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Saturday, December 2, 2023

Pandemic Polarization

Many posts have discussed partisan polarization and aversive or negative partisanship.

 Jay J. Van Bavel have an article at  Perspectives on Psychological Science titled "The Costs of Polarizing a Pandemic: Antecedents, Consequences, and Lessons."

Polarization has been rising in the United States of America for the past few decades and now poses a significant—and growing—public-health risk. One of the signature features of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the degree to which perceptions of risk and willingness to follow public-health recommendations have been politically polarized. Although COVID-19 has proven more lethal than any war or public-health crisis in American history, the deadly consequences of the pandemic were exacerbated by polarization. We review research detailing how every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has been polarized, including judgments of risk, spatial distancing, mask wearing, and vaccination. We describe the role of political ideology, partisan identity, leadership, misinformation, and mass communication in this public-health crisis. We then assess the overall impact of polarization on infections, illness, and mortality during the pandemic; offer a psychological analysis of key policy questions; and identify a set of future research questions for scholars and policy experts. Our analysis suggests that the catastrophic death toll in the United States was largely preventable and due, in large part, to the polarization of the pandemic. Finally, we discuss implications for public policy to help avoid the same deadly mistakes in future public-health crises.

From the article:

Studies have suggested that partisan identity is the primary driver of affective polarization in the United States and that policy preferences contribute to affective polarization mainly by signaling partisan identity (Dias & Lelkes, 2021; Mason, 2018b). Affective polarization is at its highest point in 40 years, and out-group hate now surpasses in-group love in U.S. politics (Finkel et al., 2020). It is therefore reasonable to expect partisan affiliation to influence voting behavior and attitudes toward specific policies. But why would partisanship affect people’s health-related behaviors—especially in ways that clearly run counter to their own self-interest, such as avoiding disease and death (or infecting their family and friends)? A potential explanation is that political parties not only represent a set of political stances but also fulfill social functions, and these functions can therefore affect beliefs and behavior.
Social groups satisfy basic human needs, such as belonging, distinctiveness, status, and epistemic closure (Baumeister & Leary, 2017; Brewer, 1991; Hogg et al., 2008). According to social-identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2004), people’s sense of self is defined not only by their personal traits but also by their group memberships—which can include their political-party affiliation (Iyengar et al., 2019; Mason, 2018a). In a polarized context, such as the United States, partisanship has become a particularly important social identity (Mason, 2018b; Van Bavel & Packer, 2021). The combination of elite cues, partisan news media, hostile rhetoric, social media “echo chambers,” and geographic sorting increases the centrality of partisanship to the self-concepts of citizens (Finkel et al., 2020). Furthermore, partisan identities have become “mega-identities” that are strongly associated with a number of other demographic identities (e.g., gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, religion, region; Mason, 2018b).
These identities, in turn, shape how people interpret the environment around them (see Xiao et al., 2016). According to the identity-based model of political belief, people tend to believe information that allows them to maintain a positive view of the groups they identify with so that these groups can continue to meet their core social needs (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). Partisanship, or identification with a political party, is one way people satisfy these needs (e.g., by attending political rallies and events). As a result, political parties affect not only people’s policy preferences but also other aspects of their beliefs and behavior (see Dimant, 2023; Robbett & Matthews, 2021), including health-related choices. This becomes an issue when party members make unhealthy choices part of their identity—or resist healthy choices because they are associated with a hated out-group.
Social-identity goals can thus outweigh accuracy concerns, making people susceptible to believing misinformation (Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). For instance, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to believe and share positive news about the in-group and negative news about the out-group even when the information is false (Pereira et al., 2023). Moreover, one analysis of 2,730,215 social media posts found that out-group animosity was strongly associated with sharing political news (Rathje et al., 2021)—and similar patterns have been found for the spread of misinformation ( Batailler et al., 2022; Borukhson et al., 2022; Osmundsen et al., 2021).1 In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, many have expressed concern that a misinformation “infodemic” on social media may have harmed public health (Robertson et al., 2022; Van Bavel, Harris, et al., 2021; Zarocostas, 2020). For instance, COVID-19 misinformation has a causal effect on vaccination intentions (Loomba et al., 2021). Moreover, one global study of nearly 50,000 people found that belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories negatively predicted adherence to public-health behaviors across 67 countries (Pavlović et al., 2022). Thus, partisan differences in vaccination and other public-health behaviors in the United States (Dolman et al., 2023; Liu & Li, 2021; H. A. Roberts et al., 2022; Tram et al., 2022) could be partly explained by an identity-driven motivation to believe misinformation and conspiracy theories.