E28: The Political Psychology of Pandemics / Michele Gelfand, Howard Lavine

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“In the United States, we have a relatively low threat history. We’re separated by two oceans from other continents. We haven’t been afraid of Canada, Mexico, chronically invading us. We haven’t been afraid of constant fury from mother nature. And so, as a result, we have a harder time tightening up than other countries under these conditions because it’s hard for people to sacrifice the kind of liberty and freedom that we’ve had for constraints and rules.” – Michele Gelfand

In today’s episode, Dr. Celine Gounder and Ron Klain interview two experts, Michele Gelfand and Howard Lavine, about why Republicans and Democrats are so deeply divided over almost everything to do with COVID. They discuss the shift towards identity politics and why people tend to vote along the lines of their chosen political party instead of in their best personal interests, and how this complicates different states’ responses to COVID. They also examine how a community’s history of threats in the past shapes their response to crises today.

Michele Gelfand is a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, and is the author of “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.” Howard Lavine is the Associate Dean of Social Sciences and a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota. He’s the co-author of the book “Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution,” and the editor of the journal Advances in Political Psychology.

This podcast was created by Just Human Productions. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. We’re supported, in part, by listeners like you.

I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. And this is “Epidemic.” Today is Friday, June 12th.

A June study from the Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats are deeply divided over almost everything you can think of when it comes to COVID. How big a threat coronavirus is to public health, what to think about testing, social distancing, reopening the economy too fast or too slow…there’s almost nothing partisans from either political party can agree on.

In this episode you’ll hear me and my former co-host, Ron Klain, interview two experts to figure out what’s going on here: Dr. Michele Gelfand and Dr. Howard Lavine.

We’ll hear why the shift towards identity politics is complicating different states’ responses to COVID.

Howard Lavine: So you can disagree on whether deficit spending for tax cuts is the better policy move to get us out of recession. And then you can go and play tennis together and have fun. But if you disagree on fundamental gut level things like gay marriage or school prayer, or things like race is a lot harder to maintain close relations.

Celine Gounder: And how a community’s history of threats in the past can shape their response to crises today.

Michele Gelfand: We have the ability to negotiate. When should we tighten? When should we loosen and be strategic about it? And that applies at the national level organizational level. It even applies to our households.

Celine Gounder: Today on “Epidemic,” the political psychology of pandemics.

Michele Gelfand is a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. She is the author of “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the World.” She also recently published an op-ed in the Boston globe titled “To Survive the Coronavirus, The United States Must Tighten Up. It’s Not Just About Medicine. It’s About Culture.”

Ron Klain: So, Michele, welcome to the podcast, thanks for joining us.

Michele Gelfand: Thanks for having me.

Ron Klain: So let’s give our listeners an orientation to some of the things you wrote in the Globe elsewhere. Let’s start with explaining the difference between loose cultures and tight cultures.

Michele Gelfand: Sure. So I’m a cross-cultural psychologist, which means that I study human behavior around the globe to try to understand what are some of the deeper cultural codes driving our behavior. And what I’ve been studying over the last couple of decades is how strict societies, states, organizations are with respect to their social norms and social norms are these basically unwritten, sometimes more formalized, rules that really are important in our everyday lives for helping us to predict each other’s behavior, coordinate our behavior as a human species. We developed norms really to help us survive. And what I find though is that while all cultures have norms, some cultures are more strict. They have more rules, they have some more severe punishments for violating the rules. And if the cultures are loose and they’re much more permissive.

Celine Gounder: Michele, you said the US as a relatively loose culture. How did we evolve that way?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. So in a paper that we published in Science some years ago, we differentiated cultures that were tight and loose on a continuum. So some cultures like Singapore and Japan, even Germany and Austria tend to veer tight. And other cultures like Brazil and Greece and the Netherlands in the US they tend to veer loose. And that’s not to say that cultures don’t have tight and loose elements but we can differentiate tight and loose cultures. And what we found in that study was something pretty interesting. We found that one big predictor of tightness and looseness was the degree to which cultures had a lot of threat and threat could have been some mother nature while I think constant, natural disasters or famines or from human nature. Think constant territorial invasions or pathogen breakouts or population density. And it’s a pretty simple idea that when you have a lot of collective threat, you need to have strict rules to coordinate, to survive. And we’ve seen that both in our field data, we’ve seen it with computational models. And, and so it’s not all whose cultures are on easy street, not all tight cultures have had  threat, but it’s a pretty important factor that causes the evolution of tightness and looseness.

Celine Gounder: And just to follow up to that, you know, within the US do we have certain regions that have tighter or looser cultures?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, absolutely. The tightest states in the United States in a paper we published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences tend to be in the South and the Midwest, whereas the looser states tend to be on the coast. And that actually speaks to another factor that predicts tight/loose, which is diversity. When we have diverse states or nations, it pushes us toward looseness because it’s harder to agree upon norms and rules to guide our behavior. And also the tighter states tended in our data to have more natural disasters including places like Kansas and some places in the Midwest, where there are a lot of tornadoes, for example.

Ron Klain: Yeah, it’s interesting to me because as you describe there’s almost a juxtaposition, a reversal between your description of tightness and looseness in the US and where actually the tightest social distancing restrictions have been imposed and where the loosest ones have. So in the states you’re describing as having loose cultures in fact, we now have the tightest restrictions and of the states with tight cultures we now have the loosest restrictions.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. It’s a really interesting anomaly, part of it’s political, part of it is, messages from the government for whom some of those tight states are really guiding responses in terms of the lack of tightening up.

Celine Gounder: So Michele, I know you have a paper coming out soon in which you look at cultural and institutional factors that are helping slow the COVID-19 curve and, and reduce, deaths from this. Can you just talk us through what your data shows there?

Michele Gelfand: We were looking at two factors, how efficient is the government in a particular nation in terms of coordinating action across the public and private sector and how strict are the social norms, how tight or loose is the society? And we find it’s pretty striking results is that both factors predict tight cultures and cultures that have efficient governments are able to slow the growth rate and they’re also able to have lower death rates. And it’s a combination of having both tight cultures and efficient governments that tends to be really important. And I want to mention that when I wrote the op-ed in the Boston Globe about how we have to tighten up in the US I got a lot of got a lot of negative feedback on that article because I think people conflate the idea that when you say we should be become tighter, they’re thinking that I’m saying we should become autocratic and that’s not at all what we’re saying. It means that we’re in this time and this moment we need to be tightening up to deal with COVID and then once we’ve dealt with that threat and I think it will help reduce the threat, then we can loosen up again. This is what I would call kind of being ambidextrous, like being able to be tight and loose at different times as needed.

Ron Klain: I think that, I think that’s a really important point because I don’t want people to listen to this and think that you are, we are saying China got this right because China’s got a tight culture in a very authoritarian government. In fact, China got this wrong, probably is wrong as any country on earth, other than the United States right now. But other countries, particularly in Asia, places like South Korea, they’re very robust democracies but have this combination of tight culture and a very efficient government that got testing widespread right away. So as you know, South Korea and the US, we both had our first case on the same day, a month into this, they had tested four or 5,000 people out of every million, we tested fewer than a hundred out of every million. And so, I don’t want this to come off, I’m sure you don’t want this to come off as some kind of tribute to authoritarian regimes as being the answer here.

Michele Gelfand: That’s right. Exactly. People misunderstand that we’re not saying we should become autocratic. We’re saying we can tighten up in these domains, these important rules with respect to social distancing and hand washing. And I think the issue is that because we’ve had relatively low threat; not no threat. So the United States, you know, we have a relatively low threat history. What, we’re separated by two oceans from other continents. We haven’t been afraid of Canada and Mexico chronically invading us. We haven’t been afraid of constant fury from mother nature. And so as a result, we have a harder time tightening up than other countries under these conditions because it’s hard for people to sacrifice the kind of liberty and freedom that we’ve had for a constraint and rules. It gives us a little bit of dissonance. And you could see that, you know, where people in Florida and other areas of the country, it’s taken a while to say “hey guys, we’ve got to tighten up.”

Ron Klain: We certainly have had our share of natural disasters, tragedies, obviously this a hundred years ago, the Spanish flu took more lives than any other event. You know, more recently we came together as a country, after 9/11, or, during World War II, people made extraordinary sacrifices, not just the ones who went and fought and made the biggest sacrifices, but the people, I mean, I feel like we have enough horrible things in our history that it isn’t just a  lack of history.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. Actually, I mean, I want to emphasize, I’m talking about the relative difference between what we’ve experienced. I want us to imagine like that we’ve chronically experienced natural disasters every year at the level of the nation, we’ve constantly had Boston bombings on our territory. It’s not that we haven’t experienced threat, it’s just relative to other countries. And our data and science show this. We can rank order countries, Japan is one of the more threatened nations that has very high population density, a history of a lot of conflict, very little arable land and a lot of disasters. So it’s relatively speaking. But your point is really well taken. And I just wrote a piece in the Hill about this that does say we have to remember that we’ve been able to tighten up and ration and have the best of being able to be tight and also loose in our history, including in your example of World War II. So I do think we have great examples and wouldn’t be able to come together, have the best of our cultural code in terms of being able to tighten up but also being super innovative, which is a benefit of looseness in fighting corona.

Ron Klain: You know, I want to go back though, to something you just said in your last answer and previous to that about kind of some of the advantages of looseness. I mean, right now, obviously we’re really, we’re really struggling as a nation to get tighter and to do these temporary measures, but you alluded a while ago to the fact that looseness gives us innovation and creativity. What might be lost if we tighten up too much as a country? And how do we find this balance between looseness and tightness that will maximize our ability to address this coronavirus crisis?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, this is such a great question. And, you know, we found a really important trade off between tight and loose and it’s basically how much we emphasize order versus openness. So tight cultures really corner the market on order. And they’re more synchronized and they have much more of self-regulation in terms of impulse control. When you live in context with the strict norms, you have to manage your impulses more. So you have less debt and you have less obesity and less alcoholism, and loose cultural struggle with order. They’re less synchronized. They have more crime. And then they have more problems with self regulation. But loose culture is corner the market on openness. Repeatedly in our research, we see that there’s more openness to people that are different, whether it’s people from different races, religions, immigrants, there’s more creativity, more idea generation, and more adaptability and tight cultural struggle with, with openness. So, you know, you can’t say one is better or worse. It really depends on the criteria. And it also depends on the context. And I do believe that it’s, you know, we have the ability to both tighten up on social norms that are important for the spread of corona, but also maintain that ingenuity and that creativity that we have.

Celine Gounder: So Michele, you know, you alluded to the fact that some of these changes can be temporary, but some of them might stick longer. Do you think some of these things will change whether it’s not shaking hands anymore or maybe wearing face coverings in public, at least in the winter cough cold season.

Michele Gelfand: I believe that, you know, cultures are really pretty adaptive. And so as we adapt and we are able to change these norms to fight corona, when they’re no longer needed, they might last for longer than necessary. But I do believe that we’ll be able to get back to a new normal, and hopefully we’ll learn a lot from how we responded to this crisis. I think getting back to our data, you know, having tighter norms, which are relevant to the spread of the pandemic and also having an efficient government response, they’re both really key. And so I think we can use culture and use our knowledge of what is really helping to prevent the spread of corona. And really as a nation come together better in future times.

Ron Klain: This obviously is going to stick in our national conscience for a long time. Do you think we will become a tighter culture for a long time into the future? Or do you think this will be something like once it’s over everyone just kind of go back to what, the way they were?

Michele Gelfand: Well, I think, you know, our data speaks to the fact that when threat subsides, that it, that groups get looser it might take longer. We know that it’s harder to go from tight to loose than from loose to tight. But at the same time, when the threat is not chronic anymore, it allows you to loosen up cause you don’t need to coordinate as much to survive. So I do believe that. This is a pretty general principle that when, when groups get threatened, they need strong rules to coordinate. And when the threatened loose, when the threat subsides that we can afford to be more permissive. And so, I do believe that we will see those associated changes.

Celine Gounder: Well, Michele, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope that at least some of the lessons learned at least with respect to efficiency of government and need for coordination, do stick in the long run. But really thank you so much for joining us here on “Epidemic.”

Michele Gelfand: Thank you for having me.

Celine Gounder: It’s a pleasure to welcome to the podcast Howard Lavine. He’s the associate Dean of social sciences and a professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota. His work focuses on the psychological underpinnings of mass political behavior. He’s the coauthor of the book “Open Versus Closed: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Redistribution,” and he’s the editor of the journal “Advances in Political Psychology.” Welcome to the Epidemic podcast, Howard.

Howard Lavine: Thank you very much. I’m delighted.

Celine Gounder: So Howard, why is it more important for people who really pay attention to politics, who follow politics closely, to vote their identity rather than their personal interests? Why might demonstrating that partisan affiliation actually be more in their interest than perhaps the policy that might seem to be in their self interest?

Howard Lavine: Right. Yeah. Well, this is at the core of our book, which we call the reversal hypothesis and that is that there’s no straightforward relationship in the economic realm between personality and policy preferences. I mean, really there’s a political history to this. And so I’ll try to summarize it. And that is that this was not the case before the rise of what we call the second dimension of politics, the non-economic dimension of the cultural dimension that Nixon exploited in 1968. And so that dimension has become more and more important. And that is the dimension that links to identity. It’s not the, you know, spending, you know, dimension. Right. That had nothing to do with personality and therefore with, with, with partisanship. The other thing is that over time, there has been a very substantial sorting of social groups in terms of party identification. So the notion is that people who are engaged in politics or motivated to achieve their social identity goals, which are always very important because they relate to basic human social motivations. And people are doing this with respect to any number of endeavors in life, but people that are engaged in politics are trying to use partisan politics as a means of achieving these, the psychological benefits associated with strong social identity, they include things like self esteem, the reduction of uncertainty and social belongingness.

People are forming their economic preferences as the result of identifying with a politician, a candidate or a party. So it’s not that they look at the policies and things you need there. You know, these are, are antithetical to what I believe. Rather people are making up their minds on the basis of attempting to generate consonance between the elites that they liked for other reasons, largely for partisan identity reasons.

Not only that, but the tendency to follow the leader is much greater among those that are engaged. And this is why we interpret this as a matter of trying to fulfill the needs of social identity.

Celine Gounder: So we just heard from Michele Gelfand and her work on tight and loose cultures. I think there are some parallels between her work and the idea of open and closed personalities. Could you talk through what are open and closed personalities and how personality might predict political affiliation?

Howard Lavine: Sure. So, let me start with what are open and closed personalities. So there are a variety of psychological traits that have been studied really since the 1950s. These are things like authoritarianism, a need for closure, openness to experience, conscientiousness, loss aversion. There’s a variety of others. And they typically have been studied independently, independent literatures, but they really all, at least in this particular context within our book have identical effects. And those identical effects are that if you are engaged in politics, they predict partisan identification. And they do so through cultural, you know, a concept that we call cultural resonance, right? So those strongly heritable traits, lead you to resonate toward a cultural conservatism, that the party, the Republican party, has pivoted toward increasingly since the night, the late 1960s.

All right. So that’s that link. And then when, and once that link is solidified and it’s only solidified among those that are politically engaged. Then you get the second part, which relies on things like framing and signaling and delegation of policies that are on the first dimension, right, on the spending dimension, which is really more important to elites. So that’s, that’s how that works. And it’s conditional in the sense that the link between personality and partisanship, which is largely a second dimension connection, right? So it’s not about spending, you know, saving, you know, larger, small government in the economic realm. It’s about the second dimension of politics, which began as the politics of, you know, racial, racial tolerance and then evolved and broadened out to any number of policies related to say school prayer, the death penalty, terrorism, immigration, and so on, only works for those who are engaged because it’s only those people who are aware of what those positions are. Others are using their personalities or projecting those policies into other domains of life and gratifying those personality needs in ways that are apolitical.

So we don’t see this among those that are apolitical. Rather what we see, as I said earlier is a, is a reversal? Right? So that those who you know, are let’s say more threat sensitive and, and, and more uncertainty sensitive, you know, are those that desire more social protection, and that naturally gravitate toward being economically liberal. And this is what we see by the way in most of the world. Right? So it’s social conservatism is linked to economic liberalism. That’s most of the world, right. And the dimension, you know, being freedom versus protection, you know, and this country has been a little different for, you know, specifically political historical reasons, largely, you know, coming, you know, emanating out of the civil rights era in the 19, you know, the late 1960s when Nixon saw you know, that a good electoral strategy would be to capture those who would otherwise vote Democrat on the basis of the first dimension, would vote Republican with him as the second dimension was especially salient at that time. And then Reagan built on that and that has continued and become a stronger and stronger dynamic to this day.

Ron Klain: I want to try to get a little more towards the general psychology, political psychology of the public and how divided we are on this. If you look at polls, even some basic questions about expectations. Will there be a second wave of the disease? How bad will the second wave of the disease be when it comes? How quickly will things go back to normal? Even on these questions now, increasingly there are lining up along partisan lines.

I mean, do Democrats and Republicans, liberals, and conservatives just see the coronavirus as a different kind of threat or are they reacting to it differently because it’s handling associated with President Trump.

Howard Lavine: It’s both, I think. Let me answer the first part first. So the way that it’s different is that it’s not, it’s not an intergroup threat, right? And this is what, you know, those with conservative personality traits tend to respond to. So for example, if you frame climate change as a function of those evil Russians, trying to undermine our American scientists, you get a lot further than trying to frame this as, you know, a threat that does not not invoke intergroup competition, which might be, you know, at the national level. The second piece of this is that, you know, you’re talking about liberals and conservatives and 9 out of 10 Democrats and Republicans will vote for Biden and Trump respectively. Right, but that’s, that’s all the action is in voters that are, I think now being described as Obama-Trump-Biden voters. So you’ve got this sort of exhausted middle who exert an outsized influence, you know, in the rust belt states, probably in Arizona, who were likely to decide the election. Right? So that the dynamics that are occurring among those that are polarized, probably aren’t ones that are as dispositive as those voters who are, who are persuadable.

Ron Klain: And then how much of this though then goes to the kind of underlying populism or polarization in the country? I mean, it was, it was interesting that practically runs public health issues, right? No real study of this has been done, but it seems from looking at the signs, people are holding and the things people were chanting. The same people who were militating publicly for reopening the economy very quickly in April were the same people who were involved in the anti-vaccine movement, for example. A lot of this reflects these kinds of underlying anti science populace threads in American politics and psychology. Doesn’t it?

Howard Lavine: It does. Yeah, no, there’s no question that it does, but that’s not…I would also say that when people are faced with that question, would you take the vaccine? Right. So that one poll and the only poll that I’m aware of, you know, on that, but I’m sure the others are roughly similar as that, the Democrats, you know, are roughly 90 to 10 and Republicans are 50-50, but really they’re not completely or entirely or cleanly answering the questions being posed. Right? They’re really answering the question, “Do I support president Trump?” So, I don’t think we can take public opinion data of that nature and necessarily interpret it as strongly as you know, might seem reasonable, right? It doesn’t translate necessarily into half the Republicans refusing to take the vaccine. And I think there’s a lot of bipartisanship here, which is that people are afraid, people see the science, and I think the strongest Trump supporters, who tend to be the most populist, who tend to be reacting to a least no matter what they say, are those who mean it when they say it. That I won’t take the vaccine, that I don’t trust elites. And you know, again, this is, this is, this comes back to social identity.

Ron Klain: Recently, President Trump went to a Ford Motor plant in Detroit, Michigan, and he did something that’s kind of unusual through a public health perspective. He refused to wear a mask while he was in public view, but he boasted that he wore the mask when no one could see him while touring the plants. And he said, explicitly, I’m not going to wear the mask in public where people can see me. So we expect public leaders to model public health behavior and so we might expect a leader to wear the mask in public, but take it off in private when no one sees them, but this was the exact opposite of that kind of behavior. So, do we think Trump’s relationship with the mask is shaping the resistance among some of his followers to public mask wearing or does it reflect that resistance?

Howard Lavine: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I would say the former which isn’t to say that the latter doesn’t occur. Right? I mean, so it is a two way street. The threat is not of an out-group variety, which is really what links personality to politics. Right? This is a, I mean, Trump can make it that way. And I suspect that that will be successful for him if he decides to try, you know, to pin this on China and to refer to this as the Wuhan virus and has already done that, but, I do think this is one is more, I think an elite leadership causal effect than one that is emanating up from the public.

Ron Klain: Let’s dig into that a little bit. Cause I want to really think about this, particularly the context of private public health issues. And I want to contrast it to president Trump’s predecessor, President Obama, of whom it was always reported, and I neither confirm nor deny this, that President Obama, who was never, ever seen smoking in public, couldn’t quite give up the habit of smoking in private when no one was around. So again, let’s leave aside the question, whether or not that’s true or not; it was widely believed about him. How does that kind of fit into your model of whether or not these are elite driven or kind of tribally, constituent driven behaviors that President Trump models, bad public health behavior in public, even though he’s doing the right thing in private; President Obama, modeling good public health behavior in public, even though maybe he’s still doing it in private.

Howard Lavine: I think with regard to Trump and modeling bad behavior, that really, before we get into the political psychology, I think the more pressing point or the more primary consideration here is really the underlying crude logic of American politics and that is by signaling that this was not, you know, something to worry about that the economy would be fine. He must’ve figured in his mind, you know, that by minimizing the importance of the virus that, you know, that maybe indeed it would be minimized and that it would not call attention to the collapse of the economy, which would be the death knell of an incumbent party. So I think that’s the first thing, to, I think realizing all of this.

The second part of it is that the Republican party is currently constituted to, to be an anti-expertise party as a populist party. This began with Reagan, arguably with Nixon, but certainly it is accelerated and amplified under President Trump, to an exponential degree. And so by signaling, you know, his opposition to expert advice that probably binds them more closely to his base. So he’s signaling to his base and signaling is a big deal. Mass partisans don’t always know what to make of public issues and so they rely on people they trust and think are knowledgeable and that’s generally conveyed through partisanship.

Ron Klain: It’s interesting, I think, to most people that we don’t hit a point where the public health necessity just overwhelms that instinct, that tribalism, if you think about the kind of instinct sentiment and tribal tendencies, Trump plays to an American politics, right? It’s more often an exaggerated fear of foreign threats, and yet here you have an actual threat that is actually killing Americans that actually originate overseas, and yet the President seems to want to consistently downplay its danger. It seems kind of counterintuitive to even the core perspectives of his base tribe and of his approach to American politics.

Howard Lavine: I’m coming back to the point that, you know, by down, by continuing to downplay the impact of the virus, you know, he is hoping to facilitate growth in the economy. The personality part really is being trumped by partisanship in the sense that personality is, what we call exogenous, right, is causally antecedent to partisanship, but once you get the partisanship, then really you’re talking about elite signals and frames and just simple delegation from the two partisan groups. But there are effects that are direct that come from personality. One of those is called the need for closure, which is simply individual differences, probably largely heritable in the desire to have certain knowledge. And very early on, I remember there was, I don’t watch Fox News, but, I’m, I’m on Twitter and remember Laura Ingram asking, “When is this going to end? We need to know when this is going to end.” Well, we’re not, we don’t know what it’s going to do yet, but for a lot of people, they do need to know.

And so I think that that heritable trait, which is strongly linked to partisanship, is leading people  to have to get off that uncertainty fence and believe one way or the other, right? That this is something that is going to go on for a longer period of time, a year or two years, maybe longer. And that is going to cause them to remain in an uncertain headspace, which is really too much for them to handle. So it’s easier to simply believe that the virus is winding down. It’s safe to go out, the bars and restaurants are open. And therefore to achieve, a reduction of uncertainty in that respect. And I think that’s happening irrespective of partisanship of the, because it’s linked to partisanship, you’re seeing it more on the right than on the left.

Ron Klain: You know, what’s interesting in accord with that is the President’s announcement, that, even if there was a second wave, no matter what kind of second wave, America will not close the second time. So he’s, you know, trying to provide that kind of certainty you’re talking about, in the face of uncertainty, right?

Howard Lavine: Right. And so it may in fact come to be, right, that, that there is a second wave and that there was an opening and closing and sort of a hybrid, you know, at schools and university where, you know, we’re sort of toggling between being in person and being at a distance. But this exhaustion with resourceful distancing is what we saw with the 1918 flu. And my guess is that this is a general tendency that we’ve done, our part, it’s over, we can’t take it anymore. And I think that’s what a lot of people are expressing and they’re willing to take on more risks to achieve certainty.

Celine Gounder: So, one of the things we spoke with Michele Gelfand about was this dissonance between coastal states with loose cultures—like Massachusetts—taking the most aggressive stances on things like masks and shelter-in-place orders—strong actions you might expect from a tighter culture. Do you see a contradiction here?

Howard Lavine: Well, I think there are two reasons for that. I mean, one is that this is not an  unbounded process. This is a real fear. This is not a symbolic fear, right? So it doesn’t symbolize anything like that, that intergroup conflict does, in my group is different and better. This is really, I think I’m an example in politics of, you know, even among those that are engaged and, you know, you’re example open-minded, you know, shifting their perspective from a symbolic one into an instrumental, right. So it’s not to say that the engaged can’t be instrumentally driven. Right? They are when their interests become, you know, clear, and consequential, right? But the other thing too is that the partisan process is playing a role. What mediates those responses is their partisan identity and the identities of Democrats, the cause of elite messages, right. It is to keep shut down, keep social distances. And that’s the proximal explanation for why people that are open minded are taking the more sort of risk averse position that they’re taking, because the party is taking the position. So this is not just something that works, you know, on the Republican side.

Celine Gounder: Well, Howard, thank you so much for joining us on “Epidemic.”

Howard Lavine: Thank you very much.

Celine Gounder: “Epidemic” is brought to you by Just Human Productions. We’re funded in part by listeners like you. We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast.

Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, Claire Halverson, and Julie Levey.

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You can learn more about this podcast, how to engage with us on social media, and how to support the podcast at epidemic.fm. That’s epidemic.fm. Just Human Productions is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, so your donations to support our podcasts are tax-deductible. Go to epidemic.fm to make a donation. We release “Epidemic” twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. But producing a podcast costs money…we’ve got to pay our staff! So please make a donation to help us keep this going.

And check out our sister podcast “American Diagnosis.” You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or at americandiagnosis.fm. On “American Diagnosis,” we cover some of the biggest public health challenges affecting the nation today. In Season 1, we covered youth and mental health; in season 2, the opioid overdose crisis; and in season 3, gun violence in America.

I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”

Dr. Howard Levine Dr. Howard Levine
Michele Gelfand Michele Gelfand
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder
Ron Klain Ron Klain