Greater trust in Donald Trump predicts reduced COVID-19 knowledge, while greater trust in scientists predicts more knowledge, according to new research published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus SARS‐CoV‐2 to be a global pandemic. Governments around the world urged people to follow preventive health measures such as frequent hand washing and staying at least six feet away from others.
Study author Javier A. Granados Samayoa and his colleagues wanted to better understand how trust in public officials and the knowledge about COVID-19 were related to social distancing behavior during the pandemic. “That is, when people know better, will they invariably do better? Or might knowledge promote distancing only among those who trust the source of that information (i.e. scientists) and distrust competing sources of (mis)information (e.g. former President Trump)?”
For their study, the researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to conduct a survey of 998 U.S. adults. Data was collected on May 7-8, 2020, and June 9, 2020. The participants were shown 13 statements about COVID-19 and asked to indicate whether the statements were true or false. The statements included misinformation, such as “Spraying chlorine on your body will protect you even if COVID-19 / the coronavirus has already entered your system,” and factually correct information, such as “Symptoms of COVID-19 / the coronavirus can appear up to 14 days after exposure to the virus.”
Participants who trusted that President Trump would effectively lead the United States through the COVID-19 crisis were more likely to mistake COVID-19 misinformation as true information. However, trust in Trump’s performance was unrelated to the endorsement of factually correct information. In contrast, participants with greater trust in scientists were less likely to mistake COVID-19 misinformation as true information and also more likely to endorse factually correct information about COVID-19.
“These findings suggest that when it comes to the acquisition of accurate knowledge, trusting scientists steers people toward correct information and away from misinformation, whereas trusting authority figures that promote misinformation (namely, former President Trump) specifically influences people’s relationship with misinformation,” the researchers said.
The researchers also found that participants who were more knowledgeable about COVID-19 were more likely to engaging in social distancing behavior. However, trust in Trump appeared to attenuate this effect. In other words, people who were knowledgeable about COVID-19 but had a high trust in Trump were less likely to social distance compared to people who were knowledgeable about COVID-19 and had low trust in Trump.
The findings from the new study are only correlational. It is unclear whether reduced COVID-19 knowledge led to greater trust in Trump or whether trust in Trump led to reduced COVID-19 knowledge. But the results are in line with previous research, which has found that Americans who used Trump’s briefings to get COVID-19 information were less willing to wear a mask and socially distance.
But the researchers said that the new findings have important implications for public health campaigns.
“First, they suggest that efforts to promote greater trust in scientists may prove beneficial both by improving the public’s knowledge about the central issue and by validating this knowledge,” the authors of the study wrote. “The more people trust in scientists, the more they should be exposed to authoritative sources—and once they acquire the information, the more likely they should be to act on it. Our results also speak to the importance of battling misinformation as greater trust in former President Trump —a consistent purveyor of misinformation (Paz, 2020)—both predicted poorer COVID-19 knowledge and dampened the effect of knowledge on behavior.”
The study, “When does knowing better mean doing better? Trust in President Trump and in scientists moderates the relation between COVID-19 knowledge and social distancing“, was authored by Javier A. Granados Samayoa, Benjamin C. Ruisch, Courtney A. Moore, Shelby T. Boggs, Jesse T. Ladanyi, and Russell H. Fazio.