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New Study Finds Links Between Political Beliefs and COVID-19 Health Behaviors

By Laura Ours

A recent study by an international group of researchers—including members of the University of Maryland Department of Psychology—confirms the conventional wisdom that health-related behaviors like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated against COVID-19 have become tied up in political rhetoric in the United States.

Professor Edward Lemay and Distinguished University Professor Arie Kruglanski are among the numerous coauthors of a paper published Oct. 20 by the journal PLOS ONE, which was based on two studies—one of U.S. residents and one of people from both the U.S. and 114 other countries—between March and July 2020.

In the early months of the pandemic, conservatives in the United States perceived COVID-19 as less threatening to health than liberals, and were also somewhat less likely to enact recommended health-protective behaviors, the researchers found.

The strongest political and behavioral associations were found for wearing a mask and for willingness to be vaccinated once a vaccine became available, with liberals more likely to favor such measures than conservatives.

“Unfortunately, the political narrative and the social values it espouses insinuate themselves into nearly all of life domains, creating virtually two nations whose cultures and belief systems are at complete odds with each other—the ‘Dis-United’ States of America, one might say,” Kruglanski said.

In a global comparison across multiple countries, these political differences were stronger in the United States than elsewhere.

“While there is certainly political discord in other countries, matters of science and public health seem to be areas of relative neutrality and objectivity in many other countries,” Lemay said.

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