Although African Americans have been much harder-hit by covid-19 than non-Hispanic White Americans, with significantly higher hospitalization and death rates, they’re more skeptical about vaccination. A larger proportion of Black people than White people say they would rather wait and see how vaccination goes for other people, instead of getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

What would change this attitude and move the United States more quickly toward herd immunity? Our research finds that individuals are more likely to get vaccinated when they hear that a higher proportion of their racial group plans to do so as well.

How we did our research

At the end of January, we conducted a survey experiment on a national sample of 2,231 U.S. adults via the Cint online platform. The sample included about 1,100 non-Hispanic White Americans and about 1,100 Black Americans, none of whom had been vaccinated. All respondents were asked to read a few paragraphs from a fictitious Associated Press article discussing the coronavirus vaccines then authorized for emergency use in the United States and how they could help the country reach herd immunity.

However, respondents were then divided into four subgroups. One group read that 70 percent of their racial group, whether Black or White, would choose to be vaccinated immediately if they had the chance today; the second group read that 70 percent of White Americans and 50 percent of Black Americans would; the third that 50 percent of White Americans and 70 percent of Black Americans had such plans; and the fourth (the control condition) was not provided any additional information beyond vaccine benefits and availability. We then asked all participants, “How likely are you to get a vaccine to prevent covid-19 as soon as it becomes available to you?”

Respondents were more likely to want the vaccine after learning that their own racial group was eager for it

When respondents — whether Black or White — read that a majority of their racial group was eager to be vaccinated, they become significantly more willing to get a vaccine as soon as possible, with an increase of over five percentage points compared to the control. White adults were more likely to say they would choose to be vaccinated as soon as possible whenever they read that 70 percent of White Americans are eager for the shot, whether they also read that only 50 percent of Black Americans said they would be vaccinated.

That wasn’t true for Black respondents. They were more likely to say they would want to be vaccinated when reading that 70 percent of other African Americans were eager to be vaccinated. However, if Black respondents read that 70 percent of other Black Americans are eager for the shot but only half of White Americans are, they did not become either more or less interested in the vaccine for themselves. Information about White Americans’ vaccination intentions therefore made no notable difference for African American attitudes.

All these changes in uptake intentions remained significant after we controlled for other factors, like trust in the article’s accuracy, hesitation about vaccines in general, trust in science, and partisan affiliation.

What this means for U.S. vaccination efforts

Generally, research suggests that people want to conform to others in the groups with which they identify. Our research suggests that tendency could be used to encourage people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. While a lot of vaccine information and misinformation had been in the news and social media when we conducted our study, hearing about what others in their racial group intended to do still influenced our sample’s intentions in meaningful ways.

Both White and Black Americans’ trust and confidence in the safety of coronavirus vaccines can be strengthened when they know that others in their community trust it. That especially matters for communities of color, which have been hit hardest by the ongoing pandemic. Policymakers are most likely to successfully persuade Americans to get vaccinated if they customize messages to specific communities rather than delivering the same information to the U.S. population at large.

Marzia Oceno is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University.

Wei-Ting Yen is an assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College.