Sunday, March 5, 2017

Does Zika Have the Power to Polarize?

In a recent study published by the Journal of Risk Research, experiments were conducted to see whether or not political advocacy groups could sway public perception of Zika virus risks. The answer? Yes. It seems that the way that basic health facts are presented can either provoke a skewed fear response, or an irrationally lackadaisical response to the threat of Zika in the United States.

In the study, researchers had a control test and two experimental scenarios. First, they were given a survey that evaluated their political leanings and values. Then, participants were given one of three different pamphlets containing information on Zika. All three contained the same factual content, but were framed in very different ways. The first laid out information much like one would see on a CDC page, with little skew and no background story of the virus. The first experimental pamphlet framed Zika as an emerging threat due to illegal immigration, and the last pamphlet framed the spread of Zika as due to climate change. After the participants read the pamphlets, they were asked to take another survey evaluating the validity of basic Zika virus facts. For example, it asked them to make judgments about the risks of transmission and infection. Upon evaluating the responses, researchers found that those who identified with the political left were irrationally fearful of Zika when correlated with climate change, and irrationally dismissive when it was tied to illegal immigration. For those who self-identified as republican, almost the exact opposite was true. Both groups were about accurate when evaluating the risks after being given the control pamphlet.

Researchers propose that these articles were so persuasive one way or another because they fall into the category of “culturally antagonistic memes”, which are pieces of information that confirm one group identity while dismissing another. It is believed that this type of information dissemination interferes with the normal evaluation response of information. Upon reading the information given in a skewed format, participants were more likely to make the decision that best aligned with their social group, likely because of the assumption that agreement would increase social reward, and disagreement would decrease social opportunity. It will be interesting to see how these findings apply to decision making in a new era of polarized information, or even blatant misinformation.

See here for articles: 
Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. "Framing by political advocacy groups may jeopardize public understanding of Zika." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 January 2017

Dan M. Kahan, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Asheley Landrum, Kenneth Winneg. Culturally antagonistic memes and the Zika virus: an experimental test. Journal of Risk Research, 2016

 Elisa Hofmeister  ‘18

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