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People side with political tribe even when COVID survival plan is same, CU experiment finds

"It comes down to a basic human tendency to put ourselves into groups"


People in modern democracies responded to the same COVID-19 pandemic crisis policies differently depending on who proposed them, University of Colorado psychology researchers have found.

The people in seven countries were most likely to accept and support COVID-19 action urged by non-partisan science experts, the CU researchers concluded in a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. People supported policies less strongly when proposed by leaders of their own political group. If the same policy came from political foes, they opposed it.

“People essentially ask: ‘Well, is that my side, or the other side, that proposed this policy?’ That’s what they ask first,” said CU psychology professor Leaf Van Boven, who led an experiment involving 13,000 participants.

The idea was to use a fresh global crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, to explore the dynamics of dealing with challenges that may affect human survival requiring widespread cooperation.

And researchers found similar results in all seven countries — Brazil, Italy, Israel, Sweden, South Korea, United Kingdom and the United States.

“The response to COVID-19 in the United States and around the world encapsulates the way we’ve failed to address many crises facing modern society, including climate change, economic inequality and foreign relations,” Van Boven said. “Almost any issue we want to deal with has this problem. Solutions tend to be proposed by one side or the other side. And, when that happens, ordinary people toe their party line.”

In the experiment, researchers from ten universities teamed up and asked the 13,000 respondents across those seven countries — in August 2020 before vaccines were widely available — to evaluate one of two pandemic action proposals based on real plans under consideration involving distancing, workplace rules, contact tracing and limits on travel.

One proposal included relatively severe restrictions and prioritized containing COVID-19 case numbers. The other prioritized economic recovery by safely but immediately easing restrictions.

The respondents in the experiment were told the proposal was supported by either liberal elites, conservative elites, a bipartisan coalition, or nonpartisan scientific experts. Names of elites were adapted for each country. For example, in the U.S. survey, respondents were told the proposal was endorsed by either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

A follow-up experiment, conducted in November just in the United States, asked respondents to evaluate international vaccine distribution plans emphasizing either an even global approach or one that prioritized the United States.

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

Fundamental forces are at work, leading to paralysis unless there’s bipartisan support or scientists directly engage, researchers said.

“It comes down to a basic human tendency to put ourselves into groups — ‘our side’ and ‘their side,’ ” Van Boven said. “When we asked people how much they like and trust these different groups, people in all countries basically distrust and dislike members of the opposing group. And so, for that reason, they don’t want to support a policy that comes from people they don’t trust and don’t like — even if it is the same policy.”

“What’s a little surprising is how strongly people dislike and distrust members of the opposing political party. If we want to solve any of these collective problems, we need widespread public support.”

Paralysis results unless bipartisan or neutral authorities back the action, he said. “And if you don’t have that, you cannot solve the problems.”