Why Are Conservatives Less Concerned About Coronavirus?
New research helps explain the pandemic's political divide.
Sadly, even an existential public health crisis like the global pandemic is deeply mired in partisan politics. According to one poll, 35% of conservatives expressed concern about coronavirus, by comparison to 68% of liberals. And only 42% of Republicans feared that they or a family member would be exposed to the virus — but a whopping 73% of Democrats and 64% Independents reported feeling scared.
These polls stand in sharp contrast to research demonstrating that conservatives are actually more sensitive to threats of disease than liberals. Research has established a strong relationship between conservatism and disgust, which is a psychological mechanism that helps us steer clear of things that make us sick. These include bad tastes or foul smells that stop us from ingesting something life threatening or noxious. Remarkably, for example, lab experiments have found that priming people to think about disgusting things and even Covid-19 itself increases social conservatism.
So if conservatives fear getting sick more than liberals, why are they less concerned about coronavirus? This question was the focus of a new study led by Lucian Conway of the University of Montana. More specifically, he and his team wanted to discern whether this was due to experience or politics.
In an experience-based account, conservatives may be less affected by the pandemic than liberals in the U.S.. After all, liberals and conservatives often reside in different regions of the country, and with varying levels of exposure to the virus. Thus, decreased concern would be based in actual experience.
In a political-based account, conservatives may hold beliefs that make them want to shrug off the pandemic’s seriousness. This explanation rests on motivated ideological cognition, which maintains that pre-existing ideologies motivate behavior, shape beliefs, and inform how we interpret events. From this perspective, pre-existing political views may be intersecting with the pandemic, causing conservatives to dismiss its seriousness.
In order to explore whether conservatives’ reduced concern is experiential or political, Conway and his collaborators began by assessing nearly 1,000 participants on six dimensions on which conservatives and liberals might differ in their views of the government’s response to the pandemic:
Restriction - the degree that participants wanted the government to restrict citizens in order to stanch the spread of the virus (e.g., shelter in place).
Punishment - the degree that participants wanted the government to punish citizens who violated social distancing orders.
Reactance - the degree that participants felt angry that government was limiting their freedom during the emergency.
Research - the degree that participants wanted the government to fund research on the Covid-19.
Stimulus - the degree that participants wanted the government to give stimulus money to individuals to help the economy.
Informational Contamination - the degree that participants felt that they could not trust the government to provide accurate information during the emergency.
The investigators then ran three sets of analyses. What did they find?
Conservatives reported that they were less impacted by coronavirus. However, the data did not go very far in explaining why they were generally more apathetic than liberals about coronavirus.
Rather, the findings revealed that conservatives are more dismissive of the pandemic than liberals because of their political beliefs. Simply put, since conservatives typically don’t support government restrictions, they are motivated to diminish the seriousness of the threat. If they took the threat more seriously, they would have to consider governmental measures that are incompatible with their beliefs.
The investigators' findings also suggest that with increasing experiences and impacts of coronavirus, politically ideology matters less in assessing the threat of the virus. This notion is also in keeping with research showing that fear and empathy promote greater compliance with physical distancing over political ideology.
Will the recent outbreaks in the U.S. help us see the threat more clearly? Let's hope so, because in the case of Covid-19 political partisanship could have the power to kill.
Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., Ed.M., is a clinical psychologist and journalist. She was formerly the Development Producer and Science Editor of PBS's This Emotional Life.