Scientists and doctors are more effective vaccine influencers than politicians and celebrities, new study finds

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In the public health drive to get people to take the COVID-19 vaccine, former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Mike Pence, and other political figures have used their celebrity as encouragement. But new research suggests that politicians may not be the best examples.

A report from researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers finds that politicians may actually backfire and trigger an increase in resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Politicians “don’t have particular credibility on scientific and health matters,” explains David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Politicians “don’t have particular credibility on scientific and health matters,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

There may be a small uptick in vaccine acceptance from like-minded partisans, but the potential for blowback is higher if a politician is from an opposite party, Lazer adds.

“It actually creates the possibility of a backfire effect that outweighs any kind of small positive effect,” he says.

Resistance was lower, researchers found, when the vaccine encouragement came from a doctor, a scientist, or someone close to the potential vaccine recipient.

“Giving people reasons for taking the vaccine—especially when they involve recommendations from their doctor or scientists—rather than telling people about public figures who have taken the vaccine, are more effective for reducing vaccine resistance and increasing reported likelihood of getting vaccinated,” researchers summarized.

To test the potential effectiveness of different vaccine influencers, researchers asked nearly 25,000 people nationally to write down their favorite politician, athlete, or celebrity. The most common names mentioned included former President Donald Trump, President Joe Biden, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, and Tom Hanks.

Respondents were then asked how likely they would be to get the vaccine if the famous names they wrote down were to encourage the public to get injected.

“The most prominent increases in vaccine resistance emerge among Democrats when Trump is vaccinated, and among Republicans when Obama is vaccinated,” researchers wrote in the study. 

There was a smaller but similar pattern for Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. His vaccination might result in small improvements in resistance among Democrats, but likely strengthens resistance among Republicans, suggesting his name is associated with politics, researchers noted. 

Movie stars and athletes had minimal impact, as did patriotic messages, the study found.

“This suggests that if vaccinations of public figures are to be strategically utilized it is preferable to emphasize those who are not overtly political,” researchers wrote.

Biden has received the recommended two doses of the vaccine, spaced about three weeks apart, according to media reports. Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell are among the political leaders who have received doses in December.

Trump tweeted last month that he was “not scheduled” to take the vaccine, but looked “forward to doing so at the appropriate time.”

In other findings from the survey, Republican respondents were more likely to say vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits, while Democrats believe the opposite. Democrats also outpace Republicans and independents in believing that vaccines are thoroughly tested and wouldn’t be made available to the public if they weren’t safe and effective.

Politics aside, 33 percent of respondents surveyed between mid-December and early January said they planned to get the vaccine as soon as possible, while nearly a quarter said it was extremely unlikely they would get it. But Lazer cautions that reluctance may ultimately wane if vaccinations are required by colleges, universities, or employers.

“Even still, probably not everyone gets vaccinated,” he says. “But if we get 80 percent of the population, that’s probably enough.”

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