Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Empirical Assessment

CCP Risk Perception Studies Report No. 17

Yale Law & Economics Research Paper # 491

82 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2014 Last revised: 5 Feb 2015

Date Written: January 27, 2014


This Report presents empirical evidence relevant to assessing the claim — reported widely in the media and other sources — that the public is growing increasingly anxious about the safety of childhood vaccinations. Based on survey and experimental methods (N = 2,316), the Report presents two principal findings: first, that vaccine risks are neither a matter of concern for the vast majority of the public nor an issue of contention among recognizable demographic, political, or cultural subgroups; and second, that ad hoc forms of risk communication that assert there is mounting resistance to childhood immunizations themselves pose a risk of creating misimpressions and arousing sensibilities that could culturally polarize the public and diminish motivation to cooperate with universal vaccination programs. Based on these findings the Report recommends that government agencies, public health professionals, and other constituents of the public health establishment (1) promote the use of valid and appropriately focused empirical methods for investigating vaccine-risk perceptions and formulating responsive risk communication strategies; (2) discourage ad hoc risk communication based on impressionistic or psychometrically invalid alternatives to these methods; (3) publicize the persistently high rates of childhood vaccination and high levels of public support for universal immunization in the U.S.; and (4) correct ad hoc communicators who misrepresent U.S. vaccination coverage and its relationship to the incidence of childhood diseases.

Keywords: vaccines, risk, risk perception, risk communication, science communication

Suggested Citation

Kahan, Dan M., Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Empirical Assessment (January 27, 2014). CCP Risk Perception Studies Report No. 17, Yale Law & Economics Research Paper # 491, Available at SSRN: or

Dan M. Kahan (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States


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