Because COVID-19 is a novel virus, information about it is sparse and quickly evolving. When the two sides of the political spectrum approach it with different biases, it’s easy for both to find data points to build their case (and to dismiss points that don’t). This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt examined it in-depth in his 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind.”
Being aware of our own confirmation biases and those of others will allow us to be more objective when evaluating all cultural and political issues and events, including the present pandemic.
Liberals are more likely to worry that COVID-19 will reach its worst-case projections. Conservatives are more likely to question those projections and whether our public response — namely the shuttering of so much commercial and social activity — is justified.
What is motivating our present biases toward COVID-19? One answer is that President Trump, a Republican, is up for reelection. As an incumbent, he and his supporters want to keep national morale high. Trump’s liberals opponents have a reason to focus on bad news.
Conservatives and liberals have different worldviews—about science, economics, and America—that extend far beyond the 2020 presidential election.
Undoubtedly there’s some truth to this narrative. But it’s too simple. Conservatives and liberals have different worldviews — about science, economics, and America — that extend far beyond the 2020 presidential election.
A common charge against conservatives, which long predates COVID-19, is that they reject “science.” This caricature, usually summoned in debates about climate science, paints an inaccurate picture. Reality is more complicated. For example, plenty of people on the political left reject GMOs, vaccines, or that sex is binary, all of which are scientifically sound ideas.
Even the process of scientific discovery is subject to interpretation and even political biases, when we pick which theories to test, which assumptions to make, and which conclusions to draw. Universities — the birthplace of most new research and modeling about COVID — are not politically neutral. Liberal professors outnumber conservatives 12 to 1, and public health departments are not immune, no pun intended.
Worse, left-leaning “mainstream” media outlets in the U.S. have spent the last three years spoiling any remaining pretense of impartiality, transparently rooting for the President’s failure at every turn. Conservatives have understandably become skeptical of anything they report, even if it’s purportedly just “science.”
But if conservatives generally make poor armchair epidemiologists, liberals make terrible kitchen-table economists.
Specifically, liberals tend to downplay the impact of economic collapse as lost corporate profits, only affecting only “the rich.” Conservatives know that economic prosperity impacts everyone and is a critical defense against social ills including depression, suicide, interpersonal violence, crime, and family disintegration. Joblessness and poverty are killers that, like COVID, cut short human life. This is why free marketeers fight for a strong economy, in normal times and now. A strong economy isn’t the end; it’s the means to the end of more human flourishing, health, and life.
Lives—not just dollars—are lost when the economy collapses.
This isn’t to say that social distancing is wrong or that it won’t save lives. But it is to say that there’s another column. Lives — not just dollars — are lost when the economy collapses.
Finally, there’s one more consideration for COVID confirmation biases: views of America.
Conservatives generally are more likely to believe that, from Christianity to capitalism, America is doing things the right way. Progressives approach U.S. culture and policy with a more negative eye in order to point out where “progress” is needed. Progressives may be tempted to paint the American response to COVID as poor because this presents an opportunity to push for reforms such as “Medicare for All” or socialism generally. Conservatives will counter this. Instead, although difficult, both sides should seek to evaluate our national response objectively.
The problem of confirmation bias isn’t going away generally, or when it comes to COVID. We will be fighting about this pandemic for the months, years, and even decades ahead. But it helps to be aware, at least, of how confirmation biases — our own and those around us — play into the narratives we hear and create for ourselves.
This pandemic, for many, is bringing into stark relief our priorities.
Fostering a better civic dialogue should be one.
Hadley Manning is the policy director at Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice.