President Joe Biden pointed a finger at the roughly 25% of vaccine-eligible people in the U.S. who haven’t had coronavirus shots as he rolled out a broad vaccine mandate aimed at bringing the pandemic under control. “We cannot allow these actions to stand in the way of the large majority of Americans who have done their part and want to get back to life as normal,” the president said.

But a growing body of research shows that such direct "high threat" messaging can backfire, says S. Shyam Sundar, a media scholar from Penn State University.

These messages can have the unintended effect of causing psychological “reactance,” in which people resist complying with health guidance on issues as seemingly benign as flossing or keeping kids off drugs, he says.

It's a psychological phenomenon that can be seen around the world and is exemplified by widespread protests and opposition to mandates. “When individuals sense a threat to their freedom of action, they become motivated to restore that freedom, often by attempting to do the very thing that is prohibited or by refusing to adhere to the recommended behavior,” Sundar writes.

Also today:

Amanda Mascarelli

Health and Medicine Editor

Protesters gather at Indiana University in June 2021 to demonstrate against mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for students, staff and faculty. SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Forceful vaccine messages backfire with holdouts – how can it be done better?

S. Shyam Sundar, Penn State

Subtly shifting the crafting and delivery of public health messaging on COVID-19 vaccines could go a long way toward persuading many of the unvaccinated to get the shot.

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