Bridging the partisan gap – Towards a collective response against COVID-19 using behavioural scientific insights

Since its first emergence in December 2019, the novel corona virus SARS CoV-2 made it’s way rapidly around the globe. The virus causing acute respiratory syndrome (COVID-19) saw health authorities and governments alike scrambling for information and public health responses. At the forefront of measure emerged what is commonly known as social distancing. Countries with very active outbreaks such as Italy, South Korea and Germany are examples of curbing the spread with social distancing. A notable exception in both response and efficiency of the response are the United States of America. As of June 16, the U.S. reported on average around 22.500 new daily cases for the preceding four weeks. Comparatively, the European Union as a whole reported on average around 5000 cases in the same time frame (European CDC). While this is a limited comparison not accounting for all necessary heterogeneous factors of the regions, the difference in magnitude is striking. A common theme in both scientific and media commentary on the US response is the partisan polarization of behavioral responses in the US. Despite facing the same scientific reality and pandemic data, responses from the political left and right on all levels often contrast each other like day and night. What causes the partisan divide and how can we work towards a unified response against COVID-19?

Behavioural sciences have long analyzed the emergence of polarization despite facing an equal scientific evidence, for example with regards to climate change denial. One strain of the literature sees limited cognitive comprehension skills and scientific understanding at the root of polarization; others attribute especially partisan polarization to the process of politically motivated reasoning (see Kunda 1990). People who strongly identify with a political group, for the sake of our topic say the Republican Party or political right, derive a great deal of self-worth and identity from being a valued member of the group (see Turner et al. 1994). What can develop is a bias in how partisan group members engage with information. What is in line with the position they perceive as dominant within thei political group is adopted and stuck to. What is in line with the opposing partisan group, say the Democrats or political Left, is dismissed categorically. Engaging presents the threat to the individual of being shunned by in-group members and labeled as a traitor to their values. You find further reading and sources on the topic in the bibliography! Social distancing serves as an example for this process. Early on, the pattern emerged that Republican leaders, at the forefront Donald Trump, dismissed and downplayed the dangers of COVID-19 while Democratic leaders, after early hesitation, acknowledged the dangers and pushed for social distancing, for example Governor Cuomo of New York. You find links to comprehensive timelines of messaging in the bibliography.

In understating the threat of COVID-19, the Republican elite rendered the dominant position of the republican base on social distancing measures into stark rejection and provided personal incentives for the individual to ignore or speak up against it. “Why would we shut down and risk our economy and freedom for the common flu with a different name?” Indeed a large body of literature already exists and shows a stark contrast in personal and collective risk perception and subsequently decreasing likelihood to adopt measures against COVID-19 between Republicans and Democrats (see Adolph et al. 2020, Allcott et al. 2020, Grossman et al. 2020, Pennycook et al. 2020 and Rothgerber et al. 2020). Risk perception might have further decreased as parts of the Right gave up informing themselves after hearing COVID-19 being compared to the flu over and over again by their party leaders (Rothgerber et al. 2020, p. 2). These results hold even when taking demographic and geographic differences between democrats and republicans into account. A rural Texas Republican was less likely to social distance not because of lower threat to contract the virus, but because he was Republican. What also jumps out is that messaging itself and the messenger’s role in the group’s hierarchy matter for shaping the political Rights dominant opinion at which members orientate their responses. The literature often refers to this as “Elite Cues” (Grossman et al. 2020, p. 2, 3). Interestingly enough, the partisan divide consolidated itself over time as studies found (see Andersen 2020, p. 3-4). At the core of this might be self-reinforcing of partisan narratives in the groups. When the voter base develops a dominant opinion based on elite cues, the elites have an incentive to send out more such cues to appease the voter base and the cycle starts again. Studies moreover show that messaging by in-group trusted news sources like FOX News can create equal responses (Allcott et al. 2020, p. 1-2, Andersen 2020, p. 4).

Solely using elite induced identity-protecting behavior of Republican voters to explain the partisan divide is grossly simplifying the problem, let’s stick with the idea here. Could the partisan divide be not a systemic problem of understanding the crisis or bad intend as some on the left have proposed, but ultimately a messaging crisis? Countries like Brazil with equally populist top-down messaging by right-wing President Bolsonaro experienced similar developments as the U.S. (see Farias and Pilati 2020, Mariani 2020), whereas more scientific based and less dismissive messaging united countries with large conservative bases like Germany and the UK in their response (see Pennycook et al 2020).

A group of behavioral scientists around Chris Bonell have developed a list of principles for framing public health measures and messages and creating a unified response. The same principle leading to politically motivated reasoning might be harnessed to achieve a unified response against COVID-19. Boldly, and simplistically, this might be labeled as “Expanding the in-group”. Messages on a national level should rely on “protect each other” and “stand together” messages, conveying the notion that everybody is part of the in-group and build on activating collective, national identity and norms. Respected, above party lines messengers might be conducive to that. Emphasized should be effects across different groups, for example that the virus will not distinguish between victims and that your health, and the health of your partisan group for that matter, is supported by members of different sub-groups just like you support theirs. This emphasizes the importance of presenting measures not as zero sum game. We don’t lose our freedom temporarily at the opposite groups gain. The indiscriminate positive externalities of social distancing should be promoted. Messages should stress and most importantly affirm the social norms of the group. Bonell calls it “This is who we are and do” messages.  As our experience with the virus grows, so does the understanding that only unified responses are effective in curbing the spread of the virus. Until medicinal remedies are available, changing hearts and minds and bridging the partisan divide are our best bets. Behavioral science has a wide range of instruments and theories for inducing change in individuals at their disposal. Let’s put them to use.     

Further Resources

Further principles for Public Health responses, similar to the guidance proposed by Bonell:

Bavel et al. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, Vol. 4, May 2020, 460–471. Available at:

Further reading on differences and roots of partisan behavior reactions:

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B.A. (2009). Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 5, 1029 –1046.

Graham, J., Haidt, J., and Nosek, B.A. (2009). The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives. University of Virgina, Department of Psychology.

Timelines of political messaging on COVID-19:

JUST SECURITY: Timeline of the Coronavirus Pandemic and U.S. Response. Available at:

NPR: A Timeline Of Coronavirus Comments From President Trump And WHO. Available at:

VOX News: A detailed timeline of all the ways Trump failed to respond to the coronavirus. Available at:


Adolph, C., Amano, K., Bang-Jensen, B., Fullman, N. and Wilkerson, J. (2020). Pandemic Politics: Timing State-Level Social Distancing Responses to COVID-19, forthcoming.

Allcott, H., Boxell, L., Conway, J., Gentzkow, M., Thaler, M. and Yang, D. (2020). Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic, forthcoming.

Andersen, M.S. (2020). Early Evidence on Social Distancing in Response to COVID-19 in the United States, forthcoming.

Bonell, C., Michie, S., Reicher, S., West, R., Bear, L., Yardley, L., Curtis, V., Amlot, R. amd Rubin, G.J. (2020). Harnessing behavioural science in public health campaigns to maintain ‘social distancing’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: key principles.  Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, May 2020.

European CDC (2020). Situation Update Worldwide – updated at the 16th June, 2020. Retrieved on 16th of June 2020, available at:

Farias, J and Pilati R. (2020). Violating social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Psychological factors to improve compliance, forthcoming.

Grossman, G., Soojong K, Rexer, J.M. and Thirmurthy, H. (2020). Political partisanship influences behavioral responses to governors’ recommendations for COVID-19 prevention in the United State, forthcoming.

Kunda, Z. (1990). The Case for Motivated Reasoning. Psychological Bulletion, Vol. 108, No. 3, 480-498.

Mariani, L. (2020). Words can hurt: How political communication can change the pace of an epidemic, forthcoming.

Pennycook, G., McPhetres J., Bago, B. and Rand D. G. (2020). Attitudes about COVID-19 in Canada, the U.K., and the U.S.A.: A novel test of political polarization and motivated reasoning, forthcoming.

Rothgerber, H., Wilson, T., Whaley, D., Rosenfeld, D.L. and Humphrey M. (2020). Politicizing the COVID-19 Pandemic: Ideological Differences in Adherence to Social Distancing, forthcoming.

Turner, J.C., Oakes, P.J., Haslam, S.A. and Mcgarty C. (1994). Self and Collective: Cognition and Social Context. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 20 No.5, October 1994, 454-463.

Illustration:  Copyright R. Fresson for the Guardian. available at:

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