graphical map of italy with corona info

Who presents covid advice affects how much we listen to them

When scientific experts recommended measures against the spread of infection, the recipients were more willing to act for the benefit of everybody than when the measures were recommended by politicians and scientists together or by politicians alone. This is shown in a study conducted during the corona pandemic's first wave in Lombardy in Italy by researchers from, among others, Linnaeus University.

“Our work highlights the dangers of mixing science with politics, including when communicating scientific results. This, of course, extends to domains others than the corona pandemic, such as climate change and vaccination.”

This is what Giangiacomo Bravo, professor of sociology at Linnaeus University, says, who together with colleague Mike Farjam at Lund University and two colleagues at the University of Milan in Italy have conducted a research study. The aim was to understand how the communication of covid-prevention measures could be made more effective.

The researchers investigated how the interplay between politicians and scientists presenting the situation and explaining the measures could help or hinder their acceptance by the public. More specifically, how this interplay could promote behaviour for the benefit of everybody (prosocial behaviors), that is, even those who do not belong to a risk group take their responsibility to protect more vulnerable groups. The experiment was done in one of the most hard-hit regions of the world, Lombardy in Italy, during spring 2020 which was the time of the first wave of covid infection.

Scientists alone are considered reliable

“Our results show that scientists are considered a reliable source of information and do promote prosocial behaviours, i.e. actions that favour others and the society in general. However, when scientists mix with politicians this effect no longer occurs. It even backfires in comparison with situations when politicians alone are in focus.”

Giangiacomo Bravo says that, to a certain extent, the result was anticipated. However, the researchers were unsure of the positive effect of scientists appearing alone, as trust in science in Italy is relatively low, although maybe not at low as trust in politics.

Trust in both politicians and scientists is higher in Sweden than in Italy, which may represent a factor reducing the negative effect of them interacting in Sweden. However, drawing conclusions about conditions in Sweden based on the Italian study is hazardous, says Giangiacomo Bravo.

“So far, these two groups have had almost completely separated communication channels for the pandemic. Changing this status quo may indeed be risky and may lead to a reduction in the trust of the Swedish public for both groups.”

More information

The study Dangerous liaisons: an online experiment on the role of scientific experts and politicians in ensuring public support for anti-COVID measures was published in March 2021 in Royal Society Open Science.