Link and Comments: Ezra Klein on the Psychology of Coronavirus Response

Why are liberals more afraid of the coronavirus than conservatives?
: Covid-19 and the complex politics of fear.

By Ezra Klein, co-founder and editor-at-large of Vox (and whose recent book, WHY WE’RE POLARIZED, I’ve just begun reading).

Good question. You’d think conservatives, being more sensitive to contamination and conscientious about purity, would freak more about a deadly disease. Why don’t they? Before reading the article, my guess is their sense of autonomy overrides personal concerns; they resent authorities, especially experts (whom they mistrust, or simply don’t understand), telling them what to do. Also, the relatively off-stage progression of the virus, where the majority of Americans still don’t know anyone affected (I know only one), helps to diminish its apparent threat.

The article talks about the numerous psychological studies into the psychological foundations of political differences, e.g. Jonathan Haidt’s (cf. THE RIGHTEOUS MIND), that inform the difference between conservatives and liberals. E.g. “Liberalism and conservatism are rooted in stable individual differences in the ways people perceive, interpret, and cope with threat and uncertainty.” How dangerous the world is. Then why do conservatives downplay the coronavirus?

Klein speaks to various political psychologists and summarizes their ideas.

First: Liberals are more caring about others. Conservatives do fear, but of economic devastation.

Or: It’s partisanship, and a Republican is in charge, downplaying the threat. Haidt: “When Obama was president and America was threatened by Ebola, it was conservatives freaking out, demanding a more vigorous government response to protect us, while Obama kept steady on following scientific advice.” Trump was at the forefront of the Ebola panic (because he could criticize Obama).

Or: Trump followers are more afraid of threats from human outsiders (e.g. “welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries”), than of disembodied threats like climate change and Covid-19. Thus Trump responds the pandemic by attacking China.

The concluding section is worth quoting at length, with discussion of motivated reasoning and that famous Upton Sinclair quote.

Here’s my view: Political psychology is like the soil in politics. There are differences in the liberal and conservative soil — particularly in how they view threat, change, tradition, outsiders, and diversity — so different kinds of politicians, tactics, and movements take root on the two sides.

Trump is, at his core, a suspicious, threat-oriented, traditionalist figure — he’s nostalgic for the way things were, hostile to outsiders, angry over demographic change (he’s even, in normal times, a germaphobe). There’s a reason he took root in conservative soil.

By contrast, former President Barack Obama is optimistic, cosmopolitan, and temperamentally progressive — he looks at change and sees hope, he looks at other countries and sees allies, he sees diversity as a strength. There’s a reason he took root in liberal soil.

But once a politician captures a party, other dynamics take over. For one thing, partisans trust their leaders and allied institutions. Very few of us have personally run experiments on the coronavirus, or gone around the world gathering surface temperature readings over the course of decades. We have to choose whom to believe, and once we do, we’re inclined to take their word when describing contested or faraway events.

For another, we all fall prey to motivated reasoning, in which we shape evidence, arguments, and values to align with our incentives. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Many Republican officeholders, led by Trump, think the coronavirus threatens their reelection because the lockdown threatens the economy. As such, they’re motivated to believe that reopening the economy sooner is better, and attracted to evidence and arguments that support that position. Sometimes that means downplaying the coronavirus. Sometimes that means accepting its risk but suggesting the costs of reopening are worth it. In both cases, the argument is working backward from the desired conclusion.

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