messages according to their supposed source.

Why not trust?

"Despite often being heard to the contrary, the study shows us that expert opinion is listened to, especially if it is presented as the consensus of a group of experts and not as the opinion of an individual," says Folco Panizza, a researcher at the MoMiLab - Molecular Mind Laboratory research unit of the IMT School, among the study's authors. The problem is that listening does not immediately translate into action, i.e. taking the vaccine. Although the study does not provide conclusive indications on how to convince the undecided, the researchers provide information on the approach and communication style that experts should adopt. Vaccination and health campaigns often start with the idea that there is a certain problem - for example an alarming increase in mortality in the population due to a virus - and try to convince people to solve it in a certain way, for example by vaccinating. Instead, the opposite should be done. "We must first understand whether people really think there is a problem, what it is, and what discourages them from trying to tackle or solve it," Panizza continues. "It is therefore necessary to start by listening to people's concerns and doubts in order to realise what the difficulties are in joining or not joining a campaign such as the vaccination campaign."

New communication styles

However, the picture is far from simple. Further research conducted by the same researchers in the UK yielded quite different results: the participants' initial opinion was not at all shaken by the information provided. What is certain, according to the researchers involved in the research, is that institutional communication should increase and focus efforts on addressing the concerns of hesitant citizens about the possible side effects of vaccination. Since doctors and scientists are not necessarily trained in communication, it would be useful for institutions to establish effective collaborations with those who are experts in communication. This was seen in the case of the pandemic. "The unconventional attitude of certain figures, mixed with the protagonisms and the various distinctions that we have often heard on television talk shows, has contributed to producing a perception of scientific research that is not very receptive to listening and is much more fragmented than it actually is,' Panizza concludes.

Marco Maria Grande

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