In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business IlLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Daniel Zane about his research on the deep partisan divide over how Americans think about and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zane is an assistant professor of marketing who studies consumer behavior. His research interests include inference making, self-perceptions, and ethical decision-making.
He spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript. The full study “Getting Conservatives and Liberals to Agree on the COVID-19 Threat,” co-authored by Zane and Luke Nowlan, assistant professor of marketing at KU Leuven in Belgium, is available online at the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
Jack Croft: Probably the key first point is this idea of what's known as agency and its role in how people are responding, not just to the pandemic, but across the ideological divide. So let's start out, if you could just explain quickly what agency is, and what the scientific literature tells us about how it comes into play in the psychology of political ideology.
Daniel Zane: Agency simply refers to the ability to control one's own actions and behaviors. So think about a sports agent, right? They control the trades of a player they represent. And so it's very much the same. Like you and I, Jack, we have a lot of agency as adult human beings, right? We control our own actions and behaviors. Maybe we could say human babies have less agency. They're not in control of all of their actions and outcomes to as great of a degree. And so you can also think about it along the lines of free will. You could equate high agency to this notion of free will or having the power to make our own choices and create our own outcomes. That sort of is what we mean by agency.
So we'll treat it as low versus high. And decades of research around the psychology of political ideology shows that conservatives tend to see free will as the primary driver of outcomes in life, whereas liberals are more accepting of the idea that these more deterministic factors — things like randomness, chance alone — play into people's life outcomes. So I think what that really means is that, compared to liberals, conservatives tend to attribute outcomes to these purposeful actions. Liberals are more okay saying that uncontrollable forces might have contributed.
Given that, I think where it gets interesting is with things like the coronavirus. So do people perceive the virus itself to have high agency, to be in control of its thoughts and actions and behaviors? Or do people perceive it to sort of spread by randomness and chance alone? And then — and we can get into this —how does a person's belief about whether this virus has high agency or not affect them, specifically based on whether they are a conservative or a liberal? And that's really what we're trying to look at in our work here.
Croft: Your research paper's based on two online studies that you and your co-author conducted in May. Tell us a little about how those studies were conducted, what they looked at, and what the results suggest about the differences between the ways conservatives and liberals view the pandemic.
Zane: In study one, we surveyed a group of American citizens online. And we asked them to report their ideology, and specifically, their social ideology. So are you socially liberal or socially conservative? On a scale measure, so it wasn't one or the other, but sort of capturing degree of that, as well. We then asked them to report how much agency they believe the virus has. And then we went on to ask them, "Okay. How much of a likelihood do you think there is of a second wave of the pandemic occurring?" And remember, this study was conducted way back in May. "How threatening do you think a second wave would be if it occurred? And also what are your planned in-person consumption activities moving forward?"
What we saw in this survey was that, if you look at people that we classify as liberals, regardless of whether they perceived this virus itself to have higher or lower agency, they were equally threatened by it. They said, "You know what? I think a second wave is likely. It could be a bad thing. I'm not going to go out and do this in-person consumption so much." Whereas conservatives, it was interesting. So conservatives who perceived the virus to have lower agency — and this seemed to be the majority of them — they perceived the virus to be less threatening. So when they didn't believe this virus would control its own actions and behaviors, they said, "I don't know that it's going to be as likely we'll see a second wave." Or that the second wave, if it was to occur, would be as threatening. However, there were conservatives who perceived that virus itself to have high agency. And there, among that group of conservatives, we see that they actually do have this increased threat or feeling of threat towards the virus that's actually more in line with liberals. That was some early evidence that this notion of how much agency we believe a threat has, and specifically when conservatives believe the threat has high agency, it makes them feel more threatened by that thing.
So that was study one. Where I think it gets really interesting is what we did in study two, where we then took that knowledge and tried to devise an intervention to see if we could actually move people on how threatened they feel by that virus. So we took an experimental approach. And we randomly assigned people to see one of two descriptions of the virus. So some people read this description of the virus that painted it to have really high agency. It described the virus as "seeking to infect any human it comes in contact with," saying other things like, "the virus has a strong motive to use humans as a means to spread." So using this language that almost allows you to build this picture of this thing controlling its actions, being this palpable enemy to us humans, right? The other half of participants we recruited for this study, they instead served as the control condition. And they saw a description of the virus that instead didn't suggest high agency. And it used terminology that is probably more common overall to what we've been seeing in the media. Things like, "the coronavirus can affect any human it comes in contact with. It spreads as more humans contract it." So not nearly as much painting this picture of this force in control of its own behaviors.
And then what we looked at was, okay, depending on what condition you were in, and depending on your political ideology, do we see anything interesting? In that control condition, where they saw sort of this more normal language, not promoting high agency, conservatives were less threatened by the virus than liberals, which we would predict. And conservatives were actually more likely to say that society was overreacting. So again, when the virus wasn't painted to have high agency, conservatives seemed to feel less threatened by it — presumably, because they're placing more blame on these other things like policymakers, other human beings. But interestingly, in that high agency condition — in that condition where the coronavirus was painted to have this strong motive, be this palpable enemy — conservatives actually came to align with liberals in how much of a threat they perceived that virus to be. And conservatives actually came to conclude that society was no longer overreacting relative to liberals. So there is no longer one ideology over the other saying that we're overreacting here. So we do see this successful intervention based on painting the virus to have high agency, leading conservatives to become more threatened by it, which I think is pretty cool.
Croft: What your research really seems to be emphasizing most is that the way we communicate about this is really important. What do you think are some of the lessons from your research that political leaders, public health officials, and policymakers may want to consider to alter the way people perceive the threat posed by the coronavirus?
Zane: In our work, the one thing I think that's nice is there's no downside to using this high agency language among liberals. So it's not the case where you're facing a tradeoff. Where if you paint the virus as having high agency, you'll get conservatives to believe it's more of a threat, but reduce perceptions of liberals. That's not what we find. We find that liberals, regardless of how much they believe the virus to have agency, they seem to respond the same. So really I just see this as, if your goal as a policymaker is to get more of the American public on board with any of these protection measures that you're looking to unroll, using this language that might make the virus seem like it has higher agency, it can only help by capturing perhaps some of the buy-in from the conservative side of the aisle. So that, to me, is promising.
And then, in terms of specifics for these policymakers, I'd say, yeah, in all of your written communications, your verbal communications, any press releases or news conferences that you hold, if you can use some of this language that gives the virus maybe a sense of human-like action, so verbs, descriptions like, "it seeks," maybe "it has this strong motive," using phrases, again, that makes it seem like an enemy to us, "seeking to infect us when it comes into contact." I think that would be sort of the nuts and bolts of how to craft those messages.