Trump support predicted intentions to defy social distancing norms during early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak

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Support for President Donald Trump is linked to intentions to defy social distancing guidelines meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to new research published in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus 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. But not everyone abided by the health guidelines.

The new findings indicate that faith in Trump was a strong predictor of intentions to defy these health guidelines during the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

“Research shows that presidents have a unique capability of influencing public views about public policy,” explained study author Amanda Graham, an assistant professor at Georgia Southern University.

“Given President Trump’s multiple statements downplaying the threat of the COVID-19 virus in the early days of the pandemic, our team was interested in understanding the impact of these statements (and Trump more generally) on individual behavioral intentions to defy social distancing norms — a new form of deviance when this survey was conducted.”

The researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to survey 989 American adults on March 28 and 29, 2020. The online survey assessed intentions to defy health guidelines, general support for President Trump and support for his positions on COVID-19. The survey also included measures of moral foundations and risk perceptions/deterrent emotions, and collected data on a host of sociodemographic variables.

Low self-control was the strongest predictor of intentions to defy social distance norms.

But Graham and her colleagues found that general faith in Trump was the second strongest predictor of defiance intentions. In other words, participants who agreed with statements such as “I believe that President Trump will make America great again” were more likely to also agree with statements such as “Even if the governor of my state orders me to stay at home, I am still going to go out if I want to” and “Even if I have symptoms, I am still going to go out in public (such as to a grocery store, work, or park).”

Having faith in President Trump’s handling of the novel coronavirus outbreak was also associated with intentions to defy social distancing guidelines.

“Faith in Trump and faith in his COVID-specific positions were significantly associated with intentions to defy social distancing norms, even after accounting for typical criminological predictors (i.e., low self-control, deterrence). However, this impact was unique to Trump; Republican political party affiliation and conservative ideology did not influence intentions to defy social distancing norms,” Graham told PsyPost.

“Additionally, those whose moral concerns focused on respect for authority, group cohesion, obedience, and self-sacrifice held higher intentions to defy social distancing norms.”

These moral foundations are known as the “binding” foundations and those who strongly endorse them tend to “seek tight integration into a strong group under a strong leader,” the researchers explained.

“Ultimately, we find that, early in the pandemic, faith in Trump’s words and actions were associated with intentions to defy scientific and public health recommendations that may have helped slow the spread of the virus, specifically social distancing,” Graham said.

In line with previous research, Graham and her colleagues also found that being younger, male, nonwhite, more educated, married, lower income, and less aware of the news about COVID-19 were positively associated with intentions to defy social distancing norms.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations

“This study used a national-level opt-in sample, which is not necessarily nationally representative; however, it captures a unique moment in history (i.e., the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic), which cannot be recaptured,” Graham said.

“Nonetheless, we encourage research to explore intentions to defy social distancing norms now that the pandemic has taken a massive toll on Americans to understand if views about these norms or other protective measures, the perceived risk of virus, or the impact of Trump on these norms have changed.”

“Furthermore, this study examined behavioral intentions, not actual behavior. Given the duration of this pandemic in the United States, future researchers should explore how these elements (e.g., faith in Trump, moral foundations, low self-control, deterrence, socio-demographics) play a role in actual behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Graham added.

“Although President Trump has verbally vacillated on his position about masks and public health policies, his actions, such as holding large rallies without social distancing, suggest that our findings may not be isolated to only the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study, “Faith in Trump, Moral Foundations, and Social Distancing Defiance during the Coronavirus Pandemic“, was authored by Amanda Graham, Francis T. Cullen, Justin T. Pickett, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Murat Haner, and Melissa M. Sloan.TrendMD v2.4.8