To vaccinate or not to vaccinate: What makes the difference?

Authored by Teresa Huff

Prosocial behavior encompasses actions taken with the goal of helping another.  As a human trait, it garners much attention in the realm of social psychology research.  Recently, a German study examined the link between prosocial behavior, vaccination advocacy and “free-riding,” where an individual enjoys benefits of some sort primarily due to the actions  of others in the group or society. Meanwhile, the individual fails to act or “pay” his portion. In these instances, said individuals can be described as failing to act prosocially.

Researchers at the University of Erfurt proposed that how vaccination advocacy is presented may impact individuals’ intentions or actions in vaccinating themselves. When large portions of a society vaccinate, the result is herd immunity, with the vaccinated protected but that benefit extending to the unvaccinated.  While vaccination produces a direct benefit by reducing disease, it does so at a cost—time, monetary investment, and possible side effects.   Thus, those who “free ride” and fail to vaccinate enjoy immunity without cost.

In a 2x2x2 experimental design, researchers hypothesized that when a vaccination advocacy message highlighted individual benefit, ie “When most people in your environment are vaccinated, you are more likely protected”, free-riding would increase.  Conversely, if social benefit was salient, ie “If you are vaccinated, you help protect others who are not,” they predicted an emergence of prosocial behavior.

The study’s results were mixed.  Significant findings emerged when individual benefit was salient, demonstrating that under those conditions, free-riding resulted.  In the social benefit condition, no significant difference was found in increase to prosocial behavior, but a decrease in free-riding resulted.  However, a third hypothesis introducing a high vs. low cost variable revealed that when social benefit is the salient message, prosocial behavior emerges IF costs are low.  Interestingly, the control group who received no vaccination message at all averaged higher vaccination intentions than either experimental group, leading to the question: why communicate herd immunity at all?  It could be reasoned that although a social benefit message failed to increase prosociality, it succeeded in impacting free-riding, thus producing a positive effect.

Ultimately, studies like this one demonstrate the powerful real-world impact social psychology research makes upon persons and their situations.  An increased insight and understanding of what motivates persons in situations plays an important role in informing and shaping the therapeutic and clinical realms of our field.

Betsch, C., Böhm, R., & Korn, L (2013).  Inviting free-riders or appealing to prosocial behavior? Game-theoretical reflections on communicating herd immunity in vaccine advocacy. Health Psychology, 32, 978-985.


Posted on November 19, 2013, in Community, Emerging Trends in Psychology, Psychological Concepts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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