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Political polarization in COVID responses greater for people higher in cognitive ability (Part 2/3)

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Today’s blog is Part 2 of a 3-part series explaining some of the background and results for a paper recently accepted in the journal Intelligence. In it, we examine ability-based polarization in COVID-19 and in non-COVID topics. (Click for Part 1)

Shoots-Reinhard, B., Goodwin, R., Bjälkebring, P., Markowitz, D., Silverstein, M.D., & Peters, E. (forthcoming). Ability-related political polarization in the COVID-19 pandemic. Intelligence.

You can download the paper for free before October 9, 2021 by using this link.

Participants in the UO-EPIDeMIC study completed measures of numeracy (numeracy is like literacy, but with math ability) and verbal reasoning in February 2020. We were interested in how these abilities might influence perceptions of COVID-19.

It’s intuitive to think that people higher in math and verbal ability would be less biased— but people can also use cognitive ability to support existing viewpoints and resist contrary evidence. For example, people who are more knowledgeable about politics often have more polarized political attitudes.

Indeed, we found that people higher in verbal ability were more polarized in their emotional responses and risk perceptions concerning COVID-19. In other words, the differences we found between conservatives and liberals were greater for those who did better on our test of verbal ability (see below, left panel).

People who were higher in numeracy reported lower emotional reactions and risk perceptions than people lower in numeracy, but people higher and lower in numeracy were similarly polarized (see below, right panel).

Predicted risk perceptions by political ideology among people scoring in the top and bottom thirds of verbal ability (left) and numeracy (right)

Participants answered six questions about their risk perceptions to COVID-19. Risk perceptions were coded so that 1 was the minimum risk perception (e.g., “no risk”) and 6 was the maximum risk perception (e.g., “extreme risk”)

This finding surprised us because we had anticipated that numeracy would be related to polarization, as others have found (although these effects don’t always replicate fully).

Instead, we consistently found that verbal ability was associated more with polarization than was numeracy. We reasoned that, because ability variables are correlated, earlier motivated numeracy effects (including our own results) might have been driven by correlations between numeracy and verbal ability.

Indeed, we found in a separate publicly available dataset, the Understanding America Study, that numeracy predicted greater polarization, as in the prior research—but only when verbal abilities weren’t included in the same predictive model. When we pitted numeric and verbal ability, we found only verbal ability, not numeracy, predicted greater polarization. This pattern of results is further evidence that motivated numeracy effects may in fact be motivated verbal ability effects.

These findings suggest that polarization could be a function of the knowledge people have and their ability to form arguments in support of their political views. We examined two potential ways in which ability could lead to polarization in our study, and we will discuss them in a future post.

This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (SES-20010000 and SES-2017651). Portions of these data will be published in the journal Intelligence ( You can download the paper for free before October 9, 2021 by using this link.


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