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Polarization in a pandemic
Issue 13: Why polarization has been a public health catastrophe during the pandemic; new research explaining why people spread misinformation; a book on happiness; and our events for the fall.
What kind of person comes to mind when you think of an anti-vaxxer? For many people, the stereotypic image is a liberal soccer mom perhaps from the West Coast (as seen in this editorial cartoon from the Wisconsin State Journal).
But as the US and other countries grapple with vaccine hesitancy, an entirely different segment of society is proving reluctant to get their shot. Since the very beginning the pandemic, Americans’ understanding of the risks involved has been highly polarized. Republicans were skeptical and Democrats took it far more seriously.
Jay wrote a column for the Washington Post in March 2020 arguing that effective collection action on the pandemic would be impossible if people with different political viewpoints could not agree on basic facts about the underlying risks.
Unfortunately, writing an op-ed usually has little-to-no impact on public opinion. And Jay’s column was no exception. Instead of building a shared reality and plan of action around a common threat, many Democrats and Republicans decided to go their separate ways (full disclosure: neither of us is a member of either party).
For the past 16 months, we have seen that Republicans are more reluctant to wear masks or engage in spatial distancing than their Democratic opponents. In one study, for example, we looked at the movement of over 15 million Americans and found that partisanship was one of the biggest predictors of movement across 3000 US counties.
We had hoped that the gap might shrink over time as people learned more about the pandemic or knew friends and family members who suffered from infection. But the gap only grew larger over time.
We are now seeing the exactly the same pattern of results with the vaccine rollout. In January, Gallup reported that partisanship was the single biggest predictor of vaccine attitudes. The influence of politics was bigger than age, gender, race or education. But this was merely a poll, so some doubted whether these were honest responses. Would this “cheap talk” reflect actual willingness to get a free vaccine shot in the middle of deadly global pandemic?
In the last few weeks, we have seen that these polls were on the mark: partisanship appears to be the biggest barrier to reaching herd immunity in the US. A couple of recent analyses found that the ratio of people in each state who voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump almost perfectly predicted vaccination rates at the state level (r = .85). Even if you looked at differences between counties within the largest US state, California, you can see the same correlation (r = .85).
In the social and behavioral sciences, it is almost unheard of to see patterns this strong and persistent. Politicians and experts are racing to figure out how to roll out the vaccines in Republican-dominant areas of the country to ensure they reach herd immunity before more deadly variants of COVID-19 spread through these communities.
We are now at a point where virtually all hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the United States are unvaccinated. Getting this right is now the most critical element of the fight against the pandemic.
We don’t want to perpetuate false stereotypes: millions of Republicans have followed public health advice throughout the pandemic. And there is significant division within the party on many of these issues, with Republican doctors in Congress creating a pro-vaccination ad. Yet the partisan gap remains.
Understanding social identity and group dynamics will likely prove important for the vaccine roll out in other countries—as well as other communities within the US. For instance, a CDC analysis of measles outbreaks in 2019 found that nearly 75% occurred in tight-knit communities (from Amish communities in Ohio to Orthodox Jewish communities in New York).
At the time, Jay told Vox news: “When you’re surrounded by people who hold a certain belief, it’s easy to sustain a belief that’s wrong… When people highly identify with a group, they’re more motivated to hold beliefs that the other group members or group leaders hold.”
Until our policy makers and leaders do a better job understanding group dynamics, we are likely going to see the same problem persist for many years. People within certain communities are at the highest risk, but vaccination efforts are a public health issue for everyone since the disease will continue to spread and mutate until we reach herd immunity.
Research round up
One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been the massive spread of misinformation—from the theory that COVID-19 is a complete hoax to the claim that Bill Gates is using vaccines to implant us with microchips. This “infodemic” is a truly global problem and has inspired scholars around the world to try and understand why people believe and share conspiracy theories about the pandemic. We received this (lightly edited) summary of exciting new research on the topic from Wladimir Gramacho (University of Brasilia) and colleagues:
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a vast research agenda focusing on how citizens acquire knowledge about the virus and the health expert guidelines to protect themselves and their close ones against it. While many countries and regions have been accounted for, there still remains a substantial gap with respect to public opinion about the virus in Latin America, most notably in Brazil, which currently has the second highest in number of fatalities in the world. In this article, we employ a national survey of Brazilians (n = 2,771) to measure and explain knowledge and misinformation about the coronavirus and its illness, COVID-19. Our focus concerns the role of political preferences in a context of high elite polarization with a sitting government that has systematically downplayed the risks associated with the coronavirus and its illness.
Our findings are clear: political preferences play a substantial role in explaining differences in knowledge about the coronavirus and COVID-19, more than conventional determinants of learning like motivation, ability, and opportunities. Specifically, we find that supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro—an avid science and COVID-19 denier—know significantly less about the coronavirus and its illness and are more likely to believe in an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory about the coronavirus compared to Brazilians who are less supportive of him and his government. Our findings carry important implications for how Brazilians take informational cues from political elites in that—even in a major event like a global pandemic—supporters of the president are as likely as ever to “follow their leader” and deny expert-backed scientific evidence.
The role of identity in misinformation beliefs long preceded the pandemic. We have studied why people believe misinformation for the past few years and found that people on the left and right are both similar in their willingness to believe negative misinformation (fake news) about out-groups.
Our research suggests that the role of leaders and media elites is critical: if they aggressively spread misinformation, it is likely to influence a receptive audience in either party.
What we are reading
We are currently reading Liz Dunn and Michael Norton’s book “Happy Money”. One of the big lessons from the book is just how central social connection is to our happiness. We often spend money on things that don’t make us happy, rather than investing in experiences and relationships. It’s a fun and timely book—after a year of misery, it’s a good time to think about how to reconnect with loved ones and give our lives more joy.
Introducing our Events Page
We created a website for The Power Of Us where you can read a summary of the book, learn a little bit about each of the chapters, and see some initial reviews of the book.
We have a new section with upcoming events, including a virtual event or our book launch in the UK, as well as trips to San Francisco and Santa Barbara. If you are in these areas and would like to plan other book events around those dates, please email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Seeking Newsletter Submissions
Would you like us to highlight your recent scientific paper or tell everyone about your new book in our newsletter? Send us a short description of your paper or do a brief interview about your book. We will share most relevant submissions in our letter.
Use “The Power of Us” for Teaching
If you teach a course that addresses topics like the nature of the self, social identity, cult psychology, social beliefs, intergroup relations, prejudice & stereotyping, polarization, crowd behavior, social norms, conformity, dissent, or leadership, you might be interested in assigning The Power of Us. Fill out this simple form to get a copy.