‘Negative partisanship’ evident in pandemic debate

DOVER — Why so many defensive stances, so much defiance and so much distrust?

It seems with every issue, there is division.

Does anyone stop and take a deep breath, with or without a mask?

The latest example relates to the national increase in coronavirus cases and Delaware’s brake tapping when many people want to be freed of the restrictions.

As you have read on our opinion pages and social media threads, reaction is very political.

“Republicans, in particular, who are motivated to protect a world view that the president is doing a good job, are more motivated now to say that either someone is making up those numbers or they’re inflating the numbers to make the president look bad,” said Dr. Joanne Miller, a University of Delaware professor.

“And I want to be clear here. It’s Republicans doing this right now, but this is not a Republican phenomenon. It happens that their world views are being threatened by a Republican president whose handling of the pandemic is being criticized.”

Dr. Miller’s area of expertise is political psychology.

In short, she studies political attitudes, personalities and dispositions, motivations and how the media and information environment affects those attitudes.

Experts in the field have been watching this polarization closely for 10-15 years or so.

It started on the national level and there is “very little aisle crossing,” Dr. Miller said.

“People who identify as Democrats and people who identify as Republicans more and more dislike the other side,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s what we call negative partisanship.”

As an example of modern thinking, people now would be more upset if their child married someone of a different political party than someone of a different religion. The latter would have been case decades ago.

“We may not like our side any more than we used to,” Dr. Miller said. “But we really dislike the other side.

“It makes it impossible to listen to the other side. If you see the other side as the enemy, any compromise is a loss.”

She said this is where the psychology is.

Dr. Joanne Miller

“It’s called ‘motivated reasoning,’” Dr. Miller said. ”We seek out information that confirms our side and we are closed off to information that might challenge us.

“We’re not open to persuasion. The media environment makes it easier to seek out our people and to avoid hearing from the other side. The psychological process is that we don’t like finding out our attitudes are wrong or our beliefs are wrong or our values may be problematic.

“So we attempt to protect to bolster our world views, our self concepts, through not letting them be challenged.”

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The pandemic, she said, is like what we experienced with terrorist attacks, especially when the story was evolving.

For example, the guidance from the government in March was not to wear a mask.

Today, it is a requirement pretty much wherever you go.

“We’re all trying to explain the event to ourselves,” Dr. Miller said. “We feel like we lost control, we’re uncertain, which leads to distrust in media, government, scientists.

“On one hand you can say the information has evolved. But to explain it that way, you have to have some trust in the motives.”

And, if the trust is missing, she said, “There’s this possibility that people will say, ‘Wait, what’s the motive here?’”

The extremes can lead to conspiracy theories, Dr. Miller said.

Maybe you have heard some of these: COVID-19 started in China as a biological weapon; 5G towers are spreading the virus; Bill Gates’ hopes to put mind control chips into a vaccine.

And, there is the opinion that the “fear-mongering scientists and the fear-mongering media exaggerating the seriousness of the virus to hurt Trump’s election chances,” Dr. Miller said.

“The best way to try to gain some of that control back is to explain the events, which can lead to belief in conspiracy theories,” said Dr. Miller.

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So, about that post that you shared on social media …

Dr. Miller offers some advice.

There’s the information “consumer beware” aspect.

“We’re all subject to these biases in the information that we glom onto that confirms our belief,” she said.

And, do not act too quickly.

“Ask yourself, why am I rushing to share that tweet? Why am I rushing to share that piece of information? Maybe I should take a step back, see if anybody else is reporting on it, ask myself why am I sharing this.

“Is it because it fits my preconceived notions and I want to be the first one out there in my network to have the scoop.

“Take a step back, take a deep breath, slow down. Because once it’s out there, it’s much harder to reel it back in.”