New study reveals ideological hypocrisy in judging lockdown breaches
As the Downing Street party scandal rumbles this week, new party accusations have made headlines, including one with a confirmed presence from the Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson. The parties are part of a wider pattern of lockdown breaches by political figures, from Stephen Kinnock’s family visit to Dominic Cummings’ 260-mile sight test on the A688 between Durham and Barnard Castle.
Throughout these stories, we have witnessed a range of responses. Brexiteers were generally supportive of Cummings, suggesting a political witch hunt against him when the story broke. Labor politicians also backed Kinnock, suggesting he was maintaining social distancing despite travel restrictions in place. At the same time, the pandemic has seen race-related uprisings and mass protests following the murder of George Floyd in the US, with large outdoor rallies taking place in London in support (and counter) the Black Lives Matter movement. These events led us, as psychologists interested in people’s decision-making processes, to explore how people judged such incidents. Could it be that we alter our perceptions of right or wrong based on their political affiliations?
We set to work asking people of diverse social and political persuasions about ten news stories – including restriction violations by politically affiliated individuals (such as Kinnock and Cummings), groups (such as those affiliated and protesting against the Black Lives Matter movement), and non-political examples including Manchester City defender Kyle Walker, and hordes of sunbathers enjoying the late spring sunshine in May 2020.
Over 260 participants completed the study and answered whether they thought people in our stories were right or wrong when they broke social distancing guidelines, and ultimately, whether they should resign or be fired from their jobs. . We found that higher levels of self-reported conservatism were associated with higher levels of condemnation of Black Lives Matter protesters, and higher levels of self-reported liberalism were associated with higher levels of condemnation when the violators were either affiliated to the Conservative Party, either as a protester. in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Male participants and those who placed moral importance on freedom were less likely to condemn disregarding advice in general, while those who were more fearful of Covid-19 expressed more condemnation.
In doing this work, we uncovered a seemingly ideologically driven double standard in COVID-19 rule-breaking judgments in the context of social distancing. This double standard seems to have been motivated by a political affiliation with those who flout the advice. Obviously, as more and more stories emerge about the seemingly revolving door of the parties in Downing Street, it will become increasingly difficult for high-level political figures to defend those present, but for the moment , we see the same hypocrisy in the judgments as in our data.
For example, Labour’s Lisa Nandy appeared to back Stephen Kinnock’s breach but demanded an apology from Cummings and in recent days backed calls for Boris Johnson to step down. Likewise, Tories who have slammed Kinnock and other Labor figures for breaking the rules are rallying with the Prime Minister and calling for patience until Sue Gray’s now highly anticipated inquiry into whether whether or not anyone knew he was at a party.
In A press release the 12and In January 2022, we argued that our data would predict that those more invested in the Conservative Party (members of the cabinet, for example) might downplay the seriousness of breaking Downing Street rules. Within hours, Tory MP Michael Fabricator did just that, backing the claim that our judgments on lockdown breaches are driven by the extent to which our ‘side’ will be hurt by their discovery.
While we are not implying that people with certain ideological views are responsible for the spread of Covid-19, nor that they consciously encourage its transmission, if individuals accept large-scale protests or small-scale gatherings among their ideological peers in the context of a global pandemic, this means, by extension, that they accept an increased risk of infectious transmission.
At this crucial time in the pandemic, we are on the verge of returning to some semblance of normality. This makes it more important than ever to reduce the risk of a new wave, and so we believe researchers and public health officials need to look at ways to frame health messages to reduce the effects of our tribal psychological processes influencing compliance with the rules.
the full paper has been peer reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal Group process and intergroup relations.
Craig Harper is a lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. His research and teaching focus on decision-making processes with an emphasis on political contexts.
Darren Rhodes is a lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University. He works on statistical models of human cognition and decision making.