Political science professor Elizabeth Connors was teaching a Graduate Experiments class at the University of South Carolina when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
As the world adjusted to the situation, Connors and her students decided to practice the research techniques she was teaching. They set out to answer a simple question: what factors influenced how Americans responded to information about the pandemic?
For example, would someone be more likely to wear a mask if that recommendation came from a doctor as opposed to a soccer coach? They theorized that people might be more likely to listen to advice when it came from those with a higher level of expertise.
The experiment looked at many variables, offering different scenarios to gauge how people were responding in real life. Through an online poll, they asked multiple-choice questions that included select details and conditions, anticipating they would influence the answers people chose to some extent.
After they ran the survey nationwide, they arrived at a shocking conclusion: the experiment results were “null.” Nothing they tried influenced how people responded.
The effects of partisan division
Overwhelmingly, how people responded to COVID-19 public health guidance came down to where they stood in terms of politics and their news media of choice. They found that whether a person watched Fox News or NBC News, for instance, was a greater predictor of their behaviors regarding the pandemic than any level of expertise or the credentials of those issuing health recommendations.
Connors says this wasn’t surprising as the pandemic went on and other work in the field found similar results. But the trend highlights something political scientists have long worried about: the divide between political parties increasingly drives how people behave and interact.
“Even something as dangerous as a pandemic doesn’t lead people to listen to an expert source more than others,” Connors says. “Unfortunately, ideology and political predispositions are really strong in influencing how people act in relation to things that aren’t necessarily political.”
The tendency to let politics govern actions is seen in people aligned with both major political parties, and Connors says the division between sides is getting worse. Some of her current work examines what political scientists call “social polarization,” a growing divide between partisans.
It’s not necessarily that people dislike politics or even fear disagreement, but since they expect any conversation about politics to become heated, they avoid these topics.
- Elizabeth Connors
Connors studied this trend with Steven Webster and Betsy Sinclair. Through their research, Connors and her co-authors observed how political anger – which Webster describes in his book American Rage — is separating Democrats and Republicans.
They found that if someone feels charged up emotionally about certain partisan issues, this person will be less likely to want to talk to, interact with or even do small favors for someone in the opposite political party.
“For instance, your neighbor in the opposite party asks you to watch their house while they’re out of town,” says Connors. “If you are someone who is politically angry, you would be much less likely to want to do so.”
The result is people don’t want to make friends across party lines and don’t even have passing conversations with people they expect to disagree on certain issues. She says this kind of self-imposed political bubble can hurt families and relationships.
With the rise in political anger, people are afraid that talking to someone from the opposite party could result in a heated exchange, Connors says of her findings from work with graduate student Christopher Howell.
It’s not necessarily that people dislike politics or even fear disagreement, Connors says, but since they expect any conversation about politics to become heated, they avoid these topics.
“For a political scientist, we often talk about how important those cross-party conversations are for learning, moderation and tolerance, and so the fact that people are avoiding them because they’re afraid they will be heated is not good,” says Connors.
On top of this societal predisposition to avoid these conversations, Connors says politicians on both sides are increasingly using words that stoke the fires of people’s political anger, making the separation between parties even more distinct.
What’s in a name? Not necessarily policy views.
The combination of strong feelings and conflict avoidance affects how people identify, as well, especially when it comes to the word “feminist.”
One of Connors' newest research endeavors, with colleague Katelyn Stauffer, looks at why individuals do or do not identify as feminist even if they agree with the basic idea of feminism.
“Most people would say they agree with the idea or definition of feminism, but something about the group itself turns them off,” says Connors.
Connors and Stauffer found that people don’t like the idea of a “loud” feminist. Connors says they use this broad term to describe a feminist who is perceived as talking about political issues frequently or aggressively. On the other hand, a feminist who is “quiet,” who doesn’t talk about issues often, was much more appealing to people.
Interestingly, this result was largely driven by Republican respondents.
“When we give them this frame of ‘what if they don’t talk about politics a lot?’ then they have no problem with feminists,” says Stauffer, assistant professor of political science. They saw that this frame even closes the gap between Democrats and Republicans.
Political science has not done a lot with feminism. We’re really on the ground floor of this research.
- Katelyn Stauffer
Connors and Stauffer agree one of the most surprising findings from their data has been that about half of the Democrats they surveyed do not identify as feminist. Part of their research included an open-ended question in which many people detailed their aversion to the term “feminist” or the group (“feminists”) rather than opposition to the idea itself.
Connors takes a particular interest in how people modify their behavior in order to be perceived better socially. Someone may hold all the same beliefs a feminist would but won’t adopt the label for social reasons.
As they proceed with the research, they will be unpacking why the word “feminist” carries the connotation it does. While Connors brings her expertise on these complex social dynamics, Stauffer is interested in looking at feminist identity in relation to her studies of gender, specifically on women in positions of authority.
“Political science has not done a lot with feminism,” Stauffer says. “We’re really on the ground floor of this research. Long term we have plans to think about racialized aspects of feminism, and examining the relationship between feminism and trans women is another avenue we should go down.”
Connors and Stauffer both credit the political science department with providing them with an environment where they can collaborate on innovative research, trade teaching tips and have productive conversations with colleagues.
“We have a ton of junior faculty in the department right now,” says Stauffer. “We’re all doing really cool research and it’s a very vibrant time in the department.”
Learn more about social polarization from this podcast from the Niskanen Center, featuring Elizabeth Connors and Robert Lupton. (February 24, 2021)