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The Art of Effective Communication

Vaccines and Mental Models: Brian Zikmund-Fisher

Brian J. Zikmund-Fisher, PhD, Associate Professor or Health Behavior and Health Education in the University of Michigan School of Public Health, explains how our mental models influence our perceptions of vaccination and the importance of explaining public health the benefits of vaccines as part of the Vaccines Teach-Out.

Excerpt From


I genuinely believe that the most important thing when communicating to people about vaccination is to not be completely taken over by questions of risk but to focus on benefit, to answer the question why are we doing this in the first place. Why do we care about this? It is to give people a window into these diseases that they may not have personal experience with. When you actually see a child who has pertussis and how much it's affecting them, or when you actually understand the impact that's a polio had on people's lives, that really changes. At least it changed for me my perceptions of how important it is to protect myself and my family from these diseases. So when we have the conversation about here's why we do vaccination, here's why it's important, then hopefully, we can engage people in the conversation about, well, it's risky, is it worth it? We then can have that back and forth. Usually just telling people the rule says you're supposed to do this is not motivating. People want to believe that they understand, and so for me, the conversation is not just about risks. It has to be about what are the benefits? Why? Why are we doing this in the first place? That engagement helps people come to terms with the risks that they face, which we do all the time anyway. Driving has risks but we come to terms with those risks. We accept those risks because we get benefits from driving. Allowing my child to play sports has risks but I allow my child to do though. To play soccer, to run the risk of soccer for the benefits that he gets from that experience. Vaccination is no different. When we can engage people with the benefits and not just the risk, then we can help them to feel like they're making an informed decision and that's really what everybody wants in the first place.