People who endorsed President Donald Trump’s denials of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to adopt justifications for deviant behavior related to social distancing, according to new research conducted during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. The study has been published in the scientific journal Deviant Behavior.
“There were two considerations that underlay our interest in this topic. First, it was clear to us that the pandemic would exert a major impact on American society. We had no idea that it would result in more than 600,000 deaths. Still, we were aware that its impact would be consequential,” said study author Francis T. Cullen, a distinguished research professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati.
“Second, we were persuaded that unlike other public health crises, the president might be a source of beliefs that encouraged risky behavior rather than discouraging them — as would be typical of any other president. President Trump was important because he is charismatic and, we suspected, exerted much influence over a substantial segment of the American populace.”
“The question was whether his denials of the dangers of the pandemic would affect the beliefs that American had — in particular, whether they would embrace ‘techniques of neutralization’ that would permit them to ignore social distancing behaviors,” Cullen explained. “It was possible that Donald Trump’s apparent influence was spurious and explained by factors such as low self-control (willingness to take risks), political party and beliefs, fear of COVID, and demographic characteristics.”
“In the end, the question we addressed is: Did Donald Trump’s denials about the dangers of the pandemic contribute to Americans embracing beliefs that would neutralize social distancing norms and permit, if not encourage, non-compliance with these norms?”
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of SARS‐CoV‐2 to be a global pandemic. Governments around the world urged people to follow preventive health measures such as frequent hand washing and social distancing.
On March 28–29, 2020, about four weeks after the first reported COVID-19 death in the United States, Cullen and his colleagues used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to survey 989 U.S. residents. The survey included a wide variety of personal, political, and sociodemographic factors. In addition, it asked the participant their level of agreement with several public statements made by Trump.
Cullen and his colleagues found that about one in five Americans expressed agreement with Trump’s denials of the dangers of the pandemic.
Approximately 34% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “According to President Trump, the coronavirus was invented by the Chinese and we have every right to call it the ‘China Virus,’” 27.8% agreed that “As President Trump says, we need to make sure that the ‘cure is not worse than the disease’ – that is, we need to open up the economy soon even if this means some more people get sick and possibly die,” 18.3% agreed that “President Trump is correct when he says that the coronavirus is mostly a hoax used by the Democrats to prevent his reelection,” and 18.3% agreed that “It is a good idea to follow President Trump’s advice for everyone to pack churches on Easter Sunday, which is on April 12.”
As part of the survey, the participants also indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with five techniques of neutralization related to COVID-19:
- “If I go out in public, it will be because other people, like my friends, pressure me to do so.”
- “Because I am generally healthy, going about my regular life isn’t going to harm anyone anyway.”
- “If someone were to get infected by me, it would be their own fault for not staying at home or keeping their distance.”
- “All the politicians and corporate executives are out in public, so they have no right to lecture me about how I live my life.”
- “Sometimes, I have to go out in public because other people depend on me to help them out.”
The researchers found that self-control, moral foundations, perceptions that the world is dangerous, fear of the virus, education, marriage status, age, gender, and income were all correlated with the endorsement of these techniques of neutralization. But agreement with Trump’s pandemic denials was the strongest predictor of endorsing these techniques of neutralization.
The findings provide evidence that Trump’s statements motivated Americans to adopt beliefs associated with ignoring social distancing norms.
“President Trump is a historic leader who has the power to shape the beliefs and behavior of many Americas,” Cullen told PsyPost. “In the pandemic, his denials of the serious health risks of COVID-19 contributed to the public — starting early on in the pandemic — embracing beliefs that would permit non-compliance with social distancing norms. By being the ‘denier in chief,’ he contributed the U.S. public health crisis and likely to the illness and death of countless Americans who placed their faith in him.”
However, Cullen noted that the study only focused the endorsement of neutralization beliefs. “We did not measure whether these beliefs led to subjects ignoring social distancing norms or to their becoming ill. These effects are plausible, but they are not demonstrated by our study,” he explained.
But the findings are in line with another study conducted by the researchers, which found that support for Trump was associated with to intentions to defy social distancing guidelines.
Previous research has also found that Americans who used Trump’s briefings to obtain information about COVID-19 were less likely to view coronavirus as a severe health problem, less likely to view public health advice as effective, and less likely to view public health advice as easy to follow.
“President’s matter. In this case, the public’s faith in Donald Trump leads them to embrace beliefs that would permit them to engage in behaviors risky to their health,” Cullen said. “Consider the counterfactual: If President Trump, who knew about the dangers of COVID early on, had gone ‘all in’ on having people wear ‘MAGA masks’ and saying he was going to ‘crush the virus.’ He could have been a source of public health.”
“Combined with his support of funding vaccine development, he could have been a public health hero. Instead, he has been a source of non-compliance, and has transformed many leaders in the Republican Party (especially governors) to portray vaccines as a threat to liberty. By being the Denier in Chief, it is arguable that many of his more faithful followers have made choices that have cost them their health and even lives.”
The study, “The Denier in Chief: Faith in Trump and Techniques of Neutralization in a Pandemic“, was authored by Francis T. Cullen, Amanda Graham, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Justin T. Pickett, Melissa M. Sloan, and Murat Haner.