"Robert Hooke Dining with Friends at Gresham College" Rita Greer

Read the Reflection, written 25 August 2021, below the following original Transmission.

Our social circles are a crucial source of information about many things. Whom to trust? What behaviors are useful in the current environment? What is expected and what is possible? 

Relying on our family, friends, and colleagues to answer such questions is usually a good idea. Using the collective wisdom of people who are similar to us and who live in similar circumstances can be a quick shortcut to solving a variety of problems in our own daily lives. Moreover, we tend to seek people who are similar to us, as this typically enhances coordination and cooperation and helps to avoid costly conflict. We also influence each other — ever more strongly and widely due to social media — further contributing to the homogenization of our own societal pockets.

It is therefore not surprising that different sections of our society have very different beliefs about how dangerous COVID-19 is, what the appropriate individual and societal actions are, and what figures of authority should be trusted. Our reliance on social circles for our judgments and decisions has an unfortunate corollary: It is difficult for people to change their minds and also keep their social networks intact. Science educators know this all too well. The immediate social costs of not being aligned with one’s social circle might appear much larger than the costs of not being correct, especially when a risk is perceived to be distant and personally irrelevant.

Scientists are not a part of most peoples’ social circles. Scientific judgment is not readily trusted as unbiased by significant parts of society, and scientists can be perceived as a part of an elite that is not aligned with “our” own best interests. Significant sections of the US population have beliefs that do not align with the current scientific evidence. Lack of basic scientific knowledge is likely both a consequence and a cause of further distrust that prevents acceptance of science facts — a cycle that is becoming hard to break as it impacts people’s decisions about which policies and politicians are worthy of their support.

But, in all its epidemic darkness, the current moment provides scientists with a unique opening: confidence in medical professionals is very high even though trust in other authorities can falter. Scientists routinely appear on national televisions and in a variety of online settings to brief the public about the current progress of the disease. Furthermore, the general public has both more time (involuntarily) and more interest in hearing what scientists have to say.

Because of the current spike in trust and interest in science, this is the moment for science communicators to make a difference. Sending another tweet to our usual followers will likely not persuade anyone who is not already in our own social circle. But reaching out to audiences who otherwise have little exposure to scientific ideas and reasoning — and who may now be more receptive — can be a real game-changer. 

Scientists can use these times to start a dialogue with the general public not only about the epidemics, but also about the many related broader issues ranging from how the scientific process works, what constitutes scientific evidence, and how scientists check their findings, to the societal value of many scientific discoveries. Science is not the answer to everything, but it now at least has a chance to be heard.

Mirta Galesic
Santa Fe Institute

Henrik Olsson
Santa Fe Institute


  1. Boyd, R., Richerson, P. J., & Henrich, J. (2011). “The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (Supplement 2), 10918-10925. https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/108/Supplement_2/10918.full.pdf
  2. Smaldino, P. E., Flamson, T. J., & McElreath, R. (2018). “The evolution of covert signaling.” Scientific Reports 8 (1), 1-10. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-22926-1
  3. McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). “Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27, 415-444. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev.soc.27.1.415
  4. Richerson, P., & Henrich, J. (2009). “Tribal social instincts and the cultural evolution of institutions to solve collective action problems.” Cliodynamics 3, 38-80. https://escholarship.org/content/qt981121t8/qt981121t8.pdf
  5. Quattrociocchi, W., Scala, A., & Sunstein, C. R. (2016). “Echo chambers on Facebook.” https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2795110
  6. Von Behr, I., Reding, A., Edwards, C., & Gribbon, L. (2013). “Radicalisation in the digital era: The use of the internet in 15 cases of terrorism and extremism.” RAND. https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR400/RR453/RAND_RR453.pdf
  7. Pew Research (March 19, 2020). “Most white evangelicals satisfied with Trump’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/19/most-white-evangelicals-satisfied-with-trumps-initial-response-to-the-covid-19-outbreak/
  8. Pew Research (March 24, 2020). “Hispanics more likely than Americans overall to see coronavirus as a major threat to health and finances.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/24/hispanics-more-likely-than-americans-overall-to-see-coronavirus-as-a-major-threat-to-health-and-finances/ 
  9. Galesic, M., Olsson, H., & Rieskamp, J. (2018). “A sampling model of social judgment.” Psychological Review 125 (3), 363. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1NmVIusD4M8slPPYjoixKNiU5Sr0wfxyh/view
  10. Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). “Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial.” Pediatrics 133, e835-e842. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sean_Richey/publication/260485891_Effective_Messages_in_Vaccine_Promotion_A_Randomized_Trial/links/5720aa4308aefa64889ec347.pdf
  11. Hart, P. S., & Nisbet, E. C. (2012). “Boomerang effects in science communication: How motivated reasoning and identity cues amplify opinion polarization about climate mitigation policies.” Communication Research 39, 701-723. https://research.fit.edu/media/site-specific/researchfitedu/coast-climate-adaptation-library/climate-communications/psychology-amp-behavior/Hart--Nisbet.-2012.-Reasoning--Identity-Cues-Amplify-Climate-Opinion-Polarization..pdf
  12. McDonald, R. I., Chai, H. Y., & Newell, B. R. (2015). “Personal experience and the ‘psychological distance’ of climate change: An integrative review.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 44, 109-118. http://www.columbia.edu/~rim2114/publications/McDonald-Chai-Newell-2015.pdf
  13. Pew Research (August 2, 2019). “Trust and Mistrust in Americans’ Views of Scientific Experts.” https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts/
  14. Pew Research (July 1, 2016). “Major gaps between the public, scientists, on key issues.” https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/interactives/public-scientists-opinion-gap/
  15. National Science Board. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding (2018). https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2018/nsb20181/report/sections/science-and-technology-public-attitudes-and-understanding/public-knowledge-about-s-t
  16. Gallup (March 20, 2020). “Trust in Government Lacking on COVID-19’s Frontlines.” https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/296594/trust-government-lacking-frontlines-covid.aspx


T-013 (Galesic & Olsson) PDF

Read more posts in the Transmission series, dedicated to sharing SFI insights on the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to SFI President David Krakauer discuss this Transmission in episode 29 of our Complexity Podcast.


August 25, 2021


The World Health Organization’s May 2021 report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response stresses the need to invest in and coordinate risk-communication policies.1 What is missing from the report, however, is a discussion of how these communication policies might interact with cognitive and social factors. For example, how is the effectiveness of science communication affected by mistrust in the government or pharmaceutical companies? How does numerical literacy in the general population and among doctors affect the understanding of scientific information? How does the acceptance of scientific facts interact with the structure of the social networks that people find themselves in? What is the impact of telling people to get vaccinated when all of their friends say that they should not?

A pandemic, like many other social phenomena, is part of a complex social system where cognitions interact in social networks to produce dynamically changing patterns on the individual and aggregate levels. This is recognized by many scientists and governmental officials, but in practice the complex-systems view has yet to become commonplace.

The complex-systems view of our social worlds is not only a mere abstract idea to guide scientific reasoning. It comes with a commitment to formal models. Without formal models, it is practically impossible to understand the behavior of a complex system and nudge it in a particular direction. Most models constructed to understand and predict the time-course of COVID-19 lack the cognitive and social factors that might impact the time-course of disease spread. In order to fully understand what happened in 2020 and how to deal with it, we scientists need to incorporate these important factors into our models.2

In our Transmission from 2020, we pointed to the opportunity for science communicators to make a difference in times of the pandemic. While trust in scientists remains high,3 our society is fragmenting regarding COVID-related beliefs, with some people wearing masks even when they don’t have to and supporting obligatory vaccination and others completely rejecting both masks and vaccination.4 No amount of communication disconnected from people’s social context will help change minds. We have been studying this complex social system using models paired with real-world tests of these models.5 We find that effective communication not only provides facts but also succeeds at minimizing the dissonance between these facts and people’s individual beliefs (e.g., about who profits from vaccines) and the perceived beliefs of others.6 For example, some people believe that pharmaceutical companies unduly profit from vaccines. When presented with information about safety of vaccines they might experience dissonance between this information and their prior beliefs. Rather than avoiding to talk about such dissonant beliefs, our research suggests that educators should highlight this dissonance and at the same time provide additional information (e.g., explaining that pharmaceutical companies would profit more by letting people get sick) to help reduce the dissonance and foster the acceptance of the information about vaccine safety.

With advancements in theoretical models and an unprecedented availability of data, social science can now step up to the challenge of helping our society remain sustainable while continuing to flourish. By integrating knowledge from many disciplines in complex-systems models, social scientists can make real progress in understanding, predicting, and preventing future pandemics and other disruptive social phenomena.

Read more thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic from complex-systems researchers in The Complex Alternative, published by SFI Press.

Reflection Footnotes

1 The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response, 2021, COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic, Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, https://theindependentpanel.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/COVID-19-Make-it-the-Last-Pandemic_final.pdf

2 J. Bedson, L.A. Skrip, et al., 2021, “A Review and Agenda for Integrated Disease Models including Social and Behavioural Factors,” Nature Human Behaviour 5: 834–846.

3 3M, “No Matter the Challenge, People Believe Science Will Solve It, 3M Survey Reveals,” May 18, 2021, https://news.3m.com/2021-05-18-No-matter-the-challenge,-people-believe-science-will-solve-it,-3M-survey-reveals

4 D. Ahrendt, M. Massimiliano, et al., “Living, Working and COVID-19 (Update April 2021): Mental Health and Trust Decline across EU as Pandemic Enters Another Year,” Eurofound, May 10, 2021, https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2021/living-working-and-covid-19-update-april-2021-mental-health-and-trust-decline-across-eu-as-pandemic

5 M. Galesic, H. Olsson, et al., 2021, “Integrating Social and Cognitive Aspects of Belief Dynamics: Towards a Unifying Framework,” Journal of The Royal Society Interface 18: rsif.2020.0857, doi: 10.1098/rsif.2020.0857

6 M. Galesic, W. Bruine de Bruin, et al., 2021, “Human Social Sensing is an Untapped Resource for Computational Social Science,” Nature 595: 214–222, doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03649-2; T. van der Does, D.L. Stein, et al., 2021, “Moral and Social Foundations of Beliefs about Scientific Issues: Predicting and Understanding Belief Change, OSF preprint, doi: 10.31219/osf.io/zs7dq