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Vaccines and emotion: What roles do hope and fear play in health communication?
Jan 19, 2023, by Casey Nilsson
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According to recent research led by a team of Bryant University faculty, our emotions have a significant impact on how we seek and receive information about vaccinations – and public health experts should take heed as they devise future messaging campaigns.

Published in the journal Health Communication, the mixed-methods study was conducted in mid-2020 using the Planned Risk Information Seeking Model. Researchers gathered data from 336 participants about their information-seeking behaviors and risk perceptions surrounding a broad scope of vaccines. Questions were presented with slight variations — think: “how much do you want to know about vaccines?” versus “how much do you need to know about your risk of getting vaccines?” Participants then rated their emotional state through the lens of hope or fear.

“Our research discovered that the messaging people read about vaccines, based on how it is presented, can create feelings of fear or hope,” says first author Julie Volkman, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication at Bryant. “More importantly, these feelings can impact if, and how, people seek information about vaccines and vaccinations in the future.”

Their findings suggest that a hopeful emotional state correlates with information-seeking behavior, while fear does not. The researchers also found that individuals were interested in learning more about vaccinations if information acquisition was common within their peer groups.

One thing is universal, Volkman says: “Vaccinations can create perceptions of risk in people. ‘What happens to me if I don’t get vaccinated? What happens to me if I do?’ We found that medical experts, government agencies, and health organizations need to pay particular attention to not only the messaging, but also the emotional response and level of risk that messaging makes people feel.”

“What is fact versus fiction, who is credible and who is not, where does one go to become informed? These are all important issues that are directly connected to how the issue is communicated."

Paper co-author and Chair of the Department of Communication and Language Studies Christopher Morse, Ph.D., says the importance of strategic vaccination messaging has come into sharp focus in recent years, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What is fact versus fiction, who is credible and who is not, where does one go to become informed? These are all important issues that are directly connected to how the issue is communicated,” he says.

Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., a professor of biological and biomedical sciences, also contributed to the research, which brought together collaborators from Bryant's College of Arts and Sciences and School of Health and Behavioral Sciences; Hokeness serves as director of the school, which launched in the fall of 2022. Researchers from Northern Arizona University and the University of Nevada also contributed to the work.

"Given the complexity of issues in health care, like the willingness to get a vaccine as this paper addresses, it is important to examine problems through an interdisciplinary lens so we can come up with viable and comprehensive actionable steps to address the problems,” she says.

Access the paper here

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