Political polarization distorts risk perception

Political polarization distorts risk perception
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Last month my family and I took a trip out west. At one point, we found ourselves in a conversation where we said we were from New Jersey. The person we were talking to told us that she could never live in New York City because of how dangerous it was. We pointed out the historically low crime rates and the fact that most neighborhoods in New York were as safe as any small town. She was clearly unconvinced.

When we got back to New Jersey, a neighbor asked us if we were scared traveling out west given how high COVID-19 rates were in that part of the country. We talked about how many counties in the west had infection rates as low as those here at home, and even in places with higher rates, you can protect yourself by wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor locations like bars and restaurants. She was clearly unconvinced.

Last week, we heard President Trump tell Bob Woodward that he had intentionally misled the American people about the extent and dangers of COVID-19 in February and March because he did not want to cause panic. Within a day, he also warned of massive voter fraud and the destruction of the suburbs on Twitter. Is it any wonder that people across the country have warped assessments of the risks of everything from crime to the pandemic?

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Academic research has shown that perceptions of risk of COVID-19 varies with the level of support for President TrumpDonald John TrumpBubba Wallace to be driver of Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin NASCAR team Graham: GOP will confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee before the election Southwest Airlines, unions call for six-month extension of government aid MORE. It doesn’t require much of a leap of imagination that perceptions of risk regarding other highly politicized issues such as crime and climate change evince a similar pattern. 

Why does it matter? People’s behavior and actions are influenced by their risk perceptions. This affects their own welfare. If you don’t think COVID-19 is a threat — and it really is — you are more likely to go out in crowds and get sick. If you do think COVID-19 is a threat — and it really isn’t — you are more likely to keep your kids out of school when they don’t need to be. 

And perhaps more importantly, your risk perception will lead you to take actions that could affect the welfare of others. If you underestimate the risk of climate change, you will have a greater willingness to take actions that increase the carbon emissions that warm the planet. If you underestimate the risk of the pandemic, your willingness to go out in crowds, or not wear a mask increases the risk that others get sick.

Communicating a risk in a way that leads to responsible public behavior is very difficult. It requires nuance. Despite the challenge, some leaders in this country have tried to do so, but this administration and this president tend to go to extremes. Much of the rhetoric he uses surrounding issues such as the pandemic (“It’s going to disappear”), the protests (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”), and pretty much everything else (calling a migrant caravan, an “invasion”) is weighted with extreme language rather than anything that could be described as nuanced.

As a result, the president’s supporters tend to overestimate the risks he exaggerates and underestimate the ones he plays down. His opponents, accustomed to discounting everything he says because of his tendency to lie do the opposite. The result is a society that reacts to a real crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic with a series of responses that make conditions worse both from a public health and an economic perspective.

In a time when distrust of experts is high, saying “listen to the experts” is not a message that is often well received. But when the alternative is listening to those who have political incentives to exaggerate or minimize risks and have a proven record of doing so, we should, well, just “listen to the experts.” Or at least listen to politicians who promise to do so.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.