Ambiguous COVID-19 Messaging Increases Unsafe Socializing Intentions

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Vincent Hopkins
Mark Pickup
Scott Matthews


COVID-19, Ambiguity, Motivated Reasoning, Communication


Before and during the vaccine roll out, governments reported surging COVID-19 cases due to unsafe socializing among younger individuals. Officials continue to search for effective ways to encourage safe socializing behaviour within this demographic. However, a key challenge is that public health advice is necessarily nuanced and complex, which can create ambiguity. Appropriate behaviour depends on specific circumstances and public messaging cannot detail every situation. When people confront ambiguity in expert guidance, they may engage in motivated reasoning—that is, people’s underlying motivations may influence how they process information and make decisions. In a pre-registered experiment, we look at the effect of ambiguous public health messaging on people’s inferences regarding the behaviours the government expects them to avoid and intentions to engage in unsafe socializing. We find no evidence of an effect on inferences—that is, people who receive an ambiguous message about COVID-19 make inferences about correct behaviour that are similar to the inferences of those who receive no message. However, we find ambiguous messaging increases unsafe socializing intentions, especially among people aged 18-39 who socialized before the pandemic. Our findings underscore the need for unambiguous communications during public health crises.

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