New Study Finds Links Between Political Beliefs and COVID-19 Health Behaviors

New Study Finds Links Between Political Beliefs and COVID-19 Health Behaviors

While many might hypothesize that health-related behaviors such as wearing a mask and getting vaccinated against COVID-19 are tied to political beliefs in the United States, an international group of researchers—including members of the Department of Psychology—recently published a study that confirms this conventional wisdom.

Professor Edward Lemay and Distinguished University Professor Arie Kruglanski are among the numerous coauthors of the study published by PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science. The paper’s lead authors are Professor Georgios Abakoumkin of the University of Thessaly, Greece; Michelle vanDellen of the University of Georgia; and Professor Wolfgang Stroebe of the University of Groningen, Netherlands.

The researchers conducted two longitudinal studies—one of United States residents, and one of cross-national residents—between March and July 2020.

They found that, in the early months of the pandemic, conservatives in the United States perceived COVID-19 as less threatening to health than liberals, and that they were also somewhat less likely to enact recommended health-protective behaviors.

The strongest political and behavioral associations were found for wearing a mask and for willingness to be vaccinated once a vaccine became available—liberals were shown to favor adopting these measures, and conservatives were found less likely to do so.

“Unfortunately, the political narrative and the social values it espouses insinuate themselves into nearly all of life domains, creating virtually two nations whose cultures and belief systems are at complete odds with each other. The ‘Dis-United’ States of America, one might say,” Kruglanski said.

In a global comparison across multiple countries, these political differences were stronger in the United States than in other countries, which may be due to the fact that COVID-19 is extremely politicized in the United States.

“We believe that our findings highlight the increased and overt politicization of health behaviors in the United Sates,” Lemay said. “While there is certainly political discord in other countries, matters of science and public health seem to be areas of relative neutrality and objectivity in many other countries.”

The timing of the study, Lemay said, is important to consider, given the political climate in the United States at the time, as one administration was in place during the early months of the pandemic, then a contentious election took place before the new administration began working on vaccine rollout and health messaging.

“It is important to note that the study took place during a time when U.S. conservative politicians and media massively downplayed the risk of both contracting COVID-19 and the effectiveness of recommended health behaviors,” Professor Lemay said.

This work is in collaboration with PsyCorona, an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers studying responses to COVID-19.

“Future research should examine how trust in political leaders and media outlets can explain these political differences, early in the pandemic,” Professor Lemay said. 

October 27, 2021

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