Where Motivated Reasoning Withers and Looms Large: Fear and Partisan Reactions to the Covid-19 Pandemic

The forthcoming article “Where Motivated Reasoning Withers and Looms Large: Fear and Partisan Reactions to the Covid-19 Pandemic by Isaac D. MehlhaffTimothy J. RyanMarc J. Hetherington and Michael B. MacKuen is summarized by the author(s) below.

Partisans today appear to believe whatever their leaders say and disbelieve information that challenges their predispositions. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, this partisan motivated reasoning might have had life and death consequences—contrary to expert recommendations, many Republican politicians, notably President Trump, minimized the threat posed by Covid-19 and opposed mitigation policies. 

However, emotions are one thing that can help citizens overcome partisan motivated reasoning. Anxiety, specifically, can prompt citizens to reason more even-handedly and produce less biased, more considered judgments. Previous evidence that anxiety could overcome partisan motivated reason, however, was mostly either gathered using lab or survey experiments or during times when partisanship was less of a force.  

We tested the degree to which anxiety influenced political attitudes and behaviors in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid-19 presented a genuine threat to Americans for more than a year, and it unfolded at a time when the impact of partisanship was at a fever pitch. The combination allowed us an unprecedented look into anxiety’s potential to interrupt partisan habits in a real political episode. We found both good and bad news. 

Using original panel survey data collected from April to November 2020, we measured the degree to which citizens feared becoming seriously ill from Covid-19 along with their support for a range of mitigation policies, including mask mandates and business closures. We found that increases in anxiety about the pandemic encouraged people to support mitigation policies at higher rates. These changes were especially pronounced among Republicans, many of whom spurned President Trump’s view on the pandemic’s severity and supported mitigation policies. In fact, at the highest levels of anxiety, Republicans were nearly indistinguishable from Democrats in their support for mitigation policies. We also pinpointed key mechanisms. Anxiety led people to search for more information about the pandemic from beyond their usual news sources. It was also associated with more accurate knowledge about the pandemic, including one fact (whether Covid-19 is more dangerous than the flu) that was subject to high-profile debate between Republicans and Democrats. 

When it came to the presidential election, however, more fearful Republicans were only slightly more likely than less fearful ones to defect from Trump. Although many Republicans feared becoming ill and, as a consequence, diverged from Trump on mitigation policies, few held him politically accountable. Fear had a sizeable effect on vote choice only among independents.  

In addition to providing evidence of the large-scale influence of emotions in politics, our findings help explain a puzzle in the 2020 election: Majorities of Republicans disagreed with their party leader on the most salient issue of the election, yet still voted for him at historically high rates. We suggest that anxiety’s potential to interrupt partisan motivated reasoning in some—but not all—domains accounts for this discrepancy. 

About the Author(s): Isaac D. Mehlhaff is a Postdoctoral Scholar at The University of ChicagoTimothy J. Ryan is a Professor of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel HillMarc J. Hetherington is a Raymond Dawson Distinguished Bicentennial Professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michael B. MacKuen is a Distinguished Professor of Political Science at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their research “Where Motivated Reasoning Withers and Looms Large: Fear and Partisan Reactions to the Covid-19 Pandemicis now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.