A team of researchers from the University of South Carolina Upstate have uncovered political and psychological factors associated with important health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings, published in PLOS One, suggest that trust in science plays a key role, along with support for Donald Trump and knowledge about the virus.
“After observing varying levels of compliance with recommended mitigation measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, we sought out to learn what factors were contributing to individual decision making leading to the practice of COVID-19 preventative behaviors. South Carolina did not issue a statewide mask mandate during the pandemic, resulting in mixed responses from the population,” explained study author Ginny Webb, an associate professor of biology.
In the study, a sample of 1,695 individuals from South Carolina completed a battery of questionnaires that assessed COVID-19 knowledge, close contacts with the virus, trust in science, political ideology, approval of President Trump, engagement in preventative behaviors, vaccination intention, and other factors. Data were collected between October 15, 2020, and November 8, 2020.
The researchers found that trust in science was the strongest predictor of preventative behaviors. In other words, those who agreed with statements such as “We can trust science to find the answers that explain the natural world” tended to wear a mask in public and practice social distancing more often. Trust in science was also the strongest predictor of the willingness to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
Participants who were more knowledgeable about the transmission, symptoms, and treatment of COVID-19 also engaged in more preventative behaviors, but COVID-19 knowledge did not predict vaccine intentions. Those who approved of the way President Trump was doing his job engaged in less preventative behaviors and tended to have a reduced willingness to vaccinate.
Demographic factors appeared to play a role as well. Older, non-white, and female participants were more likely to practice preventative behaviors compared to their younger, white, and male counterparts. However, female and non-white participants were less willing to get vaccinated.
“We think the average person should take away the fact that individuals’ compliance with public health recommendations on COVID is complex and multifactorial,” said co-author Scott Harris, an assistant professor of political science. “However, the key individual factors we found showing a relationship with compliance include: trust in science, knowledge about COVID, age, and support for President Trump. Trust in science was the strongest predictor of both COVID preventative measures and vaccine intentions.”
The researchers controlled for county-level population density, age, race, education level, and other factors. But the study — like all research — comes with some limitations.
“One caveat from this study is the question of causality,” Harris explained. “For example, we can’t be sure from this study whether somebody’s pre-existing trust in science caused them to follow/not follow public health recommendations, whether COVID itself increased or reduced trust in science, or whether there are unidentified factors that explain the relationship. The most important additional question to be addressed is what factors are truly causal by perhaps examining changes in COVID-related behavior over time.”
“Another avenue for future research is to tease out what we expect to be very complex interactions, and/or boundary conditions, between our various predictors and preventative behaviors and vaccine intentions,” added co-author Justin Travis, an assistant professor of psychology.
“This study provides crucial information to guide education efforts as we continue to fight this pandemic,” said Webb. “Understanding the determinants of preventative behaviors will better equip public health officials to more effectively reach individuals with appropriate information.”
“Additionally, our research indicates that purely informational-based appeals to the public (e.g., increasing knowledge of COVID-19) may be inadequate as political and psychological factors were powerful predictors of not engaging in preventative behaviors and not intending to receive an approved vaccine,” Travis noted.
The study, “Identifying the determinants of COVID-19 preventative behaviors and vaccine intentions among South Carolina residents“, was authored by Justin Travis, Scott Harris, Tina Fadel, and Ginny Webb.