What Research Tells Us About the Power of the Tribe

Below is a guest post from Steven Sloman and Mugur Geana

Image of Steven Sloman
Steven Sloman
Image of Mugur Geana
Mugur Geana

“…human beings are tribal all the way down, all the way to the processes that govern thought. In other words, we let others think for us.”

We thought we had a solution. After a year of cowering in our homes, science had come to the rescue in a way that sounded like science fiction. We had not one but two vaccines based on what seemed fantasmagorical methods from the cutting edge of molecular biology. They had greater efficacy than anyone had dreamed, upwards of 90% ability to prevent infection. Yet, as we write this, the US is experiencing a 4th Covid-19 surge. To those of us who raced to get vaccinated as soon as we could, something has gone terribly wrong.

We knew that a coronavirus variant might evolve that could wriggle its way around the vaccine’s defenses. Most experts believe that, to some extent, that is what the Delta variant is doing. It is almost surely more transmissible than previous variants, and therefore has become a dominant strain globally. But we don’t really know how transmissible this latest and greatest contender is because it isn’t facing the same obstacles that its immediate predecessors faced. Many Americans have decided that the pandemic is over. So it is hard for epidemiologists to measure the transmissibility of the Delta variant, because they have to do it in a society with full restaurants and bars, and with thousands of fans screaming their approval and disapproval at sports venues. Some of those patrons have been vaccinated. Some have not. The surge is occurring not just because of the new variant but because so many people have entirely given up on wearing masks and social distancing, never mind their unwillingness to vaccinate.

There are other reasons people may have given up, including the inconsistency of the messages put forward by public health authorities. The CDC did issue guidance that vaccinated people need not wear masks indoors when they are with other vaccinated people. But recent studies show that vaccinated people can become carriers (although substantially less often than unvaccinated people). Furthermore, people get their information about Covid from a multitude of sources, and misinformation abounds. Nevertheless, the vaccines have lowered the risk of getting and certainly of dying from Covid-19. So, are people just making rational risk assessments to decide whether or not the discomfort of masks and the isolation of social distancing is worth it? Alternatively, people might be ignoring scientific advice because they lack trust. Some come from racial minority groups that have historically been poorly served by the medical community, or their behavior is driven by information from sources that do not share the medical establishment’s views.

The word on the street, and on many newscasts, is that the issue is ideological. Is it? Ideology seems to pervade so much these days. There is clearly a split in Americans’ confidence in experts; Democrats show more than Republicans (Pew Research, 7/21/19). Experts themselves are speaking pretty much with a single voice: With only a few eccentric exceptions, medical experts recommend avoiding close proximity to strangers, wearing masks in public, certainly indoors and outdoors if you have to be close to people you don’t know (or don’t trust), and get vaccinated. Who is following the advice, and who isn’t, and why?

In two surveys involving almost 1700 US adults, we asked people whether they take preventive behaviors (mask-wearing and social distancing) and whether they support policies that encourage such behavior. We also asked respondents several questions about their political attitudes (conservative versus liberal), about their own risk from the coronavirus, their understanding of the transmission of the virus, how well they perceive their own understanding of the virus, and some other facts about themselves. We found that the best predictor of their behavior and their attitudes was their political leanings. Suppose you want to know whether an American is likely to wear a mask or practice social distancing. In that case, the single best question to ask them turns out to be what party they vote for.

This finding is consistent with a plethora of research. We looked for published and unpublished manuscripts made available by early 2021 that included measures of Covid-mitigation attitudes and also measured political ideology. Forty-four papers provided data that allowed us to evaluate which variables predicted those attitudes. Out of 141 observations from the 44 papers, political ideology was a significant predictor of responses in 112 (79%). Moreover, ideology was by far the best predictor of COVID-19-related attitudes overall. Other factors did surpass ideology’s predictive value in a few cases: age (8 cases), gender (8 cases), education (14 cases), and race/ethnicity (7 cases), along with various measures of news consumption (10 cases). Ideology did best 62 times.

In another study of over 1100 Americans led by Mae Fullerton, we found that not only did people’s risk profiles fail to predict their mask-wearing and social distancing, but even their perception of their own risk failed to predict them. As usual, partisanship turned out to be a better predictor, along with being an essential worker. Not surprisingly, another good predictor was believing compliance was important.

These studies are, of course, correlational. We have no direct evidence that one’s partisanship causes one’s willingness to take mitigating or preventive behaviors against Covid. It could be, for instance, that Republicans tend to live in Republican communities or regions of the country and Democrats in Democratic communities, and that people behave in line with their community, as opposed to their ideology. But alternative explanations like this just emphasize our bottom line: In the case of Covid, health-related behavior is not governed by a rational assessment of risk but by the attitudes of the people who surround us. Our data suggest that it is not primarily a function of race, age, or any of the other variables that have been offered as big players, but rather variables related to ideology.

In a recent book, one of us argued that human beings are tribal all the way down, all the way to the processes that govern thought. In other words, we let others think for us. We keep expecting to find exceptions to this rule. When it comes to matters of life and limb, for instance, or when behavior is obviously foolish or capricious, we would expect people to rely on their ability to reason, not to simply channel the people around them. Yet we keep being surprised. Covid is a matter of life and death and the strong consensus among experts means that deciding what to do is not very complicated, and yet people seem to be as influenced by social processes and pressures as they are in cases that seem much more benign (like how much respect one should have for economists) and topics that do not lend themselves to such easy conclusions (like how we should handle immigration).

Everyone makes mistakes. But when it comes to freeing the country from the bonds of a tiresome pandemic, some of us keep making the same mistake over and over.

You can reach Steven at: Steven_Sloman@Brown.edu. His website is: https://sites.google.com/site/slomanlab/

You can reach Mugur at geanam@ku.edu

and Check out the Human Tech podcast episode where Steven Sloman and his co-author, Philip Fernbach talk about their book The Knowledge Illusion.

Design is evolving—and designers need to evolve with it.

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