January 25, 2022 — If a politician you don’t like supports a COVID policy, chances are you’ll oppose it. But if a politician you like backs the same plan, chances are you will too. All is not lost, however. Policies proposed by nonpartisan experts tend to be supported by the public despite political affiliation.
These are the key takeaways from a new study(link is external) co-authored by a UC Santa Barbara researcher and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
And they are not limited to the notoriously divided United States.
David K. Sherman(link is external), a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UCSB, said the international team of researchers found that the politicization of COVID is a global phenomenon.
“The consistency of results across countries was remarkable,” Sherman said. “The public views – with plenty of evidence – the United States as particularly polarized, but the tendency to put party over politics occurred in every country we studied, and was not particularly strong in the United States”
Sherman, along with Leaf Van Boven, the paper’s lead author and professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, studied political polarization over climate change. He said this new study demonstrates the persuasive power of nonpartisan experts. While there are many examples of pundits vilified by one political camp or the other, the majority of study participants were more convinced by a policy advocated by nonpartisan pundits than by partisan politicians.
The research team conducted surveys with 13,000 people in seven countries – Brazil, Israel, Italy, Sweden, South Korea, UK and US – between August and November 2020.
Respondents were asked to rate one of two proposals to manage the pandemic based on actual plans, including severe restrictions and prioritizing “reducing the number of COVID-19 cases.” The other emphasized “recovering the economy as much as possible while preventing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.”
In a follow-up experiment, 3,300 U.S. respondents rated international vaccine distribution plans, with one prioritizing Americans and another taking a more comprehensive approach.
In both experiments, respondents were told that the policy was supported by liberal elites, conservative elites, a bipartisan coalition, or nonpartisan scientific experts. Elite names have been adjusted for each country.
In every country, liberals and conservatives backed a policy when told that their party elites approved of it. But when told the policy was backed by a bipartisan or neutral coalition, it got the most support.
“This study demonstrates that when it comes to COVID-19, as with other contemporary issues, people are much more influenced by who politics represents than what politics actually is,” Van Boven said. “It also shows that people trust and like experts more than politicians – even those in their own party.”
The seven nations sampled varied in terms of cultural values, form of government and effectiveness in fighting COVID – but showed consistent effects. For example, the United States and South Korea have both shown the divisive effects of polarization and the unifying effects of expert communication.
The Korean data collection was led by Kimin Eom(link is external), a professor at Singapore Management University.
“This consistency between the United States and South Korea is particularly striking,” said Eom, who earned his doctorate. from UCSB in 2018. “These two countries differ in many ways, and numerous studies have reported significant psychological differences between the United States and South Korea. Our results (or null results for cultural difference) highlight highlights the fundamental influence of social categorization and the essential role of leaders and experts in promoting cooperation between citizens across cultures.
As we have seen in the United States over the past two years of the pandemic, politicization can happen quickly.
“When communication comes from politicians before the public really has a chance to assess relevant goals and outcomes, it can quickly politicize things and contribute to a spirit of non-cooperation,” said Alexandra Flores, incumbent. of a doctorate. student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado who was co-first author with Jennifer Cole of Vanderbilt University. “A good way to combat this is to have non-partisan experts on the front lines.”
The study, Sherman added, demonstrates the persuasive power of nonpartisan experts. “Partisan politicians got a lot of support for their policy proposals from people on their own side,” he said. “But to the extent that political leaders want everyone to agree, our work suggests that they can harm their own cause – and the people they represent who would benefit from their health and economic policies – by being the main door -word.”
The study was funded by a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation. Researchers from Queen Mary University of London; University of Klagenfurt in Austria; Singapore Management University; Swansea University, UK; Ben Gurion University in Israel; Decision research in Eugene, Oregon; Iowa State University; University of Padua in Italy; UCSB; University of Colorado at Boulder; University of Oregon; and Linkoping University in Sweden contributed to the study.