Policies to tackle COVID-19 are more likely to get broad public support if they are proposed by experts or bipartisan coalitions, rather than by politicians from only one party, a new study of seven countries involving a Swansea University academic has shown.
Public behaviour and support for measures such as facemasks or social distancing are crucial in tackling a worldwide pandemic. Yet, it can be difficult to secure and maintain that support, and to avoid debates getting polarised.
The research found that polarisation emerges when policies are associated with opposing political parties and politicians. However, the research also revealed that people have a high level of confidence that science experts will act in the public’s best interest.
The COVID pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study this issue. It was a new threat and one that was experienced simultaneously across the world, allowing for international comparisons.
The research team, led by the University of Colorado Boulder, included Dr Gabriela Jiga-Boy from Swansea University, a social psychology expert, alongside colleagues from elsewhere in the UK, US, Sweden, Israel, Austria, Italy and Singapore.
Their research involved 13,000 participants in 7 countries: UK, US, Brazil, Israel, Italy, Sweden and South Korea. These countries display a range of different political systems and parties in government and varying experiences of COVID and responses to it.
In each country, participants were asked first about their overall political views, using a measure called affective polarisation: their feelings towards liberal and conservative politicians and towards experts.
They were then asked to give their views on two COVID policies. Both involved restrictions, but one emphasised more stringent public health measures to keep case numbers down, while the other involved fewer restrictions for economic recovery.
Crucially, participants were told that the policies were being proposed by one of four groups: liberal political elites, conservative political elites, a bipartisan coalition of parties, or relevant nonpartisan experts such as the World Health Organisation.
Participants were asked to rate their overall support for the two policies and for accompanying measures such as social distancing, workplace regulations, contact tracing and travel regulations.
The research showed:
- Respondents in all countries supported policies proposed by experts and bipartisan coalitions more than those proposed by liberal or conservative elites;
- Support for a policy was strongly linked to who was proposing it;
- Both liberal and conservative respondents supported policies from ingroup politicians and parties – those they already supported or voted for - more than the same policies when these were proposed by outgroup politicians and parties;
- The policy focusing on public health was more widely supported than the one on economic recovery;
- Political polarisation was no greater in the US than in other countries;
- A follow-up questionnaire with US participants replicated the findings of the main study regarding vaccine distribution.
Dr Gabriela Jiga-Boy of the School of Psychology at Swansea University said:
“We take cues from our leaders (or partisan elites) because that’s what we’re supposed to do. But partisan elites often create barriers to combatting shared threats such as COVID. They ‘polarize’ public opinion with their words, actions or merely their presence.
We found that, across all seven countries, cues from political elites we endorse or vote for make us like less, trust less and feel colder toward the political elites from the parties we don’t prefer.
To depolarize communication about COVID, a solution is to take the politicians out of the communication and put the experts in the foreground. Experts can help avoid issues getting polarised. In our data, policies that were backed by bipartisan coalitions and nonpartisan experts avoided these polarizing effects and gained more support. Our results show the importance of maintaining experts as nonpartisan, in order to preserve public trust in them.”
The findings were published in the PNAS journal (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).