VANCOUVER, British Columbia — How someone delivers a message is often just as important as the content of the message itself. A new study finds Republicans are much more likely to follow COVID-19 health guidelines if those recommendations are framed in a way that prioritizes self-preservation.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia set out to investigate why health guidelines like social distancing and mask-wearing have become political lines in the sand for so many Americans. Moreover, they examined how personally responsible the average Republican and Democrat feels when it comes to protecting others during the pandemic.
The results are telling. In short, conservatives feel as though they are only responsible for looking after themselves and their own health outcomes. Liberals are much more likely to feel an obligation to help protect the people around them and their community. Similarly, Democrats tend to believe their actions and precautions go a long way toward protecting others. Republicans often feel their actions won’t make a difference either way.
“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,” explains UBC Sauder Professor Katherine White in a university release.
“So Republicans basically say, ‘It’s my choice and I’m going to do what I want. It’s not really affecting anyone else.'”
Conservatives ‘don’t see their behaviors as impacting others’
The study analyzed numerous reports encompassing over 2,300 Americans for this project. One of those earlier studies asked participants to download a contact-tracing app. Researchers instructed some subjects to download the app to “keep yourself safe” while telling others it would “help save lives.”
“We find that the self-focused messages resonate significantly better with Republicans and make them more likely to use the app,” White comments.
That being said, liberal participants were also just as likely to download the app if they had been given a message prioritizing self-preservation.
On the surface, it’s easy to read these findings and conclude that Republicans and conservatives just don’t care about people. The study’s authors say, however, the reality of the situation is more nuanced than that.
“Some people say, ‘Conservatives just don’t care about other people.’ And I don’t think that’s what we’re finding,” White notes. “What we’re finding is that they don’t see their behaviors as impacting others, which is very interesting.”
In conclusion, the research team believes, if possible, that public safety messages should be tailored to their intended audience.
“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,” White concludes. “Don’t necessarily assume it’s one size fits all.”
The study is published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.