As COVID-19 cases surged across the United States in late 2020, experts predicted that the initial supply of vaccines would be limited. Where others may have seen potentially rancorous times ahead, Stony Brook University’s Stacey Finkelstein saw a perfect opportunity to test whether the time-honored law of supply and demand would extend to the COVID vaccine.
“We were interested in how perceptions of scarcity would affect willingness to get the vaccine or impact vaccine hesitancy,” said Finkelstein, an associate professor of marketing in the College of Business. “The common wisdom in economics and marketing is that when things are scarce, we want them more.”
Finkelstein cited the toilet paper shortage experienced early in the pandemic as an example.
“Our desire to acquire something increases exponentially when it’s in short supply,” she said. “That’s the common expectation, and we saw that happen.”
To their surprise, Finkelstein and fellow researchers from Iowa State University, Georgia Gwinnett College, Swansea University in Wales and University of Padova in Italy found the opposite — participants were less interested in rolling up their sleeves when they thought vaccines were scarce. The findings, recently published in Psychology & Marketing, indicate that compassion for the vulnerable may be a driving factor.
“We experimentally manipulated perceived scarcity, and high perceived scarcity decreased people’s willingness to vaccinate by as much as 15 percent, compared to low perceived scarcity condition,” she said.
The surveys were conducted before vaccines were available to the general public. In the first study, the researchers instructed 300 college students, who are typically considered to be a lower-risk population, to imagine a scenario in which manufacturers are working nonstop to produce enough vaccines.
“In the scarcity condition, the vaccines had a limited supply and priority was given to people who are high risk,” said Finkelstein. “The other half of the participants were told that there were doses available despite the general scarcity.”
The team found that interest in booking an appointment dropped by as much as 15 percent when vaccines were seen as scarce. However, realizing this was coming from a survey group that was considered a low-risk population, the team decided to see what would happen when they looked at a higher-risk group, particularly those who were prone to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases — precisely the demographic at a much higher COVID risk. They ran a second study online with 600 adult participants, half of whom had been diagnosed with chronic diseases.
“Of course, those who had chronic health conditions were more willing to accept the vaccine compared to those with lower health risk,” said Finkelstein. “But what surprised us is that regardless of the risk group, people were still less interested in receiving their vaccine when it was described as scarce. That was both surprising and counterintuitive to the general wisdom that when things are scarce, we want them more. In both studies, we found the opposite.”
The findings point to compassion being an influencer for such decision-making, even among those who had chronic health conditions. Finkelstein said this new direction complicates things when we talk about trust and how communications impact trust.
“The CDC messages were changing as the science changed, of course, because messages need to change as the scientific process unfolds and new information is uncovered,” she said. “However, we need to better educate the public on how the scientific process works, as many experienced a sense of things reversing or ‘messaging whiplash,’ which can erode trust in institutions.”
Finkelstein recalled a comment made by Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regarding the effectiveness of the agency’s communications.
“She acknowledged not being a marketing person,” she said. “My response to that is ‘tag me!’ There are plenty of us who could provide useful thoughts and information and feedback.”
Finkelstein said the findings of these studies could help better inform public vaccination campaigns in the United States and abroad.
“Health officials should consider de-emphasizing scarcity in their messaging because telling people the supply is limited doesn’t help motivate them to get vaccinated, especially those who need it most,” explained Finkelstein. “These studies have shown us that.”
Instead, Finkelstein suggested that emphasizing urgency and availability might be a better messaging strategy. She added that more of an investment needs to be made in social science research.
“We funded the technology to help develop the vaccines, but we really haven’t thought about the human side,” she said. “Maybe it’s just because I’m a marketing person, but you can have the best technology in the world, and if you don’t know how to communicate with people and how to reach them, they’re not going to access the new technology. This is just another case where I think behavioral insights are so important and yet often neglected. And I hope that as a matter of funding priority, federal agencies like the NIH start to realize that the behavioral side is critical.”
— Robert Emproto