Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9 (1) 243 [2022-07-18; online 2022-07-18]
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, media and policymakers openly speculated about the number of immune citizens needed to reach a herd immunity threshold. What are the effects of such numerical goals on the willingness to vaccinate? In a large representative sample (N = 1540) of unvaccinated Swedish citizens, we find that giving a low (60%) compared to a high (90%) threshold has direct effects on beliefs about reaching herd immunity and beliefs about how many others that will get vaccinated. Presenting the high threshold makes people believe that herd immunity is harder to reach (on average about half a step on a seven-point scale), compared to the low threshold. Yet at the same time, people also believe that a higher number of the population will get vaccinated (on average about 3.3% more of the population). Since these beliefs affect willingness to vaccinate in opposite directions, some individuals are encouraged and others discouraged depending on the threshold presented. Specifically, in mediation analysis, the high threshold indirectly increases vaccination willingness through the belief that many others will get vaccinated (B = 0.027, p = 0.003). At the same time, the high threshold also decreases vaccination willingness through the belief that the threshold goal is less attainable (B = -0.053, p < 0.001) compared to the low threshold condition. This has consequences for ongoing COVID-19 vaccination and future vaccination campaigns. One message may not fit all, as different groups can be encouraged or discouraged from vaccination.