People who feel strongly connected to their country are more likely to practice social distancing and mask wearing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research that looked at nearly 70 nations worldwide.
"In pretty much every country we examined around the world, people who were strongly identified [with their country] were more willing to make personal sacrifices to promote public health," lead researcher Jay Van Bavel told VOA.
However, there’s a catch: The research also found that in the United States, someone’s political party or philosophy can affect their compliance with public health initiatives.
“For example, one study that used geo-tracking data from 15 million smartphones in the U.S. found that counties that voted [in 2016] for a Republican (Donald Trump) over a Democrat (Hillary Clinton) exhibited 14% less spatial distancing during the early stages of the pandemic,” the study reported.
Spatial distancing refers to the distance — recommended by health authorities to be at least two meters — people should keep from each other to avoid COVID transmission. Mask wearing and hand washing are also recommended.
“These partisan gaps in distancing predicted subsequent increases in infections and mortality in counties that voted for Donald Trump,” the study reported. Trump’s presidency, from January 2017 until January 2021, included the first year of the pandemic in the U.S.
Partisanship was a stronger predictor of distancing than factors like income, population density, religion, age, and state policy.
“This may be due to leadership, social norms, and media consumed by people from different identity groups. As such, stronger group identification is not always associated with engagement in public health behavior,” the study reported.
Gender and age played a role, as well.
“Being a female is associated with greater intentions to wear a face covering,” the researchers reported. “The same holds true for being left-leaning and for being older.”
In countries where wearing a face mask was voluntary, divisions were stronger by gender, researchers said.
“It seemed that gender differences [around wearing] a face covering were particularly strong in counties where wearing a face covering was not mandatory,” reported a sub study of the larger effort. “While they almost disappeared in counties where wearing a face covering was mandatory.”
Using fear to force compliance was a tricky tactic among populations, the study reported.
“Targeting fears can be useful in some situations, but not others: appealing to fear leads people to change their behavior if they feel capable of dealing with the threat but leads to defensive reactions when they feel helpless to act,” the research showed.
Researchers conducted two studies, starting in April 2020 when the United States was going into COVID-19 lockdown. This research differs from most recent pandemic studies because they address behavioral rather than medical responses to the pandemic.
The study crowd-sourced researchers and institutions around the world through social media, and surveyed 49,968 respondents in 67 countries.
Results came from North America, South America, Europe, Russia and China. Most of Africa, along with countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, and in the South/Central Asia region, like Afghanistan and Kazakhstan — were not widely represented.
"These studies suggest that a shared sense of national identity might play an important role in motivating people to do the right thing during a pandemic," Van Bavel said, which “underscores a potential benefit of national identification, which might be salient during a national or global health crisis,” the study elaborated.
"Our findings mesh with real world examples where national leaders — like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — have effectively rallied the population around a common national goal to address the pandemic," said Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.
“This research may help scholars, health organizations, and political leaders develop effective behavioral interventions to increase compliance with actions such as maintaining spatial distance and restricting travel.”
“Extensive evidence suggests these actions could substantially reduce the number of COVID-19 infections,” Van Bavel told VOA.