Messages about the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) and steps to take to prevent it resonate more with the public when they come from recognized “experts,” a study published Wednesday by PLOS ONE found.
People are more likely to share information from health specialists such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with friends and family than from elected officials, the data showed.
This was true even in countries other than the ones in which the experts work and practice, the researchers said. For example, Fauci’s expertise on the Covid-19 was more trusted than the perspectives of elected officials in South Korea.
In addition, people are also more likely to pass along these expert opinions than those from celebrities such as Tom Hanks, who share their personal experiences with the pandemic, the researchers said.
“In times of crisis, and particularly in the early stages of the crisis, people look for a credible, unbiased source of information,” study co-author Ahmad Abu-Akel said.
“Since we are more likely to respond to people who we like, admire or respect, the spokesperson may be most effective with an audience with whom there is potentially an emotional connection,” said Abu-Akel, a research fellow at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.
The findings are based on a survey of more than 12,000 adults in Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and the United States in March 2020.
The survey included a question about participants’ willingness to share a message that encouraged social distancing that was endorsed by Fauci, Hanks, Kim Kardashian or a prominent government official from the respondents’ respective countries.
Across all six countries, participants reported greater willingness to share the social-distancing message endorsed by Fauci versus any of the other three, the data showed.
This preference held true after accounting for participants’ varying demographics and attitudes towards social distancing.
Celebrity endorsements were less likely to prompt sharing than endorsement by a government official or no endorsement at all. And participants who were older or reported positive sentiments toward their randomly selected spokesperson were more likely to be willing to share the message.
The findings could help guide governments’ in the selection of spokespeople to convey public health messages to maximize their effectiveness, like encouraging vaccine acceptance, the researchers said.
“Careful selection of spokespersons for a target audience is crucial to ensuring maximum compliance with public health recommendations, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic,” Abu-Akel said.
“By leveraging the right spokesperson, we may easily trigger an entire host of psychological mechanisms, by simply mentioning their name as the source,” he said.