People with anti-intellectual attitudes were less likely to wear masks and socially distance during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic

New research provides evidence of a connection between anti-intellectualism and the public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings, which appear in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, indicate that anti-intellectual sentiment is associated with non-compliance with COVID-19 health directives, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust scientists and medical experts into the spotlight in a sustained manner perhaps more than ever before. Understanding why citizens accept or reject recommendations from health experts is vitally important, especially as countries struggle to push their vaccination rates high enough to deal with the delta variant,” said lead author Eric Merkley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

“A massive focus in the literature has been in the role of partisanship, owing to an understandable focus on the United States. But dynamics are likely different in other countries where political elites are not nearly as divided.”

For their study, Merkley and his team used the research firm Dynata to collect data from 27,615 Canadian citizens from March 25, 2020, to July 6, 2020. About half of the respondents from the first four waves were re-contacted, providing the researchers with some longitudinal data. Two waves of the survey also included experiments that examined the relationship between anti-intellectualism and information acquisition related to COVID-19.

Anti-intellectualism was assessed by asking the respondents to rate their level of trust in doctors, scientists, economists, professors, experts, and Public Health Agency of Canada.

The findings of the study demonstrate that “trust matters,” Merkley told PsyPost.

Those who scored higher on the measure of anti-intellectualism tended to be less likely to engage in behaviors intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those with higher levels of anti-intellectualism were also more likely to believe in misinformation, such as that the novel coronavirus is no worse than the seasonal flu or that drinking water every 15 minute helps to prevent COVID-19.

The researchers also found experimental evidence that higher levels of anti-intellectualism weakened preferences for news about COVID-19’s health impacts and COVID-19 information from experts.

“Most people place a lot of trust in doctors, scientists and other experts, but a sizable, ideologically heterogenous minority of people do not, even in less polarized contexts like Canada,” Merkley said. “Some individuals have a systematic distrust of experts and intellectuals, and they have been notably less likely to take the threat of COVID-19 seriously, less likely to socially distance, more likely to embrace COVID-19 misinformation, and less likely to wear masks. These effects rival or exceed the effects of factors like ideology and science literacy.”

The researchers statistically controlled for factors such as science literacy, social media exposure, partisanship, education, age, and religiosity. But as with any study, the new research comes with a few caveats.

“We cannot randomly assign people’s trust in experts so we can’t make definitive causal claims from these data, though there are certain features of our design that mitigated this problem (e.g. panel data, conjoint experiment),” Merkley explained. “The data in this article is solely from Canada. We need more cross-national research to see how the effects of anti-intellectualism vary across contexts. These data were also from relatively early in the pandemic. It would be interesting to see how important this concept has been in shaping vaccination intention.”

The study, “Anti-intellectualism and the mass public’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” was authored by Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen.