UB expert says Biden’s emphasis on unity can take the politics out of the pandemic response

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a media briefing in Wilmington on a YouTube video displayed on a screen of a smartphone.

Release Date: December 14, 2020

Portrait of UB communication researcher Janet Yang.
“With the vaccine, unfortunately in the U.S., there is a large anti-vaccination movement supported by many Americans who remain fundamentally suspicious about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in general. ”
Janet Yang, PhD, associate professor of communication
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – President-elect Joe Biden’s emphasis on national unity as part of his administration’s messaging surrounding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an effective tool that can help minimize the influence of political ideology on the public perception of scientific conclusions, according to a University at Buffalo professor of communication.

Soon-to-be published research by Janet Yang, an expert in science, health and risk communication, identifies two important prosocial emotions that can influence the likelihood of people embracing scientifically grounded pandemic response measures.

Yang says her study, co-authored with doctoral student, Jody Wong, which will appear in the Journal of Risk Research, suggests that Republicans and Democrats are equally inclined to experience compassionate goals, but two emotions in particular seem to influence people’s support for pandemic response measures.

One is sympathy; the other is solidarity.

Having a unity of purpose drives people — regardless of ideological leanings — toward prosocial actions, according to Yang.

“Solidarity is a prosocial emotion that promotes helping behaviors,” she says. “Biden’s messaging is most effective when he underscores that Americans must work together and look out for one another; and that everyone has to be part of the effort in order for the response to be successful.”

The importance of compassion and solidarity during the pandemic is supported by public opinion data as well. Yang says a large national survey by USA Today showed that Americans have engaged in more prosocial behaviors since the pandemic started. They are supporting more local businesses and checking on family and friends more through phone calls instead of texting.

“These are things that promote a sense of community,” says Yang. “In terms of messaging, I think compassion and solidarity must remain central components to any public communication presented by the incoming Biden administration.”

The tangled relationship knotting science and politics with regard to the pandemic is not surprising to Yang. She sees it as an extension of the political polarization that has divided the electorate on many issues, ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate change.

At a glance, those two issues seem to have little in common, but Yang points to an important similarity shared by them.

“It’s solution aversion,” she says. “It’s not necessarily that people don’t understand the science or appreciate the risk. It’s that they don’t like the proposed solutions.”

With climate change, some people do not like policy measures such as carbon tax or being told to drive less. Similarly, with the pandemic, social distancing is met with objections motivated by Americans’ fundamental need for individual freedom.

“People understand the risks, but they don’t like to be told what to do,” says Yang. “The problem and the risks are clear, but some folks don’t want to wear masks or stay at home simply because they see these solutions as threatening their freedom and liberty.”

Solution aversion becomes even more crucial with the COVID-19 vaccine about to roll out nationally.

“With the vaccine, unfortunately in the U.S., there is a large anti-vaccination movement supported by many Americans who remain fundamentally suspicious about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in general,” says Yang. “In this case, risk communication messaging needs to counter solution aversion by highlighting the need to protect our loved ones, such as children and the elderly.”

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