At times, religious leaders might be better at persuading people to get vaccinated

Vaccinating a substantial portion of society has been found to be the best way to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control, but the pace of vaccination has slowed down since the vaccines were first made available to the public in December 2020. As of May 2022, only 66% of the eligible population in the United States was fully vaccinated, even as vaccines were going unused around the country.

Some groups, such as political conservatives, rural residents and evangelical Christians, are less likely to get vaccinated. Low vaccination rates could lead to more deaths and prolong the pandemic.

Experts believe that effective public health messages are needed to encourage people to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. People are more likely to follow advice if it comes from someone they can trust.

As political scientists, we found in our recent study that religious leaders are more effective messengers than medical and political leaders.

Religious leaders and COVID-19 messaging
In April 2021, we surveyed 709 unvaccinated registered voters in South Dakota, a state with a large proportion of Republican voters, rural residents and evangelical Christians.

We wanted to find out whether public health messaging from three different types of leaders – political leaders, medical leaders or religious leaders – might increase the willingness of the unvaccinated population to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. We also wanted to find out which messenger would be most successful in delivering this message.

As a part of the survey, we conducted what social scientists call a “survey experiment,” which is similar to experiments that scientists conduct in laboratories. Participants were randomly assigned into one of four groups: three treatment groups and one control group.

Participants in each of the treatment groups received an identical message encouraging COVID-19 vaccination. This message came either from a political leader, medical leader or a religious leader from South Dakota.

For scientific validity, participants in the fourth group read a short message unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic (similar to a placebo in a clinical trial). Afterward, all participants answered the same question about their vaccination intentions.

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