By Published: Jan. 13, 2022

Title image: President Donald Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, listen as Dr. Anthony S. Fauci delivers remarks during a coronavirus briefing in April 16, 2020. (Official White House Photo). New research shows politicians polarize opinions around the pandemic while scientific experts tend to unite support.

When a politician we like supports a COVID-19 policy, we tend to support it. But when a political foe endorses the exact same plan, we tend to oppose it, according to new CU Boulder research forthcoming Jan. 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

On a more optimistic note, the global study suggests, while politicians around the world have polarized public opinion during the pandemic, trusted scientific experts may have the power to unify it.

“This study demonstrates that when it comes to COVID-19, as with other contemporary issues, people are much more swayed by who the policy represents than what the policy actually is,” said senior author Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder. “It also shows that people trust and like experts more than politicians—even those from their own party.”

For the study, conducted between August and November 2020, Van Boven and his co-authors presented a survey to a nationally representative sample of 13,000 people across seven countries—Brazil, Israel, Italy, Sweden, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Respondents, including 3,300 in the United States, were asked to evaluate one of two pandemic-management proposals, based on real plans under consideration, including measures like social distancing, workplace regulations, contact tracing and travel restrictions.

Politicians polarize, experts depolarize

One included more severe restrictions and prioritized “keeping COVID-19 case numbers down.” Another emphasized “recovery of the economy as much as possible while preventing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases.”

In a follow-up experiment, conducted only in the United States, respondents evaluated international vaccine distribution plans, with one prioritizing an America-first strategy and another taking a more global approach.

In both experiments, respondents were told that the policy was supported by either liberal elites, conservative elites, a bipartisan coalition, or nonpartisan scientific experts.

Names of elites were adapted for each country. For instance, in the U.S. survey, the policy was said to be endorsed by either Donald Trump or Joe Biden; In Brazil, it was endorsed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or his political rival, Fernando Haddad.

Across all countries, liberal and conservative respondents were significantly more likely to support a policy when told elites from their party endorsed it. When a policy was presented as backed by bipartisan coalitions or neutral experts, it earned the most support.

“These findings underscore how important it is to have communications come from scientific sources that are not seen as political and to keep prominent politicians out of the spotlight of crisis communication,” said co-first author Alexandra Flores, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

In previous research on climate change policies, Van Boven found similar results: Republicans and Democrats had more in common than assumed and based their support more on who backed a policy than what it said.

But Van Boven was surprised to find that such political polarization has persisted so broadly, even in the face of an unprecedented global crisis requiring urgent, coordinated action.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of scholars predicted that these political divisions would be tempered, and we would all band together to confront this shared threat. That has not been the case,” said Van Boven.

Political divisiveness high worldwide

The United States was not, as often assumed, the most politically polarized country assessed. Sweden, Italy and Brazil were at least as politically divided, the study found, while the United Kingdom was less polarized.

As the pandemic enters its third year, the authors hope the findings will encourage politicians to pull away from the microphone and let scientific experts, disentangled from political infighting, take the lead on communicating health policies.

“When communication comes from politicians before the public really gets a chance to evaluate the relevant goals and outcomes, it can politicize things quickly and contribute to a spirit of uncooperativeness,” said Flores. “A good way to combat that is to have nonpartisan experts be the ones to weigh in first.”

They also hope individuals will take a hard look at why they do or don’t support plans.

“In many situations, political polarization is a headache that slows things down,” said Van Boven. “But in the context of this pandemic, it is costing hundreds of thousands of lives.”

This study was funded by a National Science Foundation RAPID grant. CU Boulder alumna Jennifer Cole, a postdoctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University, is co-first author. 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, OR; Iowa State University, University of Padua in Italy; University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Oregon and Linkoping University in Sweden contributed to this study.