Whistling Through the COVID-19 Pandemic: Optimism Bias and Political Beliefs in the United States

Date01 May 2022
Published date01 May 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(3) 396415
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211055043
Whistling Through the COVID-19 Pandemic:
Optimism Bias and Political Beliefs in the
United States
Amy Wolaver
and John Doces
Utilizing a nationally representative survey of Americans from December 2020, we consider the degree to which COVID-19
risk perceptions are related to political factors. We examine the likelihood that one believes they wi ll be infected with COVID-
19, the likelihood that a peer will be infected, and the difference between the indivi dual and peer perceived risks, known as
optimism bias, and compare these perceptions across partisan characteristics. Results show that Trump voting category is the
most important contributor to perceived COVID-19 risks. We f‌ind similar partisan differences as prior research, note that
these differences persisted through the end of 2020, despite the post-Thanksgiving surge with highand growing rates of COVID
in all regions of the United States. Contrary to prior expectations, partisanship does not strongly predict the level of optimism
bias, as both assessed personal and general health risks track closely with one another by both political party and ideology.
COVID-19, optimism bias, risk perception, partisanship
Public health experts opined from the outset of the COVID-
19 pandemic that optimism bias, the view that ones personal
risk of an adverse event is lower than othersrisks, would
impede efforts to contain the outbreak (Bottemanne et al.,
2020). This concern is grounded in evidence; optimism bias
has been correlated with more risky behaviors in an epidemic
context (Fragkaki et al., 2020). In the context of the current
pandemic, political orientation is another factor correlated
with health. A growing literature has linked political ideology
and party aff‌iliation to the uptake of preventive measures
(Allcott et al., 2020;Andersen, 2020;Barrios & Hochberg,
2020;Clinton et al., 2021;Fan et al., 2020;Gadarian et al.,
2020;Gollwitzer et al., 2020;Grossman et al., 2020), with
conservatives consistently being less likely than liberals to
engage in social distancing, mask wearing, and other such
behaviors. These effects are largely robust to the local se-
verity of the epidemic, demographic, and policy differences.
In light of these observations linking both political factors and
optimism bias to different behavioral responses, we ask
whether political orientation and optimism bias are also
Political leaders have been inconsistent in their messaging
both about the eff‌icacy of the mitigation measures and the
risks of the virus itself. Part of the partisan divide in behaviors
is very likely due to the fact that political elites from different
parties have sent divergent messages to the public (Green
et al., 2020); then-President Donald Trump asserted that one
day the virus would just disappear while political leaders in
the Democratic party framed the risk of COVID-19 trans-
mission as very high. At the state level, Republican governors
and other leaders were mixed in their responses, with some
emphasizing the health risks and others following Trumps
lead in downplaying them. Does elite messaging from po-
litical leaders affect optimism bias? Moreover, given the
divergence between national and state Republican leaders
messaging, do conservatives and/or Republicans have higher
perceived COVID risks in states with Republican governors
who sent strong public health messages?
We employ an indirect measure of optimism bias by
comparing the difference between an individuals estimate of
the risks to another person similar to themselves and their
own level of risk. Using this indirect measure allows us to
also examine the individual components of optimism bias,
that is, general versus personal risk perceptions, separately.
Department of Economics, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA
Department of Political Science, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Amy Wolaver, Department of Economics, Bucknell University, 1 Dent Drive,
Lewisburg, PA 17837-2005, USA.
Email: awolaver@bucknell.edu
Some levels of optimism bias may be rational; to the extent
that an individual can control the risk to himself/herself better
than others can control their risks, the optimism may ref‌lect
true differences in risks.
This paper makes several contributions to our under-
standing of beliefs about the possibility of COVID-19 in-
fection and its derived parts. A primary contribution is
examining the political factors that shape risk perceptions and
optimism bias. Determining whether there are partisan dif-
ferences in levels of optimism bias could have important
implications for public health messaging as the pandemic
continues, especially in crafting messages to encourage
vaccinations. An additional contribution of this study is that
we extend the analysis further in time from previous studies,
as our surveys were f‌ielded in the f‌irst week of December
2020 whereas others have been f‌ielded prior to this date. The
timing is important because it coincides with the post-
Thanksgiving, nationwide surge in cases which were not
limited to specif‌ic regions. Finally, we compare different
measures of partisanship, ideology, and support for Trump
and their effects on assessed risks and levels of optimism bias.
Our f‌indings show that political factors affect perceptions
about ones own risk and the population risk, but only affect
average levels of optimism bias when political differences are
measured by Trump voter status. We f‌ind that Democrats rate
both their personal risk and the population risks higher than
Republicans; however, these differences are not robust to the
inclusion of controls for voting for Trump. Voting for Trump
in 2016, but not in 2020 (Trump Defectors), is associated with
higher estimated risks to both themselves and similar persons.
Thus, Trump trumps party when it comes to self-assessed risk
of COVID-19.
Unexpectedly, however, we do not f‌ind robust effects due
to political party or ideology on optimism bias: Democrats/
liberals and Republicans/conservatives have similar levels of
optimism bias, on average. There are some interesting effects
of Trump voting status on optimism bias. Trump Defectors
have both the lowest level of optimism bias and the highest
rated risks to both themselves and to the general population.
In what follows, we discuss the literature, provide the primary
hypotheses we test in this analysis, discuss the data and
results, and conclude with a short discussion of these
Literature Review
Evidence of Partisan Divergence in COVID Risk Views
and Behaviors
The nascent literature on partisanship and COVID-19 be-
havioral responses in the United States is just beginning to
theorize and empirically test the mechanisms through which
political identity affects behavioral responses. Certainly, the
messaging from political leaders at the national level has
differed by party, with Trump generally downplaying the
pandemic, delivering inconsistent messaging about public
health measures, and disregarding public health recom-
mendations in his own behaviors (Beauchamp, 2020;
Coppins, 2020;McCarthy, 2020;Stanley-Becker & Janes,
2020). At the state level, Democratic governors have con-
sistently sent cautionary messages and implemented stay-at-
home orders and other preventive measures. While some
Republican governors have also done so, others have refused
or delayed similar messaging and policies (Grossman et al.,
With preliminary evidence indicating that there are par-
tisan differences in COVID risk perception in the United
States, we theorize that an additional, related factor may also
be important in explaining the divergent behavioral re-
sponses. Optimism bias in particular is another possible
mediating factor. As far as we have been able to determine, to
date, no one has directly tested whether political factors are
related to an individuals level of optimism bias. Fan et al.
(2020),Allcott et al. (2020),andGadarian et al. (2020) f‌ind
that conservatives/Republicans express beliefs that COVID is
less widespread than liberals/Democrats do, with Allcott et al.
(2020) also documenting that Republicans rate their personal
chances of contracting COVID as lower than Democrats.
However, this is different than comparing ones perception of
their individual risk relative to a peers risk. Pushing the
research in this direction is an important next step as personal
beliefs about risk shape behavioral responses to this and
future pandemics and to other crises.
Evidence on Risk Assessment and Optimism Bias
Humans tend to assess risk through two different pathways:
affective (emotional) and cognitive (risk as analysis); further,
our perceptions of a particular risk may shift over time as we
gain more experience with that risk (Jang et al., 2020). Jang
et al. (2020) detail these changes in risk perception and how
they relate to individualstrust in government in South Korea
over the course of the MERS outbreak in 2015. In this
outbreak, both affective and cognitive assessments of risk
initially increased and subsequently declined over time, al-
though affective risk was reduced less than cognitive risks.
These trends lagged the actual changes in new case numbers.
In terms of partisan differences, respondents who aff‌iliated
with the opposition party expressed more worry than re-
spondents aff‌iliated with the ruling party. In contrast,
Cowling et al. (2010), found low rates of affective risk in
Hong Kong during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, although re-
spondents who expressed higher levels of anxiety engaged in
more preventive behaviors.
With respect to general risk perceptions in the current
pandemic, Dryhurst et al. (2020) surveyed respondents in 10
countries across Europe, America, and Asia regarding
COVID risk perceptions. Their measure, an index combining
measures of both affective and cognitive risks, was rated
highly across all of the samples. They did not identify strong
Wolaver and Doces 397

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