As the Downing Street party scandal rumbles on this week, new accusations about parties have hit the headlines, including one with a confirmed attendance from the Prime Minister himself, Boris Johnson. These parties form part of a broader pattern of lockdown breaches from political figures, from Stephen Kinnock’s family visit to Dominic Cummings’ 260-mile eyesight test on the A688 between Durham and Barnard Castle.
Throughout these stories we’ve witnessed a range of responses. Brexiteers were generally supportive of Cummings, suggesting a political witch hunt against him when the story broke. Labour politicians similarly backed Kinnock, suggesting that he maintained social distancing despite travel restrictions being in place. At the same time, the pandemic saw race-related uprisings and mass protests following the murder of George Floyd in the US, with large outdoor gatherings taking place in London in support (and counter to) the Black Lives Matter movement. These events got us, as psychologists interested in people’s decision-making processes, interested in exploring how people judged such incidents. Could it be that we alter our perceptions of right or wrong based on their political affiliations?
We got to work by asking people with varying social and political beliefs for their opinions on ten news stories – including breaches of restrictions by politically-affiliated people (such as Kinnock and Cummings), groups (such as those affiliated to and protesting against the Black Lives Matter movement), and apolitical examples including Manchester City defender Kyle Walker, and hoards of beach-goers enjoying the late Spring sunshine in May 2020.
More than 260 participants completed the study and responded to whether they thought the people in our news stories were in the right or in the wrong when they broke social distancing guidelines, and ultimately, whether they should resign or be fired from their position. We found that higher levels of self-reported conservatism were associated with greater levels of condemnation of Black Lives Matter protesters, and higher levels of self-reported liberalism were associated with greater levels of condemnation when rule flouters were either affiliated with the Conservative Party or protesting in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Male participants and those placing a moral emphasis on liberty were less likely to condemn guidance flouting in general, whereas those with a greater level of fear of Covid-19 expressed more condemnation.
In doing this work we have uncovered a seemingly ideologically motivated double standard in judgements of COVID-19 rule breaking in the context of social distancing. This double standard appears to have been driven by a political affiliation to those who are flouting guidance. Clearly, as more stories emerge about the seemingly revolving door of parties in Downing Street it will become increasingly difficult for senior political figures to defend those in attendance, but at the moment we’re seeing the same hypocrisy in judgements as in our data.
For example, Labour’s Lisa Nandy appeared to support Stephen Kinnock’s breach, but demanded apologies from Cummings, and in recent days has supported calls for Boris Johnson to resign from his position. Similarly, Conservatives who slammed Kinnock and other Labour figures for breaking the rules are rallying around the PM and urging for patience until the end of Sue Gray’s now eagerly anticipated investigation on whether someone did or did not know they were at a party.
In a press release on 12th January 2022, we argued that our data would predict that those who are more invested in the Conservative Party (cabinet officials, for example), might downplay the severity of the Downing Street rule-breaking. Within hours, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant did exactly that, supporting the contention that our judgments of lockdown breaches are driven by how much our ‘side’ will be hurt by them being uncovered.
Although we are not insinuating that people with certain ideological views are responsible for the spread of Covid-19, nor that they are consciously encouraging its transmission, if individuals are accepting of large-scale protests or small-scale gatherings among their ideological peers in the context of a global pandemic, this, by extension, means that they are accepting an increased risk of infectious transmission.
At this crucial point in the pandemic, we are close to returning to some semblance of normality. This makes it more important than ever to reduce the chance of a further wave, and we therefore believe that researchers and public health officials need to examine ways in which to frame health messages to reduce the effects of our tribal psychological processes influencing rule adherence.
The full paper has been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations.
Craig Harper is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. His research and teaching focuses on decision-making processes with an emphasis on political contexts.
Darren Rhodes is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University. He works on statistical models of human cognition and decision-making.