The ‘Third-Person Effect’ Explains Why So Many People Don’t Bother to Get Their Flu Shots

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The arguments in favor of getting the flu shot are all there: Your office is basically a giant petri dish. Those gross-tasting powders and supplements you bought to turbocharge your immune system aren’t really doing much. Also, having the flu really sucks. Still, only around 40 percent of adults in the U.S. actually got vaccinated last flu season, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control.

A study recently published in the Journal of Health Communication sheds some light on why: The reason why so many people neglect to get the flu vaccine, the researchers argued, has to do with something called the “third-person effect,” or the idea that people tend to think media messages will have more of an impact on other people than it did on them. Essentially, we all think we’re too smart to fall for campaigns designed to manipulate our behavior, and that everyone else is too dumb not to — health organizations can evangelize about flu prevention till they’re blue in the face, and we’ll let their warnings roll right off us.

The study authors showed undergraduate volunteers a series of old news clips on the 2009 swine flu epidemic, some of which included instructions on how to avoid contracting the virus, messages about the severity of the H1N1 flu strain, or both. Afterward, participants filled out a survey rating how likely they were to get the flu shot, how severe the clips made H1N1 out to be, and how influential they thought the clips would be on themselves, other students at their school, and the general public.

Most people, the researchers found, didn’t feel any more motivated to get the flu shot after viewing flu-centric news coverage. What’s more, they also considered themselves more immune to the health warnings they saw — in general, volunteers were likeliest to say that others would be influenced by the clips, but that they themselves were not. The same applied to the person delivering the message: Participants believed that others would be more receptive to information delivered by a doctor rather than a newscaster, though they weren’t swayed by one over the other.

Interestingly, though, the pattern didn’t hold for clips mentioning other specific prevention methods, like washing hands more often or avoiding crowds — in those cases, people were more likely to say that the clips would help guide their future behavior. The reason for the discrepancy, the study authors argued, has to do with the fact that most of us walk around with overinflated opinions of ourselves: “This points to the idea that people credit themselves as being sophisticated and intelligent enough to pay attention to the content, rather than look for superficial cues such as who were the quoted sources,” lead author Hyunmin Lee, a communications professor at Drexel University, said in a statement. You know what’s even more sophisticated and intelligent, though? Getting the shot without any convincing.

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Here’s Why So Many People Don’t Bother to Get Flu Shots