Study: Conservatives Follow Coronavirus Guidelines When Told They’re Meant To Protect Themselves, Not Others

Activists hold signs and protest the California lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic in San Diego, California.
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Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and health experts around the world have promoted social distancing and mask-wearing. In the United States, such public health measures have been the subject of political controversy, largely due to the fact that conservative-leaning Americans have been reluctant to embrace them.

A new study from the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business and Stockholm Business School suggests that a different approach to public messaging could persuade right-leaning Americans to embrace prevention measures.

Published Monday in The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, the study involved more than 2,300 participants, both Democrats and Republicans.

Authors Aylin Cakanlar, Remi Trudel, and Katherine White established that conservatives tend to focus on self-reliance, while liberals “take more of a community-minded view.” In other words, they found that liberals believe in community-minded actions, while conservatives do not.

As White explained, “Republicans have this perception that if they do the social distancing, the mask wearing, the hand sanitizing and all these different things, they have less of an impact on others — whereas the Democrats feel like these behaviors will have an impact on others.”

The researchers asked participants to use a contact-tracing mobile application, which alerts users if they’ve been near someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The app would send various notifications, some urging users to “Keep Yourself Safe” and others pleading with them to “Help Save Lives.”

The study established that self-focused messages resonate much better with Republicans than the messages focused on helping others. Still, self-focused messages did not alienate Democrats, which seems to suggest that this approach to messaging would yield much better results.

According to White, public health officials should carefully tailor their messaging to the specific partisan audience in order to more successfully encourage physical distancing, mask-wearing and similar mitigation strategies.

“You could have one that says ‘do it for others’ in the more liberal media, and then have more of the ‘think about yourself and your close family’ for Republican audiences. Don’t necessarily assume it’s one size fits all.”

White noted that this does not mean conservatives only care about themselves. Rather, they simply “don’t see their behaviors as impacting others.”

Prior studies suggest that individuals on different ends of the political spectrum differ psychologically as well. For instance, a 2018 paper published in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that, on average, liberals feel and experience more empathy than right-leaning people.

A surgical mask lies on a sixth grader's desk on the first day of classes since March at the GutsMuths Grundschule elementary school during the novel coronavirus crisis in Berlin, Germany.
  Sean Gallup / Getty Images

According to research from the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. would plummet if at least 80 percent of Americans wore masks.