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Personal Politics Justify Views on Pandemic Rule-Breaking

A pandemic of hypocrisy?

Key points

  • Political partisans on both sides engage in motivated cognition.
  • New research suggests that motivated judgments of pandemic-related rule breaking reflects a moral hypocrisy on both sides.
  • If people have a view about social distancing adherence, it shouldn’t matter who is breaking the rules.
Artist Met and Liked Co/Shutterstock
Source: Artist Met and Liked Co/Shutterstock

It's been a long two years.

While the early parts of the pandemic were accompanied by widespread lockdowns where we weren’t allowed to leave the house, after some time we were afforded more freedom, albeit with some caveats. Mask wearing, staying two meters apart, and rules against gathering in groups were commonplace.

This guidance was broadly agreed to and followed closely. However, small pockets of dissidence in some American states, and high-profile cases of rule-breaking in the U.K. led some to doubt whether the guidelines were enforced fairly, or if they were legitimate at all. This has been brought back into sharp focus by accusations that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended parties within his Downing Street home office in contravention of his own government's guidance.

Mid-lockdown we also saw the awful events in Minneapolis with the killing of George Floyd, sparking large global protests, localized riots, and a re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. While protests for racial justice might be seen as morally justifiable, their timing and authorization were questioned against a backdrop of social distancing and virus-mitigating public health initiatives.

An Explosion of COVID-Related Research

There has been a number of research studies published on how and why the public might adhere to social distancing and broader public health guidelines, asking what makes people stay apart to reduce the spread of the virus? To wash their hands more often? To support home-working and mask-wearing?

A trans-Atlantic team led by Jim Everett and Molly Crockett reported how public messaging that stresses a sense of moral duty was more effective at encouraging behavioral adherence than trying to frame messages in terms of saving lives. Similarly, a review article published in The Lancet suggested that appealing to people’s altruistic tendencies might be an effective way for governments to encourage positive action.

From a mental health perspective, some authors have suggested that having a high level of fear about the virus might lead to irrational and destructive behaviors. However, other work has found that fear might actually be functional. In this sense, fearing the virus led to more adherence to behavioral guidance.

The research found little impact of political ideology on rule-following, however. This was a surprise, as other studies had reported how conservatives were less likely to take the virus seriously or to change their behavior in line with recommendations. Similarly, those who voted for the current governments in the U.K., U.S.A., and Canada were more likely to support the administration’s action on COVID-19 than those who voted for other parties or political candidates.

Although these studies looked at ideological effects of public health adherence, they didn’t assess how ideology impacted judgments of those engaged in the flouting of social distancing guidelines.

Are Judgments Motivated by Ideology?

Our new study, due to be published in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations has looked at ideological influences on judgments of COVID rule flouting very directly.

The basic premise was to study whether such judgments were ideology-dependent, in that people might make different judgments of people depending on whether they were on their "side" of the political spectrum.

The results supported this premise. When judging liberal-aligned guidance-breaking (e.g., Black Lives Matter protests), conservative participants were more likely to condemn the actors than liberal participants. In contrast, the opposite trend was found when people were judging conservative-aligned rule breaking (e.g., Black Lives Matter counter-protests, and Conservative Party politicians). The graph below shows this cross-over interaction between participants’ ideology and the alignment of the rule breakers on judgments.

Harper & Rhodes (2022), used with permission
An ideological hypocrisy on lockdown rule breaker judgments?
Source: Harper & Rhodes (2022), used with permission

Remember, these participants were not about the morality of the reasons for people being outside or for protesting. The questions were specifically judgments about the breaking of social distancing guidelines, which, if making principled judgments, should be consistent across all groups.

If people have a view about social distancing adherence, it shouldn’t matter who is breaking the rules. To moderate your judgments in light of who is breaking the rules, or why they are doing it, does represent a certain degree of moral hypocrisy.

These findings also link to research social psychological research on ideological symmetries. That is, liberals and conservatives seem to behave similarly in terms of making judgments about their side, versus judgments about those whose views they disagree with.

This is an example of something called motivated cognition. These decisions are designed to defend participants’ worldviews. If they condemn those with whom they agree, are they condemning their own worldview? If so, it’s simply easier to change their opinions to maintain a consistent approach.

Studies such as these highlight the pervasiveness of ideological motivations, and their potential effects. It’s one thing to change your views about different groups when asked questions on a simple test, but when altering your opinions leads to the tacit support of mass gatherings in a global pandemic, the health implications of motivated cognition are severe.

Social psychologists might look to develop ways to help ideological partisans to have more consistent approaches to following public health advice, even when this runs counter to their view of morality and politics.


Harper, C. A., & Rhodes, D. (2022). Ideological responses to the breaking of COVID-19 social distancing recommendations. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.