How a NYT article may be counterproductive to the vaccination effort

Retrieved from, credited to Marisol Benitez

I dabble in the New York Times. I complete the sudokus, attempt the crosswords and listen to the Daily almost daily. I also read articles when one happens to jump out. And this past Monday, an article did jump out… for the wrong reasons.

The article was released on Monday, May 3, and called Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Is Unlikely in the U.S., Experts Now Believe. Before going any further, I’d like to let the record show I don’t disagree with the content of the article. (After all, who am I to disagree with the experts?) On the contrary, I think the article contains many good and interesting points. What I disagree with is the manner in which it is presented.

The single biggest issue I take with this article is the title. Titles of articles are critical because even though we may like the idea of thoroughly reading articles, in reality, how often do we dive no deeper than the title to ascertain the main point? Anyone with me on that? (Hopefully, I didn’t just confess to a blasphemy only I commit.) Similarly, think about social media. When someone shares an article on, say, their Instagram story, what part of it do they most often share? The title. (That’s actually how I found out about this particular article.) Titles of articles are the headlines we use to convey and share an article’s central message, which makes them all the more important.

And what message does this title convey? People aren’t getting vaccinated.

As someone who not only worked to support the COVID-19 testing and tracing effort in New York City but also studies behavioral science, that is a very concerning central message.

This takeaway that other people aren’t getting vaccinated sets what social norms theory calls an “empirical expectation,” which effectively means it sets a belief we have about what other people are doing. Empirical expectations matter because if you’re someone who likes to think you don’t care about what other people think or do, you’re the exception to the rule. People, largely, care about what those around them are doing. Because most people care about what others are doing, empirical expectations can affect people’s choices — in this case whether or not to get vaccinated. The article itself admits “To say the goal [of herd immunity] will not be attained adds another ‘why bother’ to the list of reasons that vaccine skeptics use to avoid being inoculated.” I argue it’s not merely a passive ‘why bother’ but something more actively compelling and in turn dangerous: other people aren’t getting vaccinated either. The risk of opening an article with the implied message that people aren’t getting vaccinated is that it sets an expectation that could decrease vaccination rates.

That title is especially tragic because the content of the article itself presents a more complex — and ultimately hopeful — situation. On one hand, it discusses many reasons why herd immunity may not be attainable, ranging from vaccine hesitancy to how local transmission could undermine a national effort. But, on the other hand, it also discusses how not all hope is lost. Even without reaching herd immunity, as more people get vaccinated, infections will go down.

In this way, regardless of whether we achieve herd immunity, every vaccination matters. Instead of accidentally letting social norms and empirical expectations undermine the vaccination effort, we need to leverage them to promote vaccination.

How can we do this? Well, this hopefully sounds obvious, but if you’re vaccinated, think of all the ways you can (not obnoxiously) let other people in your circle or community know you are. This circle or community piece is important because people specifically care about what other people in their reference network (i.e. they identify with in some way) are doing. For example, I let my colleagues know on Tuesday that I may be late to a meeting because I was getting my second shot. I also, admittedly unsubtly, have a green sticker on the back of my phone that says “I got my COVID-19 VACCINE!”

If you haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated yet, there are still ways to promote the rise of vaccination. For example, as this article points out, more than half of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. More than half. Instead of focusing on the moving herd immunity target, let’s focus on that. If you get vaccinated, you are joining the majority. How’s that for an empirical expectation?

Allison (Alli) Wishner is a Master's candidate at the University of Pennsylvania's Masters in Behavioral and Decision Sciences.

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