What motivated Americans to wear masks and stay socially distanced (or not) at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? More often than not, partisanship, rather than actual or perceived health risk, drove their behavior, according to a new study co-authored by researchers at Brown University.
Analyzing the results of two online surveys of more than 1,100 adults in total, Mae Fullerton, a 2021 Brown graduate, and Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences, found that in the spring and fall of 2020 there had political partisanship was the strongest predictor of whether someone would wear a mask or practice social distancing to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Those who identified as liberals or moderates overwhelmingly said they wore masks and practiced social distancing, even when they believed their risk of contracting the new coronavirus was minimal. Those who identified as conservatives were much less likely to say they always wore a mask or had social distances, even when they believed they had a high risk of contracting the virus and getting sick with COVID-19.
The findings were published on Friday, June 18 at Journal of Health Psychology. Sloman said the results show that many Americans tend to remain fiercely loyal to their like-minded communities, even in situations where their health is online.
“It turns out life isn’t the most important thing for people,” Sloman said. “A lot of people put their partisan inclination ahead of their own personal interest. We are willing to outsource our thinking to other people in our communities, even when our lives are at stake. “
Early in the study, Fullerton and Sloman predicted that respondents’ risk of falling ill with COVID-19, or at least their perception of risk, would be the main factor guiding their mask uptake and social distancing. In contrast, they found almost no correlation between behavior and risk, whether perceived or real. Among respondents who considered themselves at high risk of contracting COVID-19, 59% reported that they had limited their meetings to two or fewer people the previous week. Meanwhile, among those who perceived that they had a low risk of contracting COVID-19, 58% reported the same. In other words, people who felt in a high-risk group did not appear to be more likely to practice social distancing than their lower-risk peers.
The same thing happened with the use of masks: 62% of those who reported that they were of legal age or had no health insurance said they always wore masks when they expected to reach less than 6 feet from others, compared with 61% of those being younger and having health insurance.
In fact, they found that the biggest predictor of whether someone could wear a mask and practice social distancing was not risk, but political partisanship. Among those who identified as liberal or moderate, 66% reported always wearing masks when they expected to reach less than 6 feet from the others, compared to 45% of those who identified as conservative. And while 95% of self-identified liberals and moderates said they considered it important to wear a mask to prevent the spread of the virus, only 74% of self-identified conservatives said they believed the same. Conservative-leaning respondents were also significantly less likely to practice social distancing (31%) than their moderate or liberal counterparts (49%).
Crucially, the researchers also found a high correlation between compliance with home stay orders, which were effective for 95% of Americans at the time of the survey, and peer agreement. Among those who said they believed it was “extremely important” to obey orders to stay socially distant, 86% said their peer group had similar views.
Fullerton said the findings confirm something behavioral scientists have known for a long time: that most people’s health decisions have more to do with the behaviors of the people around them than with the evidence. scientific. Studies have shown, for example, that people are more likely to quit smoking if someone in their environment has recently stopped smoking and that the amount of food a person eats in Thanksgiving is often based on how much they eat. other people at the table.
“This study supports other findings that preventive behavior is strongly influenced by social norms,” Fullerton said. “Clearly, people are more motivated by their politics, their culture and their peers than by their likelihood of catching the virus and possibly suffering terrible side effects. This suggests that communicating the risks of not wearing a mask and not being socially distant may not be the most effective way to stop the spread of a virus. “
Both Fullerton and Sloman said the reason many conservative Americans did not wear masks and social distance may be in part because the people they trusted most, people who include, according to past studies, family doctors, hosts local television and church leaders“Also, don’t wear masks or stay away.” Achieving the reception of influential community figures may be key to ensuring more unitary compliance with public health recommendations in the future. And this can begin by incorporating on board more well-known trusted personalities, from television hosts to beloved celebrities to federal lawmakers.
“In some cases, communicating risks through government-appointed experts may not be as effective as communicating risks through political leaders that people know and respect,” Fullerton said. “This is a good lesson we can remember the next time we face a public health crisis.”
Ultimately, both Fullerton and Sloman said the key to keeping people safe and healthy is to understand their most sacred values. For example, Sloman said, many libertarians did not refuse to stand up masks only because some of his local politicians were vocally opposed to the masking; some perhaps did so because individual freedom is their most sacred value and believed that mask mandates violated that freedom. Many older people are at high risk for severe COVID-19 due to others Health challenges, Fullerton said, may have chosen not to practice them social distancing because, for them, the costs — not knowing a new grandson, for example — outweighed the benefits, which could live on for a few more years.
“Americans can’t become characters and followers or believers and non-believers,” Sloman said. “Getting into people’s heads is tricky, but it matters.”
Other collaborators in the study were Nathaniel Rabb, project manager at Brown’s Policy Lab; Sahit Mamidipaka, a student at Northview High School in Georgia; and Lyle Ungar, a professor of computer science and information science at the University of Pennsylvania. The research was supported in part by a donation from Adobe.
Mae K. Fullerton et al, Evidence Against Risk as a Motivating Engine for COVID-19 Preventive Behaviors in the United States, Journal of Health Psychology (2021). DOI: 10.1177 / 13591053211024726
Citation: Partisanship Guided Americans’ Personal Security Decisions at the Beginning of the Pandemic (2021, June 22), Retrieved June 23, 2021 at https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-06-partisanship -americans-personal-safety-decisions.html
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