Perceived risk, political polarization, and the willingness to follow COVID-19 mitigation guidelines

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Objective – Risk assessment and response is important for understanding human behavior. The divisive context surrounding the coronavirus pandemic inspires our exploration of risk perceptions and the polarization of mitigation practices (i.e., the degree to which the behaviors of people on the political “Left” diverge from those on the “Right”). Specifically, we investigate the extent to which the political polarization of willingness to comply with mitigation behaviors changes with risk perceptions. Method – Analyses use data from two sources- an original dataset of Twitter posts and a nationally-representative survey. In the Twitter data, negative binomial regression models are used to predict mitigation intent measured using tweet counts. In the survey data, logit models predict self-reported mitigation behavior (vaccination, masking, and social distancing). Results – Findings converged across both datasets, supporting the idea that the links between political orientation and willingness to follow mitigation guidelines depend on perceived risk. People on the Left are more inclined than their Right-oriented colleagues to follow guidelines, but this polarization tends to decrease as the perceived risk of COVID-19 intensifies. Additionally, we find evidence that exposure to COVID-19 infections sends ambiguous signals about the risk of the virus while COVID-19 related deaths have a more consistent impact on mitigation behaviors. Conclusions – Pandemic-related risks can create opportunities for perceived “common ground,” between the political “Right” and “Left.” Risk perceptions and politics interact in their links to intended COVID-19 mitigation behavior (as measured both on Twitter and in a national survey). Our results invite a more complex interpretation of political polarization than those stemming from simplistic analyses of partisanship and ideology.

In Social Science & Medicine