Lower empathy partially explains why political conservatism is associated with riskier pandemic lifestyles

New research helps to explain the association between political conservatism and riskier pandemic lifestyles. According to new research published in Discover Social Science and Health, political conservatives tend to be less empathetic, hold more authoritarian beliefs, and feel less threatened by the pandemic, which in turn is associated with reduced adherence to COVID-19 health recommendations.

“Although we have seen a lot of evidence showing that political conservatism is associated with lower rates of social distancing, mask usage, sanitizing, and vaccination, I wanted to better understand why political conservatism is so consistently associated with riskier pandemic lifestyles,” said study author Terrence D. Hill, a psychology professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

The new findings come from a national probability sample of 1,771 adults living in the United States, who were surveyed between May 10, 2021 and June 1, 2021. Along with providing demographic information, the participants completed assessments of political conservatism, COVID-19 health behaviors, empathic concern, authoritarian beliefs, and perceived pandemic threat.

The researchers asked the participants whether they were Republican and had voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. The participants also indicated their political orientation on a five-point scale, that ranged from “very liberal” to ”very conservative.” Finally, the participants reported their consumption of right-wing media.

To assess COVID-19 health behaviors, the researchers asked the participants how often during the pandemic they had “attended indoor gatherings with more than 10 people,” “used hand sanitizer to kill germs after being in public places,” and wore “a mask or other face covering in public places.” The participants also reported whether they had been “vaccinated for the coronavirus (COVID-19).”

To measure empathic concern, the researchers asked the participants to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statements: “I am often concerned about people less fortunate than me,” “I often feel sorry for people when they are having problems in their lives,” and “I often feel protective towards people who are being taken advantage of.”

To measure authoritarian beliefs, the participants reported their level of agreement or disagreement with the statements: “What our country really needs is a tough, harsh dose of law and order,” The government would be justified in using violence to eliminate the troublemakers in this country to get us back on track,” “Our country would be better off with a strong leader who did not have to bother with democracy and elections.”

Finally, the researchers assessed perceived pandemic threat by asking the participants the extent to which they agree or disagree with the statements: “The coronavirus pandemic is a major threat to public health in the United States,” “The coronavirus pandemic is a major threat to your personal health,” “The coronavirus pandemic is a major threat to the economy in the United States,” and “The coronavirus pandemic is a major threat to your personal financial situation.”

Hill and his colleagues found that people who scored higher on the measures of political conservatism tended to have lower empathic concern and perceived the pandemic as less threatening. They also tended to more strongly endorse authoritarian beliefs and were less likely to adhere to COVID-19 health recommendations.

The findings held even after controlling for potentially confounding variables such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, nativity, southern residence, rural residence, education, employment status, household income, financial strain, marital status, the presence of children, and religiosity. Importantly, the researchers also found evidence that empathic concern, authoritarian beliefs, and perceived pandemic threat mediated the relationship between political conservatism and COVID-19 health behaviors.

“Political conservatives tend to engage in riskier pandemic lifestyles, in part, because they are less likely to care less about the welfare of others (a motivation for engaging in healthy pandemic lifestyles in the service of public health), more likely to hold authoritarian beliefs (which emphasize the perspectives of one charismatic leader who happens to disagree with public health recommendations), and less likely to perceive the pandemic as threatening to themselves and to the broader society,” Hill told PsyPost.

Interestingly, right-wing media consumption, by itself, was unrelated to COVID-19 health behaviors, empathic concern, and perceived pandemic threat. However, right-wing media consumption was indirectly associated with riskier pandemic lifestyles via heightened authoritarian beliefs.

“Although perceived pandemic threat has been emphasized to explain the risky pandemic lifestyles of political conservatives, processes related to empathy and authoritarian belief systems are also at work,” Hill explained. “We were unable to observe any effects of right-wing media consumption on pandemic beliefs and behavior after political identities were taken into account. This suggests that right-wing media merely echoes the prior political beliefs of viewers.”

But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“Our research is correlational and cross-sectional,” Hill explained. “This means that political conservatism is merely associated with lower levels of empathy, higher levels of authoritarian beliefs, lower levels of perceived pandemic threat, and riskier pandemic lifestyles. Our results should not be interpreted to mean that political conservatives are incapable of caring about others, or never support democracy, or always take the pandemic lightly.”

“Our findings should not be interpreted as causal,” Hill added. “The veracity of our analyses is contingent upon replication in future studies. More research is needed to better understand why political conservatives have engaged in unhealthy pandemic lifestyles. It is also important for future research to pay attention to the ways in which political liberals continue to follow expired public health guidance (e.g., requiring masks and vaccines to attend school). How much of the pandemic behavior of political liberals was driven by ‘science’? How much was driven by ‘culture war’?”

The study, “Political ideology and pandemic lifestyles: the indirect effects of empathy, authoritarianism, and threat“, was authored by Terrence D. Hill, Ginny Garcia-Alexander, Andrew P. Davis, Eric T. Bjorklund, Luis A. Vila-Henninger, and William C. Cockerham.

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