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KU indicates key to COVID-19 vaccine-hesitant could lie within conversion message

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FILE(AP Photo/Emma H. Tobin)
Published: Jun. 4, 2022 at 4:46 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - The University of Kansas says the key to the vaccine-hesitant could lie within the message, a conversion message.

The University of Kansas says health communicators, medical professionals, politicians and average Kansans have struggled with ways to convince those hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine to get vaccinated.

KU said new research has shown that conversion messages - or 2-sided narrative messages - which describe someone who was reluctant to get the vaccine but changed their mind are more effective to convince the vaccine-hesitant than one-sided messages which advocate inoculation.

The University said the idea of the conversion message has been long studied in religion, philosophy and rhetoric research - but it has only recently started to be studied in communication science. In a religious context, it said the messages frequently detail a person who changed their beliefs and how they came to follow a different faith.

KU said a study led by Jeff Conlin, assistant professor of journalism and mass communications, analyzed whether such messages would be effective in the encouragement of pro-vaccine attitudes and intentions to get vaccinated. It said the results found the messages increased pro-vaccine attitudes and behavioral intentions among those who self-reported as highly vaccine-hesitant.

For the study, the University noted that participants took an online survey in which they described basic demographic information and their attitudes and intentions of getting vaccinated. They were then randomly assigned to one of three 2-sided conversion messages or one of three one-sided advocacy messages. It said participants were asked about the credibility of the message source, counterarguments and the attitudes toward getting vaccinated - as well as if they intended to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We found conversion messages, when compared to advocacy messages, led to pro-vaccine attitudes and behavioral intentions in participants with high vaccine hesitancy. That’s probably the biggest takeaway of this research, along with the credibility of the message source mediating the effects of conversion messages on vaccination attitudes,” Conlin said. “Our findings show that these types of health messages are not a one-size-fits-all solution to encourage everyone to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Designing and using conversion messages requires a matching of psychological states between the source of the message and the audience exposed to the message.

KU said those who were assigned a conversion message read bout a person named Jamie who was originally vaccine-hesitant, however, after a conversation with her brother-in-law, changed their mind and reported they wanted to get a vaccine when it became available.

The University said the message author’s original hesitancy matched with those who indicated high hesitancy. For high vaccine-hesitant participants, it said the relationship between conversion messages and attitudes was mediated through source credibility. However, it said for low vaccine-hesitant participants, mediation happened through counterargument which meant they were looking for files in the message’s argument or disagreed with it.

KU said the study was conducted in late 2020 and early 2021 as the COVID-19 vaccine began to emerge with emergency approval, but was not yet available to Americans. It said the researchers wanted to test different approaches as they knew parts of the public would not be automatically open to getting the vaccines.

“We knew the vaccines were on the horizon and the concept of vaccine hesitancy was likely to play a role in uptake because it has in other contexts,” Conlin said. “If someone is high in hesitancy, they’re less motivated to get vaccinated, which has implications on public health, so we wanted to look at that idea and test the persuasive effects of conversion messages in this emerging context.”

The University noted that the results show initial promise to reach those who are hesitant toward vaccines, but the authors said further research is needed. First, it said the sample was not large enough to be representative of the nation, and they said they would like to further test the messages with a more representative pool of participants with high vaccine hesitancy.

Also, KU said the study was held right before vaccines were widely available and they would like to study conversion messages’ effectiveness with those after more than a year of availability. Furthermore, it said both mass and social media have exposed the nation to a great deal more information about the vaccines both in favor of and detracting from them - and the availability of boosters.

Regardless of what future research could find, KU said the study shows there is a potential to use conversion messages in communicating the availability and benefits of the vaccine. It also said the research lends support to the importance of nuanced approaches to pro=health message design, especially about COVID vaccines and the importance of the right kind of message to reach specific audiences.

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