Officials could boost public trust in Covid guidelines by including reminders that recommendations will change as science evolves, a new study found.
The study suggests communication strategies for public health updates and Covid guidelines that emphasize the recommendations are the latest advances in scientific evidence and understanding and that these will continue to evolve.
The study, A brief forewarning intervention overcomes negative effects of salient changes in COVID-19 guidance, is authored by Gretton, Koehler, Ethan Meyers, Alexander Walker and Jonathan Fugelsang. It was published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making.
Evolving Covid guidelines and trust
The researchers initially predicted and found that reminders of the frequent changes in safety guidelines caused individuals to judge experts negatively. They also found for the group of study participants in Canada, frequent changes to Covid guidelines also lowered their intentions to download the Covid Alert contact tracing app.
“People have often suggested that the revisions to safety practices might lead to distrust in the experts who are providing the guidance,” said study co-author Derek Koehler, professor of psychology at Waterloo. “Our goal was to examine the effects of salient changes in COVID-19 guidance—such as changes regarding mask-wearing—on trust in health experts, and to test interventions for enhancing trust.”
Participants in Canada and the United States completed an online survey asking them to rate the perceived expertise and trustworthiness of public health officials and scientists during the Covid pandemic. Before completing their ratings, participants were reminded of how Covid guidelines had stayed the same and the ways they had changed over the following months.
The findings from the study
The study found that compared to reminders of consistency, reminders of changes in Covid guidelines and recommendations led people to rate public health authorities as having less expertise.
Furthermore, to test an intervention, the participants were presented with a “forewarning” message accompanying public health updates and Covid guidelines that emphasized how a change in science is expected and is positive. It encourages the participants to take the perspective of a public health official who communicated this changing guidance.
“We found that this intervention helped make people more receptive to changes in guidance. For example, without forewarning, reminders of changing (as opposed to consistent) guidance led public health authorities to be seen as less trustworthy; however, the forewarning message eliminated this negative effect,” said lead author Jeremy Gretton, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Waterloo when the work was conducted.
The study suggested communication strategies for public health updates that highlighted the recommendations are based on the latest advances in scientific evidence and understanding and that these will continue to evolve.