24 January 2022

Political polarisation during the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined public support for following measures. Garnering public support for the measures was more successful when they were communicated via an independent expert. This has been shown in a study by researchers at several universities, including Linköping University.

Crowd with face mask on pedestrian street in UK.
Political polarization during the pandemic set obstacles to population support for restrictions, a new study shows. VV Shots

Countries around the world have all reacted differently to the pandemic. Sweden has had a strategy of greater openness, with the restrictions being built on the willingness of the population to follow them. Other countries have gone for a harder approach, introducing lockdowns and other measures such as school closures, obligatory mask wearing, and – in some places now – obligatory vaccination. 

Politicians have, however, not always been in agreement about the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Another important and divisive pandemic issue is how best to minimise the damage to society and the economy. When the gap between right and left-wing factions grows, so too does political polarisation – something which became especially apparent during the pandemic. In a new study at Linköping University, researchers have found that this political polarisation has hindered public support for measures.

The results have been published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). One of the authors of the article and participants in the research was Daniel Västfjäll, professor of cognitive psychology at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning (IBL) at Linköping University.  Photo credit Thor Balkhed

“We can see that these discussions have been very polarised, despite being about benefiting people’s health. Our study tried find out whether this kind of polarisation exists in support for various COVID-19-related measures in different countries.”  

In their research, started at the beginning of the pandemic, the researchers wanted to investigate whether they could figure out which psychological mechanisms led to polarisation. If they could be understood, there might be a way to reduce said polarisation. 

“Ultimately, it’s about trying to get people to look at these measures, which are good both for individuals and society, in the same way.”

International study

The study has been carried out by researchers from a total of seven countries. During 2020, the researchers collected the empirical foundations of the study in their respective countries. The countries being compared were the USA, UK, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Israel and Sweden. The study took the form of an experimental survey where a total of 12,995 respondents were asked which party they would vote for, and what they thought of concrete infection control measures that have been suggested during the pandemic. The measures were presented as coming from a right-wing politician, a left-wing politician and a neutral expert respectively.
In the survey carried out in Sweden, the suggestions were shown to come from the Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson (the opposition leader viewed as the most likely alternative prime minister), the Social Democrats’ then-leader Stefan Löfven (the Swedish prime minister at the time), and the Swedish Public Health Agency (an independent public authority). 

The results showed a consistent pattern in all countries: that suggestions for COVID-19 infection control measures were more palatable when presented by those whose political views one shares. This is important, says Daniel Västfjäll: 

“This is called the party-over-policy effect. It means that it’s not the measures themselves that are important. Instead, it’s who suggests them. With pandemic measures, the most important thing should be the effect that the measures actually have on people’s lives and on society – not the identity of the person suggesting them.”
The results points toward a phenomenon called affective polarisation, where people’s behaviour is driven by predetermined, negative opinions about people who represent or support a certain political party.

New picture of the USA

The study also shows that this polarisation is, contrary to findings in previous studies, not strongest in the USA. The picture of a starkly divided USA may have been strengthened by media reports during a politically tense 2020, with the Republicans and Donald Trump on the one side and the Democrats and Joe Biden on the other. All this, furthermore, at a time when the USA has had to deal with other extraordinary events such as the storming of the Capitol and Black Lives Matter demonstrations. 

“Maybe it hasn’t been expressed in the same way, but this party-over-policy effect is just as strong in other countries, including Sweden”, says Daniel Västfjäll, who points out that the effect does vary according to how different the right and left-wing factions in a certain country are. “We can, however, see that affective polarisation decreases when pandemic measures are suggested by a politically independent expert.” 

In Sweden, many people see the state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell as playing the main role of such an expert, communicating the Swedish Public Health Agency’s general recommendations and advice for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Other countries have had similar expert figures.

“It’s a smart strategy”, says Daniel Västfjäll. There is a clear effect of people trusting experts more, especially when they are seen as politically independent.

A question of behaviour

The study indicates the importance of research in the social sciences, behavioural science and psychology, not least of all in relation to global questions such as pandemics, climate change threats and the economy. 

“The pandemic is, of course, not just a question of public health. For example, the fact that we have a very effective vaccine against COVID-19 doesn’t matter if nobody takes the vaccine. Getting people to take the vaccine is a behavioural question, and the pandemic also shows how central psychology is to all this”, says Daniel Västfjäll.
The research has been financed by the National Science Foundation, the American equivalent of the Swedish Research Council. 


The journal article: Politicians polarize and experts depolarize public support for Covid-19 management policies across countries. Alexandra Flores, Jennifer C. Cole, Stephan Dickert, Kimin Eom, Gabriela M. Jiga-Boy, Tehila Kogut, Riley Loria, Marcus Mayorga, Eric J. Pedersen, Beatriz Pereira, Enrico Rubaltelli, David K. Sherman, Paul Slovic, Daniel Västfjäll and Leaf Van Boven, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online 10 January 2022. https://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2117543119


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