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OP-ED: Creating a new normal

  • Published at 03:42 am June 16th, 2021
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Social proof will play a crucial role in eliminating skepticism regarding Covid-19 vaccination

Social scientists have long been curious about how new social norms emerge. A big part of what makes norms so intriguing is that they spring from our routine social interactions and behaviour, yet they also shape them. We collectively create norms, but we also adapt to fit in with them. Norms enable and norms constrain. They are crucially important for understanding 
social change.

Today’s media systems are historically unique, in part because they offer so many opportunities for people to signal social norms to others. This happens on a vast scale every day, through the countless digitally mediated interactions on social media and personal messaging apps. The signalling of social norms about Covid-19 vaccination is crucial -- and likely to become even more so as we move into the next phase of the vaccine rollout.

Current evidence suggests that vaccine hesitancy may be more difficult to overcome from now on. Younger people tend, on average, to be a bit less keen to get vaccinated than middle-aged and older people. And older people who have already declined vaccination could be the most difficult to persuade.

And yet, if we think about the success of the UK’s vaccination rollout to date -- and factor in how social norms diffuse -- there are now good reasons to be optimistic that vaccine hesitancy will not seriously undermine the pandemic response.

We are more likely to adopt a course of behaviour when we can see that there’s a consensus among numerous others that it’s the best thing to do. Our thinking about how to behave is shaped, in part, by our perception that others in our social networks think the same way. This psychological effect of wanting to conform by following the consensus is known as “social proof.”

In the absence of information that contradicts what we can readily observe, behaviour tends to cascade quickly across social networks, as more and more people perceive that joining the emerging consensus is less effort, more personally beneficial, and more likely to help them fit in and enhance their social status.

An important mechanism in generating social proof is online endorsement. Other people’s thumbs ups and thumbs downs inform our perceptions of what is desirable and acceptable. For example, when a social media user positively endorses news articles, it influences levels of attention to, and favourability towards, those articles among their followers.

People tend to see traces of others’ endorsements, such as online comments or lists of “most shared” news articles, as more authentic measures of credibility and popularity than selection by a news editor.

This can have a direct impact on the health choices people make -- including about vaccination. Before the pandemic, one US study found that parents who believed that other parents in their social networks were unlikely to have their children immunized against routine diseases (such as measles, polio, tetanus and others) were themselves more likely to delay or skip vaccinations for their children.

An ongoing struggle

Still, there are some final points worth stressing.

Social proof does not emerge spontaneously -- it must be maintained. Different types of media and information sources continually expose the vaccine-positive and the vaccine-hesitant to the social signals that influence whether they will accept or avoid vaccination and whether they will encourage or discourage others from getting a jab.

Plus, those who are enthusiastic about vaccination still need clear information and good ways to share it with others online. Without them, the vaccine-positive will lack the ability to signal their enthusiasm and experiences in ways that maintain awareness of the social proof that vaccines are safe and effective. All of these points will be important to bear in mind as the vaccination programs move forward.

Andrew Chadwick is a Professor of Political Communication, Loughborough University. A version of this article first appeared in The Conversation UK and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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