Risk Perception Through the Lens of Politics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

26 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2020 Last revised: 13 Apr 2020

See all articles by John Manuel Barrios

John Manuel Barrios

Washington University in St. Louis - Olin Business School

Yael V. Hochberg

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Rice University - Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: April 6, 2020

Abstract

Even when — objectively speaking — death is on the line, partisan bias still colors beliefs about facts. We use data on internet searches as well as proprietary data on county-level average daily travel distance and visits to non-essential businesses from a large sample of U.S. smartphones at the daily level and show that the higher the percentage of Trump voters in a county, holding all else equal, the lower the perception of risk associated with the COVID-19 virus and the lower the level of social distancing behavior exhibited. As Trump vote share rises, individuals search less for information on the virus, they search less for information about unemployment benefits, and they exhibit lower reductions in both their daily distance traveled and their visits to non-essential businesses. Risk perceptions in areas with high Trump vote shares increase in these areas only after 3/9/20, when it was announced that COVID-19 had struck the Conservative Political Action Committee meetings and conservative politicians were self-quarantined, suggesting that their risk perceptions are affected not by changes in fundamental underlying risk, but rather by political-related interpretations of the risk. These patterns persist even in the face of state-level mandates to close schools and non-essential businesses and to “stay home-work safe,” and reverse only when the White House releases federal social distancing guidelines on March 16th. This differential is present even in the face of similar levels of ability to telework and in the presence of higher levels of older population at risk. Our results suggest that political partisanship may play a role in determining risk perceptions in a pandemic, with potentially significant externalities for public health outcomes. Relying solely on compliance with voluntary suggested measures in the presence of different political views on the crisis may have limited effectiveness; instead, enforcement may be required to successfully flatten the curve.

Keywords: Risk Perceptions, COVID-19, Political Partisanship, Polarization, Pandemics

JEL Classification: D8, I1, P16, L82

Suggested Citation

Barrios, John Manuel and Hochberg, Yael V., Risk Perception Through the Lens of Politics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic (April 6, 2020). University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper No. 2020-32, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3568766 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3568766

John Manuel Barrios (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - Olin Business School ( email )

One Brookings Drive
Campus Box 1208
Saint Louis, MO MO 63130-4899
United States

Yael V. Hochberg

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Rice University - Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business ( email )

6100 South Main Street
P.O. Box 1892
Houston, TX 77005-1892
United States

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