Appealing to self-preservation makes conservatives more likely to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines

A recent UBC study has found that people’s responses to COVID-19 messaging depend on their politics.

Liberals typically respond well to messaging that centres how COVID-19 preventive behaviours protect others. Conservatives tend to place greater importance on personal responsibility and therefore respond better to messaging that centres self-protection.

According to Dr. Katherine White, a professor at UBC Sauder School of Business and an author of the study, “conservatives are less likely to perceive that their actions have impacts on others.” As a result, White said, “if [they] do something like wearing a mask, or downloading a contact tracing app or something like that, they just don't feel like it impacts other people very much but they do feel like it impacts themselves.”

White highlighted that conservatives’ behaviours reflect what actions they believe to be effective.

“Sometimes people take broad brushstrokes and they say, ‘Oh conservatives just don't care about other people’ or they don't care more broadly, and I don't think that's what we find evidence for. We find evidence for the fact that they perceive their actions to not be as effective for helping others.”

The study consisted of three main components, involving over 2,300 participants. First, the authors tested for an effect of political ideology on perception of both personal responsibility and COVID-19 preventive behaviours. Next, they looked at effects of political ideology on responses to self-focused COVID-19 messaging. Finally, they tested whether self- versus other-focused messaging could actually change behaviour among Republicans and Democrats.

Dr. Kristin Laurin, an associate professor of psychology at UBC who studies how people’s goals and motivations interacts with their ideologies and was not involved in the study, noted that “the difference between liberals and conservatives in terms of how much they believe in personal responsibility explains some of the difference between the two of them [in this study], but … there's a lot of other stuff going on as well.”

“You're exposed to completely different information and news media depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, and you're encouraged to do different things by your political leaders,” she said.

Laurin also noted that although the study results are unsurprising given what we see on the news, it could have been possible for conservatives to be more concerned about the pandemic than liberals.

“Another thing we know is different between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives are more sensitive to disgust and purity and sanctity, so from that angle you might have expected that they would be more disease-concerned and more willing to take steps to avoid diseases, for different reasons,” said Laurin.

Parts of the study were performed in both Canada and the United States, while other parts were run in the United States only. In Canada, relative to the United States, White acknowledged that “we do get similar results, [but] … they're not as pronounced.”

White additionally noted that the degree to which someone is liberal or conservative is correlated to their perception of COVID-19 messaging. White suggested that this is a result that should extend to other places, rather than being a unique feature of American Democrats and Republicans.

For policy makers, there is a need to convince the public to follow public health guidelines. This study offers guidance on how to effectively target liberal and conservative communities.

“If you know for example, that you're in an area that's heavily Republican versus Democrat, or … the certain type of media that you're communicating in is more Republican than Democrat, you might shift your messaging slightly so it might be more about impacting outcomes for the self rather than impacting outcomes for others,” said White.

This might also be helpful advice if you’re in a family group chat with a variety of opinions related to politics and COVID-19. White suggested that using a messaging strategy focused on benefits to oneself may be useful in these situations as well, given that they will be more likely to resonate with conservative individuals.