University News

Student’s Research on COVID-19 Vaccine Information Underscores Importance of Messaging

A recent study conducted by the University’s Political Science program and the Honors Program found that when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, who delivers the information and how they refer to the virus are significant.

January 7, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of a vaccine.

Doug Gordon ’21 was interested in exploring the impact the coronavirus global pandemic has had on people’s lives. He was especially eager to examine what the public thought about the vaccines that have been developed, and how the messages people receive impacted their opinions of the vaccine.

Gordon was part of a national survey conducted by the University of New Haven’s Political Science program and the Honors Program that was led by Chris Haynes, Ph.D. The project is also part of Gordon’s Honors thesis. For the study, researchers shared with respondents messages from either President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, or a generic source (the control) advocating that they get a COVID-19 vaccine. The researchers then asked respondents how likely they were to take the vaccine based on the recommendation of their source.

Image of Doug Gordon ’21.
Doug Gordon ’21.

The researchers found that when President Trump encouraged respondents to take the vaccine, respondents were most likely to take it, with 78 percent agreeing to it. Those advised by Dr. Fauci reported being less likely to take the vaccine, with only 69 percent agreeing – less than the threshold needed to achieve herd immunity. The decrease was even more pronounced in respondents who reported distrusting the media.

“This was a significant finding, and one that was initially surprising,” explained Gordon, an international development and diplomacy major. “Among those who do not trust the media, there is a 17 percent drop off when Dr. Fauci promotes the vaccine instead of President Trump. This was significant because those who do trust the media did not have any type of drop off.

“This leads us to believe that President Trump may be vital to the success of the vaccine roll out,” he continued. “He could persuade those who do not trust the media to take the vaccine whereas experts like Dr. Fauci or the FDA won’t be as effective.”

The researchers believe this finding was driven in part by those who pay little or no attention to politics. The source of the vaccine messaging did not, however, appear to have the same effect on respondents’ trust in the vaccine itself, the researchers found.

“Most of this difference perceived between President Trump and Dr. Fauci was driven by respondents who distrust the media and who are not politically engaged,” said Dr. Haynes, an associate professor of political science. “President Trump’s involvement may be the key to a successful vaccine rollout.”

Image of Doug and  Dr. Haynes with other studentes at Model UN event.
Doug Gordon ’21 (third from left) and Dr. Chris Haynes (center) at a Model United Nations event.
‘I hope policymakers follow our recommendations’

Respondents were also shown messaging referring to the virus in different ways – as either “COVID-19” or the “China virus.” They found that when the virus was referred to as “COVID-19,” respondents were more willing to take the vaccine than when it was called the “China virus.”

Image of Chris Haynes, Ph.D.
Chris Haynes, Ph.D.

“We found that when President Trump refers to the virus as ‘COVID-19,’ respondents are 15 percent more willing to get the vaccine versus when he calls it the ‘China virus,’” said Gordon. “This is an important finding because when we promote the vaccine, we should refer to it as COVID-19 to avoid undercutting vaccine promotion efforts.”

Gordon says being a part of this project enabled him to apply what he’s learned in the classroom and taught him how to properly conduct research. He is grateful for Dr. Haynes’s guidance and the help of his classmates.

“I hope my research has an impact on the discussion around the rollout of the vaccine,” he said. “I want the vaccine to be effective so that we can return to living as we did before the pandemic as quickly as possible. I hope policymakers follow our recommendations, and it would be wonderful if it inspires further research. The more information the better, especially when working to defeat a deadly pandemic.”