Can behaviour change campaigns overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy?

Without mass take-up of the COVID-19 vaccine, the world as we know it is in serious danger.

Health comms professionals can't afford to fail in convincing the public to take up COVID-19 vaccines, writes Shayoni Lynn
Health comms professionals can't afford to fail in convincing the public to take up COVID-19 vaccines, writes Shayoni Lynn

In order to resume any semblance of normality, we need to reach herd immunity – or population immunity, a concept where a population is protected from a virus if it reaches a certain threshold of vaccination.

According to scientists, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated for us to develop immunity.

Yet, with ballooning disinformation and growing mistrust in the Government, as well as some valid concerns about vaccine safety, more people than expected are indicating they may not take up the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s made available to them.

This means that we may not reach the level of immunity we require to push past this crisis.

Before developing communication strategies, it’s vital we understand the barriers to take-up.

Vaccine campaigns are notoriously hard.

As human beings, we prefer to avoid complex decision-making where we can, or substitute a difficult question with an easier one.

Add to that, the COVID-19 vaccine is being released during the flu season, when vaccination asks have been ongoing.

You can now start to understand the massive challenge that lies ahead for public health communicators across the country.

So, what are the possible barriers to take-up outside of disinformation and trust?

Status quo inertia

We often prefer the current state of affairs, and stay passive even when action is good for us. Vaccine decision-making usually triggers this bias within us, and the COVID-19 vaccine is no different.

Optimism bias

Complacency is another barrier to take-up. Living with the virus for nearly a year means our perception of risk has changed over time. We’re seeing this with compliance issues across the country. More people are demonstrating risk-taking behaviours, triggering firebreaks and lockdowns.

Behavioural contagion

…or social copying. We tend to repeat the behaviours of those around us. If we see people around us demonstrating anti-vaccine behaviours, we might be tempted to follow.

So, what should communicators do to tackle these barriers, and deliver the campaign of a generation?

This is where behavioural science can help.

Intention-action gap

Let's not forget that often there can be a gap between what we say and what we do. Known as Observer Bias or the Hawthorne Effect, we may change our behaviour or act differently when we know we are being watched. As communicators, we should remember this and not be daunted by survey outtakes, but monitor real-time behaviour instead.

Choice architecture

Designing better decision-making environments can promote better behaviours. Behaviourally informed user journeys, reducing friction or hassle as much as possible, can move people into action. Make the process of vaccination as easy as possible.

Social proof

Research tells us that we look to our friends and families and adopt cues on how to behave. Use this lever to showcase those who are taking the COVID-19 vaccine. The more we promote its popularity among communities (via visual or mental cues), the more we can dial up demand.


The key to behaviour change will be localisation of content and personalisation of message. One size does not fit all. Behaviour change is all about context, so a national campaign will be limited, where local campaigns can cater to local context and framing. Localise and tailor. And, like all effective behaviour-change campaigns, test to learn, and adapt.

Shayoni Lynn is director and principal consultant at Lynn PR

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