Science

Tricking Conservatives into Caring About COVID

Spiky Boy Is Coming To Get You

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One recurring theme of this never-ending pandemic nightmare is that there’s a stark difference between the way that liberals and conservatives react to it. In general, libs have been following the advice of scientists by staying at home when possible, socially distancing, and wearing masks without feeling as though the mask itself personally threatens their masculinity or femininity or whatever other identity they feel is very important to uphold. While conservatives have tended to distrust scientists and insist that their personal freedom to not wear a mask is more important than society’s grandparents freedom to not suffocate to death.

(I may be biased.)

(Because it’s been 8 months.)

(1.3 million people have died.)

Anyway because of these stark differences, a lot of psychological research these days is based on solving this problem: how do we trick grown adults who don’t understand germ theory into behaving responsibly to end this deadly pandemic?

With that in mind, there are two relevant papers that were published recently. First up we have Hearing From Both Sides: Differences Between Liberal and Conservative Attitudes Toward Scientific and Experiential Evidence, published at the end of October in Political Psychology. Researchers wanted to know whether or not conservatives truly value expertise, so they gathered about 900 Americans that were pretty equally split between conservatives and liberals, with a few libertarians and “others” sprinkled in. Then they had them read an article in which a researcher debunked one of four common misconceptions – either the uselessness of the Myers-Briggs personality test, the fact that managed stocks rarely beat the market, how magnetic bracelets don’t work on pain, or how there’s no such thing as a “lucky streak” in gambling. The article then cited someone else contradicting the researcher’s expertise, like a casino manager saying “But I’ve SEEN lucky streaks” in the latter case.

They found that conservatives were more likely to see both points of view as legitimate, giving more credence to the rejecter and less to the expert than liberals did. Interestingly, the researchers found that this could be explained using a tool they call the “Feelings are Truth” scale. You know that meme where conservatives like Ben Shapiro shout “Facts don’t care about your feelings”? Well, it turns out that researchers have found conservatives are the ones who are more likely to build their worldview off of their fee-fees. The Feelings are Truth scale involved subjects saying how much they agreed or disagreed with the following five statements:

1. People know, deep down, what’s true and what’s not.

2. Some people have intuitive senses of what is true and what is not.

3. A gut belief that something is not true is a good reason to think it’s not true.

4. Intuition can reveal more truth about a situation than objective facts.

5. Gut feelings are a kind of truth.

Conservatives were more likely to strongly agree with all of those points, meaning that they’re more likely to say “Well that guy seems like he knows what he’s talking about, so I’ll believe him” even if the guy is literally just an internet commenter replying to an actual scientist. And I’m not kidding — they did a follow up study in which the “rejecter” was literally just a commenter, and conservatives were still significantly more likely to rate the rejecter as having as much or more legitimacy than the researcher.

What do we do with this information? Well, the researchers point out that maybe new organizations should think a little harder before they present “both sides” as equally legitimate, like “the CDC says stay at home and wear a mask when you have to go out, but Donald Trump says who cares just do what you want COVID is no big deal.” Like, you don’t have to say that second part. It’s not true, and an unfortunately large percentage of the population can’t tell or don’t care that it’s not true. So maybe just say the first part.

The second study I wanted to mention is called “Getting Con servatives and Liberals to Agree on the COVID-19 Threat,” published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research back in September. These researchers surveyed 600 people back in May to find out whether or not they were complying with pandemic mitigation guidelines and also how much they thought the coronavirus was out to get them. Like, literally. This was a study of “agency,” which just means how much a thing or a being has a purpose and the ability to decide whether and how to act. A threat could have zero agency, like, say, an earthquake that’s just going to happen randomly and it’s nothing personal but now you’re gonna die. Or a threat could have very high agency, like a serial killer that is specifically hunting for people who look exactly like you.

Conservatives tend to care more about a threat when it has agency, which might be why they’re always declaring war on inanimate objects, like drugs and Christmas. I know, they think liberal atheists declared the war on Christmas but I assure you, I shall not take up arms against Santa. Bill O’Reilly is the one who invented that idea.

So it turns out, this research did find that conservatives were more likely to want to stop the pandemic if it was presented to them as something with a large amount of agency. In their first study, they found that most people thought the virus had low agency (which, for the record, it does. It’s not a supergenius, it just is doing what viruses do). Among those people, conservatives were more likely to not really care about the pandemic compared to liberals. But among people who did think the virus had agency, conservatives were almost as likely as liberals to care about it.

In a second study, the authors manipulated whether or not subjects would think of the virus as having agency. To make some of them think it does, they had them read an article describing that the virus  “seeks to infect any human it comes in contact with” and that it has a “strong motive to use humans as a means to spread.” A control group read an article that said the virus “can infect any human it comes in contact with” and that it “is spread as more humans contract it.” 

Sure enough, conservatives who read the high agency article were more likely to wear masks and practice social distancing compared to those in the control group. They were still worse than liberals, but it definitely helped!

The researchers point out that liberals were fine either way, so talking about the virus as though it’s a person really has no downside, unless you’re a total bleeding heart like me and start to think of it as a pet you want to keep around, I guess.

I’d like to point out that I’m a damn genius and I had this idea way back in March, when I Tweeted “Scientists need to stop trying to develop a #COVID19 vaccine. No one in the US will take it bc they think it’ll give them autism. They need to start working on a magic ray that will enlarge the virus to the size that we can shoot it with our guns.”

Dear lord I’m like the Notradamus of magical thinking.

In conclusion, I’d like to really highlight that CORONAVIRUS IS COMING TO GET YOU. YOU, PERSONALLY. Coronavirus is an evil spiky boy who wants to crawl into your nose and make a little home in your lungs. He wants you to not even know he’s there so that you’ll go eat turkey with your grandma, because then he can fly out of your mouth and into hers and then choke her to death so she won’t see Christmas. Spiky boy wants to kill Nana. Don’t let him. Spiky boy hates masks. They stop him from flying out of your mouth at Nanas. We’ve declared war on spiky boy and your weapon is a mask, Facetime, and grocery delivery services. Don’t let him win!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. For the very reasons you mention, I wonder whether framing the whole thing as a Communist plot might have some merit after all? I mean, I know it’s bullshit, but at least it has some chance of unifying everybody against a common enemy.

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