Partisanship guided Americans’ personal safety decisions early in pandemic, study finds

Results from a new study show that many Americans remain fiercely loyal to their like-minded communities, even when their health is on the line – an important lesson for future pandemics.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – What motivated Americans to wear masks and stay socially distanced (or not) at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic? More often than not, it was partisanship, rather than perceived or actual health risk, that drove their behavior, according to a new study co-authored by researchers at Brown University.

By analyzing the results of two online surveys of more than 1,100 adults in total, Mae Fullerton, a Class of 2021 Brown graduate, and Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, found that in spring and fall 2020, political partisanship was the strongest predictor of whether someone would wear a mask or practice social distancing to stem the spread of novel coronavirus.

Those who identified as liberal or moderate overwhelmingly said they wore masks and practiced social distancing, even when they believed their risk of contracting the novel coronavirus was minimal. Those who identified as conservative were much less likely to say they always wore a mask or socially distanced, even when they believed they were at high risk of contracting the virus and falling ill with COVID-19.

The findings were published on Friday, June 18, in the 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 on the line.

“It turns out that life is not the most important thing to people,” Sloman said. “Many people are putting their partisan leanings ahead of their self-interest. We’re willing to outsource our thinking to other people in our communities, even when our lives are at stake.”

At the start of the study, Fullerton and Sloman predicted that respondents’ risk of becoming sick with COVID-19, or at least their perception of risk, would be the primary factor guiding their mask uptake and social distancing. Instead, they found almost no correlation between behavior and risk – whether perceived or real. Among survey respondents who considered themselves to be at high risk of contracting COVID-19, 59% reported they had limited their encounters to two or fewer people in the prior week. Meanwhile, among those who perceived they were at low risk of contracting COVID-19, 58% reported the same. In other words, people who felt they were in a high-risk group didn’t seem any more likely to practice social distancing than their lower-risk peers.

The same was true of mask-wearing: 62% of those who reported that they were elderly or had no health insurance said they always wore masks when they anticipated coming within 6 feet of others, compared to 61% of those who were younger and had health insurance.

They found, in fact, that the biggest predictor of whether someone was likely to wear a mask and practice social distancing wasn’t risk but political partisanship. Among those who identified as liberal or moderate, 66% reported that they always wore masks when they anticipated coming within 6 feet of others, compared to 45% of those who identified as conservative. And while 95% of self-identified liberals and moderates said they thought it was 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 stay-at-home orders – which were in effect for 95% of Americans at the time of the survey – and peer agreement. Among those who said they believed it was “extremely important” to comply with orders to stay socially distanced, 86% said their peer group reportedly held similar views.

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