Rock Ethics - Jay Van Bavel

As part of the Rock Ethics Institute Expanding Empathy lecture series, New York University associate professor of psychology Jay Van Bavel delved into the role social identity plays amid the coronavirus pandemic and the issue of polarization in the U.S. during a virtual event on Wednesday.

Van Bavel said he believes "it didn't have to be this way" about how the U.S. handled the pandemic and the partisan rhetoric of the pandemic.

He said the way national leaders acted and how seriously they handled the coronavirus is what made the pandemic a partisan issue in some countries but not others.

Van Bavel brought up Canada as an example, a country that has become increasingly polarized. However, when the pandemic hit, conservative and liberal leaders were talking about the issue in a serious way alike, according to Van Bavel, and they didn’t polarize the issue of the pandemic. Van Bavel estimated that had the U.S. handled the pandemic like Canada, there would have been 200,000-300,000 fewer deaths in the country.

Leadership style was another point he brought up in the efficacy of different countries handling the virus. In New Zealand, where cases had plateaued much earlier in the pandemic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern followed a model of identity leadership, Van Bavel said.

“Where [New Zealand promoted] trust, leading to cooperation [and creating] a sense of shared identity,” Van Bavel said. “[Donald] Trump had many super spreader events — huge rallies — in the middle of the pandemic.”

Van Bavel said behavioral science studies show the role of leadership is crucial during times of crisis, and he compared Ardern to Trump and other identity leaders in the U.S. at the time. They downplayed the risks of the virus, Van Bavel said, even when the U.S. had more deaths than any country on earth.

As a consequence, Van Bavel attributed partisanship as the biggest predictor of pandemic attitudes and behavior. He said polarization in the U.S. is at the worst point it has been in 40 years, with the emergence of out-of-party hate as a motivator more than in-party love.

“It’s not that they differ on opinion... they just simply dislike each other,” Van Bavel said.

Starting in March 2020, Van Bavel conducted studies by tracking pandemic behaviors and attitudes across party lines. Using geotracking in 15 million smartphones per day, he looked at which counties were more likely to engage in social distancing.

He found that even early on there was a huge party gap, where blue counties had much less movement and were more likely to engage in social distancing. This translated into actual coronavirus numbers, where spikes in infections and deaths were in the reddest counties and states, according to Van Bavel.

Historical trends have shown citizens will band together in times of hardship, but Van Bavel said this isn’t what happened — it was the exact opposite.

“As more people learn about the pandemic, you should expect the partisan gap to go away, but in reality, it got bigger,” Van Bavel said.

The lecture ended with a Q&A session in which users asked questions such as, "Is there a way for the partisan rhetoric to change?" "How will Biden appeal to people that have bad attitudes about the pandemic?" and "Why was this issue polarized when other events in history weren’t?”

“I certainly don’t think it’s too late," Van Bavel, who coins himself as an optimist, said.

He pointed to misinformation as the biggest problem and the first place to start, and described it as one of the largest factors for the disdain and hatred across party lines.

As for the solution, Van Bavel encouraged empathy and a change in attitude toward people who disagree with one another.

“I think [there] still needs to be that effort to treat them as humans and try to figure out a way to to get through and help them because everybody benefits when we do,” Van Bavel said.

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