Brad J. Bushman Ph.D.

Get Psyched!

You Can't Kill a Virus By Finger-Pointing

Politicizing COVID-19 does more harm than good.

Posted Apr 09, 2020

If you asked a virus its political party or ideology, you’d never get an answer. Unlike humans, viruses don’t discern or discriminate on a political basis. Therefore, neither should we in containing them. 

Collective stress and fear make it easy for people to play a political blame game, othering and faulting others. Pointing fingers and finding scapegoats can create a false sense of control in a time of global scarcity and suffering. 

Politicians are especially prone to blaming the “other side.” On April 8, 2020, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, "Please don't politicize this virus," and instead urged politicians to "Please quarantine politicizing COVID."[1] Ghebreyesus emphasized that all political parties should be focused on saving people. Politicizing the virus only exploits differences between people and increases the number of body bags needed for those who die from the virus. “The unity of your country will be very important to defeat this dangerous virus," he said. 

The unity of a country is very important when it comes to fighting any enemy, including a deadly virus. The U.S. is comprised of 50 states, but according to retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, “We should not be fighting COVID-19 as 50 separate fights, 50 separate states and territories and certainly not at individual municipal levels. This needs to be a collaborative national-level fight.”[2] 

Although Ghebreyesus did not mention any psychological theories to support his recommendations to avoid politicizing COVID-19, one psychological theory comes instantly to mind—attribution theory, which was first proposed by Fritz Heider.[3] Attributions are the causal explanations people give for their own and others’ behaviors, and for events in general. 

Research has shown that people tend to have a self-serving bias when it comes to making attributions.[4] That is, people want to take credit for success but deny blame for failure. For example, college students tend to take credit for doing well on exams, attributing success to their ability and effort. In contrast, they tend to blame the teacher for doing poorly on an exam, attributing their failure to the test being too difficult or the teacher not explaining the material well. This self-serving bias has been shown across many different settings and contexts.[5] Evidence suggests that the self-serving bias is especially strong when people are explaining their successes and failures to others.[6][7] This suggests that people care deeply about what others think of them.

The self-serving bias can definitely apply to the COVID-19 setting and context. Politicians want to take credit for the successes associated with fighting this deadly virus, but lay the blame on others for any failures. This approach is counterproductive when it comes to fighting COVID-19. We are all in this together.

People can also point the finger of blame at other countries, such as by calling COVID-19 terms like the “Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus,” or “Kung flu.” That is also counterproductive because it can increase feelings of hate for people from China and other East Asian countries.[8]

COVID-19 will never take politics into consideration. We’re best able to confront it when we do the same. Energy exerted in political tug-of-wars is energy that should be spent listening to healthcare workers and infectious disease experts who need our attention and help to do their jobs and save lives. During this global pandemic, we need to unite. Together, we can minimize the harm done by COVID-19.

References

[1] Chappell, B. (April 8, 2020). 'Please don't politicize this virus,' WHO head says after Trump threatens funding. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/08/829944795/please-don-t-politicize-this-virus-who-head-says-after-trump-threatens-funding?fbclid=IwAR0J8UgDj01a49vYBHrGyZR9_7pzB4MTGwrC9FymO6cDyjbKf9Rtoj0ULZc

[2] Glenn, H. (April 1, 2020). Gen. McChrystal's advice to trump on coronavirus: 'Fight it as an American fight.' NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/01/825287506/gen-mcchrystals-advice-to-trump-on-coronavirus-fight-it-as-an-american-fight?utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_source=facebook.com&fbclid=IwAR2qFHdUJGyIqdYz1Gij_Z1vy5wNgL-giU2dADmap1KEkkT3usj2ZxANR6U

[3] Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: John Wiley.

[4] Campbell, W. K., & Sedikides, C. (1999). Self-threat magnifies the self-serving bias: A meta-analytic integration. Review of General Psychology, 3, 23–43.

[5] Zuckerman, M. (1979). Attribution of success and failure revisited, or: The motivational bias is alive and well in attribution theory. Journal of Personality, 47, 245–287.

[6] Bradley, G. W. (1978). Self-serving biases in the attribution process: A reexamination of the fact or fiction question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 56–71.

[7] Tetlock, P. E. (1980). Explaining teacher explanations for pupil performance: A test of the self-presentation position. Social Psychology Quarterly, 43, 283–290.

[8] Bushman, B. J. (2020). It is called "COVID-19," not the "Chinese virus!" Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/get-psyched/202003/it-is-called-covid-19-not-the-chinese-virus

Author Notes: I would like to thank Becca Bushman for her feedback on this blog.