Effects of pro-social and hope-promoting communication strategies on COVID-19 worry and intentions for risk-reducing behaviors and vaccination: An experimental study

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Center for Interdisciplinary Population & Health Research, MaineHealth Institute for Research

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JMIR formative research


BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered widespread fear and skepticism about recommended risk-reducing behaviors including vaccination. Health agencies are faced with the need to communicate to the public in ways that both provide reassurance and promote risk-reducing behaviors. Communication strategies that promote pro-social values and hope are being widely employed, however, the existing research on the persuasiveness of these strategies has offered mixed evidence. There is also very little research examining the comparative effectiveness of pro-social and hope-promoting strategies. OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the comparative effectiveness of pro-social and hope-promoting messages in reassuring the public and motivating COVID-19 risk-reducing behaviors. METHODS: An online factorial experiment was conducted in which a diverse sample of the US public was randomized to read messages which adapted existing COVID-19 information from a public website produced by a state government public health department to include alternative framing language: pro-social (PS), hope-promoting (HP), or no additional framing (Control). Participants then completed surveys measuring COVID-19 worry and intentions for COVID-19 risk-reducing behaviors and vaccination. RESULTS: COVID-19 worry was unexpectedly higher in the HP than in the Control and PS conditions. Intentions for COVID-19 risk-reducing behaviors did not differ between groups; however, intentions for COVID-19 vaccination were higher in the HP than in the Control condition, and this effect was mediated by COVID-19 worry. CONCLUSIONS: It appears that hope-promoting communication strategies may be more effective than Pro-social strategies in motivating risk-reducing behaviors, in some contexts, but with the paradoxical cost of promoting worry.