Research in moral psychology divides human morality into five components: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity. It is this last component, purity, that is causing moral psychologists to second-guess their work.
Why? The theory contends that certain people, more than others, are motivated by a purity instinct, or an avoidance of disgusting things, foods, and actions in their environment. Interestingly, research has found this purity instinct to follow party lines: conservatives, for instance, are more sensitive to the emotion of disgust and the risk posed by pathogens than liberals.
This is all well and good — that is, until you enter COVID-19 into the equation. According to the theory, conservatives should exhibit a heightened fear of COVID-19 and, as such, should engage in behaviors that reduce their risk of infection. Liberals, on the other hand, should exhibit a more laissez-faire attitude toward COVID-19 given that they are generally less concerned about environmental contaminants.
So far, however, the data show the opposite. According to a recent Pew Research poll, 30% of Democrats reported “high COVID-19 distress” compared to only 17% of Republicans. A recent Gallup poll found that 85% of Democrats have avoided public places, compared to 70% of Republicans. Furthermore, a clever analysis of human geospatial data found Trump supporters to be less likely to adhere to the government’s social distancing recommendations.
Why might this be? There are at least four possibilities. They are discussed below.
It is possible that liberals exhibit more COVID-19 fear because they outnumber conservatives in the areas hardest hit by the pandemic (for instance, New York City, New Jersey, California, Washington, and other coastal areas). If that’s the case, the theory might be salvageable. The test, of course, will be to see how reactions to COVID-19 change as the disease moves into the interior of the country.
#2: Partisan politics
A second possibility is that partisan politics are to blame. In other words, a conservative person’s allegiance to Trump is causing him or her to downplay the severity of the situation, perhaps against his or her better instincts. This may follow from Trump’s own example, as the President repeatedly let on that he believed the threat was over-hyped. Moreover, it is possible that liberals are motivated by a sort of “I-told-you-so” political calculus — overreacting to the situation to match Trump’s under-reaction.
#3: A shifting political landscape
A third possibility is that the original theory was constructed in a political world that is longer relevant. Donald Trump’s ascendancy has caused political scientists to question whether the labels of conservative and liberal mean the same thing that they did even a decade ago. It is possible that the Trump voter is not synonymous with the form of conservativism used to build the original theory.
#4: Faulty math
There’s also the possibility that the research is flat out wrong. This would seem unlikely, except when one considers the massive number of psychology studies that can’t be replicated. Recent research, for instance, estimates that over half of published psychology studies fail to reproduce.
Conclusion. There is one final possibility, and that has to do with the political leanings of the scientists who conducted the original research. Studies exploring differences between liberals and conservatives are generally conducted by scientists who fall on the liberal end of the political spectrum. While one would hope that personal beliefs wouldn’t influence scientific results, common sense (and research) tells us otherwise.
Fortunately, science is a self-correcting field. Politics is not.