Tackling COVID-19 means understanding tribalism

The world’s best scientists are currently deployed in a war-like effort to counter the coronavirus pandemic, devising vaccines, treatments, modelling outcomes and advising the rest of us. This is a fast-moving contagion, born of our 21st-century globalised society, and it calls for the very latest evidence-based science. On this, we all agree, because we’re rational 21st-century people, right?

Only up to a point. This stark dataset from surveys of the American public, reveals that attitudes to the same fatal virus in the same nation depends on how they vote. Republican voters are generally far less concerned about COVID-19 than Democrats.

Since this is an infectious disease, it depends entirely on human hosts to carry and spread it – the more people act as regular socialising humans, the more chances the virus has to replicate and spread, and the worse the epidemic. That’s the science. Only by recognising the threat of the disease, will people be mobilised to change their innate social behaviours, to actively slow its spread. However, while scientific and medical experts in the US and around the world alert the public to the risks, and reiterate social-distancing advice, President Trump, with no science training, plays down the risks.

Tribal culture affects how people see the world more than facts do. Take human-caused climate change, for which there is near-unanimous global scientific consensus. This, too, divides Americans, but in an unlikely way: the more education that Democrats and Republicans have, the more their beliefs in climate change diverge. About 25 per cent of Republicans with only a high school education report being very worried about climate change. But among college-educated Republicans, that figure was just 8 per cent. This may seem counter-intuitive, because better-educated Republicans are more likely to be aware of the scientific consensus. But in the realm of public opinion, climate change isn’t a scientific issue, it’s a political one. Climate change science is relatively new and technically complicated, and many Americans adopt the opinions of their tribal leaders, the political elites. Republican political elites are not science-minded. Even though better-educated Republicans may have more exposure to information about the science around climate change, they also have more exposure to partisan messages about it, and research shows this matters more.

Since we have culturally evolved to acquire our knowledge and beliefs primarily through high-fidelity copying of others rather than by invention (by looking at the evidence and deciding for ourselves), we are vulnerable to this problem of copying unreliable models. Worse still, because we have culturally learned to value rational explanations over subjective ones for scientific issues, we can be manipulated into believing the opinions we copy are rational, so it is harder to change them.

Despite our culturally evolved norms for rationality and evidence-based decision making, our biological evolution has not caught up and our cognition continues to be emotionally led. The problem is not necessarily that we use the emotive part of our brain more than the rational in decision making, but that we are self-delusional. Even experts are prone to biases and these mean costly mistakes are made, and irrational prejudices are systemic in organizations where people believe themselves to be non-racist, non-sexist, and to hold the positions they do through skill rather than luck.

Often, the main role of reasoning in decision making is actually not to arrive at the decision but to be able to present the decision as something that’s rational. Some psychologists believe we only use reason to retrospectively justify our decisions, and largely rely on unquestioned instincts to make choices. It may be that our unconscious instincts – despite our cognitive biases and prejudices – are more capable of rationality than our logical thought-processing minds. Few of us are able to fully separate our subjective and objective reasoning during decision making – this is one of the promises of artificial intelligence.

Our decision making is influenced by our biology and our social environment. Take the psychological and physiological influence of fear: it’s been shown that people who vote more conservatively tend to have a bigger amygdala, the brain’s fear centre. In one study, the more fear a three- or four-year-old showed during a lab study, the more conservative their political attitude was found to be 20 years later. The impact of fear is instant: when people with liberal attitudes experienced physical threat, during a study, their political and social attitudes became more conservative, temporarily. Conservative politicians and electioneering exploit this, aiming to raise voters’ fears of immigration by comparing immigrants to germs, for example, which targets our deep, biologically evolved motivations to avoid contamination and disease. In one study, during an H1N1 flu epidemic, researchers reminded people of the dangers of the flu virus and then asked them their attitudes towards immigration, after which they were asked whether they had been vaccinated against flu yet. Those who hadn’t received their anti-flu shot were more likely to be anti-immigration than the ones who felt less threatened. But in a follow-up study, the researchers offered people a squirt of hand-sanitizer straight after the flu warning, and the immigration bias went away. Making people feel safe changes their voting decision to more liberal. When researchers asked people to imagine themselves completely invulnerable to any harm, Republican voters became significantly more liberal in social attitudes to issues like abortion and immigration. Reason is suffused with emotion.

The social implications of most decisions are also important factors in decision making. Banking insiders who were anxious about an impending crash in 2008, stayed quiet to avoid the social cost of voicing a disparaged rational opinion. In very partisan situations, people who disobey the social norm by voting against the group majority risk ostracism. In such cases, therefore, it may be more rational for the individual to go against the evidence because we are motivated more by social cohesion and maintaining support networks than being objectively right.

Whatever your political persuasion, the COVID-19 virus will not discriminate as it seeks more lungs to infect, but, because contagion is inherently social, it may well turn out that those populations who continue to socialise undeterred, will end up experiencing the worst epidemics. In other words, your voting record may well determine your fate.

4 thoughts

  1. I have no problem with that. In the end, long after this pandemic has passed, the United States will be better off with a lot fewer MAGA hat-wearing Always Trumpers. Do we stop lemmings from running off a cliff in mass?

  2. Thanks Gaia, you have summed up what many have said. Concise, BUT, apparently, with my recent experience, your essay is too long with too many “big words”. We still have books, but I think readers are disappearing, unable to bear big words like “civilization” and not having “time” to read long pieces that have started to feel (to some) incomprehensible. The insulting low-brow aggression of USA government assaulting Cuba, Venezuela and Iran and now in “indicting” Maduro of Venezuela shows the insanity of much leadership, including Putin and “Control-Freak China”. I just watched the Tim Burton version of “Alice In Wonderland” and laughed at the parody of the Red Queen, who has just indicted Trump and Pompeo, “Off with their heads!” Oh, is that “negative”? Is it a threat? No, it’s the same fantasy these political monsters are imagining…

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