Hesitancy or apathy? Study finds differences in explanations for rising disinterest in vaccine

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — What’s considered vaccine hesitancy might better be described in some cases as vaccine apathy, a North Carolina State professor said, who adds the phenomenon could be more widespread than originally thought.

“I don’t think we really know how big this segment is,” Dr. Stacy Wood, a marketing professor at N.C. State’s Poole College of Management, said. “But I would suspect it’s a lot bigger than we think.”

Research published earlier this summer by Wood and Stanford University’s Dr. Kevin Schulman argues this is an important distinction to make because combatting either hesitancy or apathy requires drastically different approaches.

“The key difference is the amount of attention and mental capacity that people are putting to the decision – it’s how much they’re thinking about it,” Wood said.

She added that the hesitant are considered high-involvement consumers because they tend to weigh larger volumes of information.

“But for the vaccine apathetic, it’s just not at the top of their list of to-dos. It’s low priority,” she said.

The research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association points out that while hesitant people tend to be persuaded by fact-based arguments from experts, those who are apathetic tend to respond to quick, catchy phrasing from likable celebrities.

“You’ve got to get that impulse-bought, if you will,” Wood said.

The “low-involvement consumers” also tend to be vulnerable to misinformation about the vaccine because those myths tend to be “just short, memorable, evocative uses of emotions like fear or humor,” she said.

Wood continued, “In the same way, we need to do the same thing, right? If you’re promoting vaccination, you need to have those short, sweet messages that maybe uses a liked celebrity, not an expert.”

She said few attitude-based surveys include options that weigh apathy, meaning any estimates might be undercounts.

The research points out one from the Pew Research Center that might come the closest.

In what is described as “a potential proxy for apathy,” the Pew survey of more than 10,000 people in February found more than 3,000 who responded they would probably not or definitely not get the vaccine. Additionally, 42-percent of those people explained their answer by saying “don’t think I need it.” 

To an extent, North Carolina has put some of those ideas into practice, with retired University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Roy Williams and NASCAR great Richard Petty among the celebrities promoting the vaccines in public service announcements.

“This is, in essence, a marketing exercise,” Wood said.


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.


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