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The Conversation - September 9, 2020

The United States has lagged behind much of the world in its efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Not wearing a mask has become a political act even though masks slow the spread of the virus. As someone who just finished a dissertation on political bias, I was not surprised.

... The social science of political bias

This division within politicians was internalized by the American people as well, according to research and surveys. Identifying as a Democrat was significantly associated with practicing social distancing and being concerned about the virus. Additionally, Republicans were far less likely than Democrats to view COVID-19 as a major threat to public health, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-three percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said that masks should be worn always, compared to just 29% of Republicans and those leaning Republican. Furthermore, 23% of Republicans said that masks should rarely or never be worn, compared to just 4% of Democrats. Finally, a recent CBS/YouGov poll showed that 57% of Republicans believed the number of U.S. deaths from coronavirus had been acceptable, compared to 10% of Democrats.

Once the decision to wear a mask became informed by political beliefs, it did not matter that scientists better understood the severity of the virus and the evidence in favor of mask wearing became clearer. Why? Research on identity theory shows that individuals are motivated to maintain consistency between the values associated with their identity and the information they encounter. The groups we identify with provide us with a sense of belonging and self-worth. Thus, if we identify with a political group, our psychological motivation is to process information in a way that supports the group we belong to.

This identity protection process was exactly what I found in my dissertation as well. Both Democrats and Republicans interpreted fictitious news headlines very differently depending on whether the headline was favorable or unfavorable toward their political group. This is consistent with a meta-analysis showing robust political bias for both Democrats and Republicans. ...
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