Dr. Joshua Liao discusses how people can approach the decision to get vaccinated and avoid some common biases that may distort perceptions of vaccine safety and efficacy.
Covid-19 vaccines have arrived in the U.S. While this is good news, even safe, efficacious vaccines will underperform their potential if Americans decline them. Unfortunately, there is reason for concern: recent polls suggest that only 29% of people would definitely get a vaccine to prevent Covid-19 if one were available, while 18% would definitely not get one.
For the many other undecided Americans, it is critical to think clearly about risks and benefits when making vaccination decisions. One obvious barrier is rampant vaccine misinformation. But behavioral science highlights another: as humans, we are susceptible to cognitive biases that sometimes help us make decisions under pressure or uncertainty but can also lead us astray toward poor choices in other situations.
Americans should be particularly mindful of two prevalent biases that can distort perceptions about vaccine efficacy and safety.
This phenomenon describes how people make decisions by placing significance on information that comes to mind most easily. For example, vivid TV coverage of a stock investment may prompt people to buy, despite worrisome but less recallable information in prospectus documents. As another example, news of a recent plane crash may cause a person to drive rather than fly to a destination, despite the proven safety of air travel over car travel.
Even though recalling an event and estimating its risk are not the same, humans tend to blend the two, overestimating the likelihood of events where examples spring easily to mind. This tendency can negatively impact Covid-19 vaccine decisions.
Because common post-vaccination reactions – such as minor, short-lived symptoms like soreness at the injection site – are not very newsworthy, media coverage may skew towards gripping, but rare examples of severe allergic reaction or vaccine mishandling that renders it ineffective. Of course, it is crucial to monitor all issues and adverse events, however uncommon. But prioritizing them in the news cycle may cause Americans to over-inflate vaccine dangers.
This bias describes how people tend to seek out and favor information that supports their prior beliefs or values. For example, if a person already believes that a coworker is upset with her, she may be primed to attribute delayed email replies from that coworker as passive-aggression rather than just being busy – interpreting potentially neutral actions as negative. Similar dynamics can exist when people seek out information about social issues such as gun control or abortion laws.
These and many other examples underscore a two-sided insight: humans often believe things that they want or already believe to be true; and reject things they hope or already believe to be false. One consequence of confirmation bias is that people close themselves off the new information and act in ways that become self-fulfilling prophecies.
In the case of Covid-19, people predisposed to distrust vaccines may be primed for information that confirms that distrust, compared to information that supports vaccine benefits and safety. This type of confirmation bias can have negative ripple effects if it afflicts leaders or citizens in positions of influence.
What can Americans do to combat availability and confirmation biases? However obvious, the first step is to recognize that they exist and apply to vaccination decisions. The adage is true here: we can’t change what we don’t acknowledge.
The next step is to translate that awareness into a more debiased approach to learning about vaccines. For individuals, this might involve diversifying information and news sources. Few things magnify availability and confirmation biases like the echo chambers of filter bubbles – the insulated spheres of information created by ubiquitous personalized searches and news feed algorithms. Information from any one news source can also be checked against resources provided through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Media leaders could directly consider the potential for cognitive bias when selecting stories and inviting guest commentators, asking “which ones will convey an accurate sense of the issues and counteract biases?” not just “which ones will attract the most viewers or readers?” Public health and community leaders could adopt similar perspectives in how they choose how to disseminate information via their networks and platforms.
To be fair, there are no silver bullets in addressing vaccine hesitancy, in part because people may decline vaccination for different reasons. Cognitive biases can also cut both ways. For instance, people already predisposed to believe in vaccines may be more closed off to information that might emerge about dangers. As we gather more information – about things like additional side effects, duration of immunity, and performance among different patient groups – we all must guard against mental blind spots and accurately assess new information about vaccine efficacy and safety.
Nonetheless, available data suggests that we should celebrate the arrival of these first Covid-19 vaccines. Addressing cognitive biases can help Americans weigh vaccination decisions more clearly and give the country the best possible chance of overcoming the pandemic.
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