The Political Psychology of COVID-19: Is There an Effect of Pandemic Stressors and Symptoms of Mental Distress on Political Engagement in Britain?

Posted on: 25 October 2021 by Dr Luca Bernardi & Professor Ian H. Gotlib in October Posts

Students of democracy have been investigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on core political orientations and democratic legitimacy.

In times of crisis, citizens share a common external threat that tightens bonds among them and leads them to abide with and approve institutional responses. In addition, high level of uncertainty to which citizens are exposed increases anxiety and the need for security. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, several studies have found evidence of such “rally around the flag” or “lockdown” effects which, in turn, reinforce political support. On the other hand, media, mental mental health organisations and academic calls have all emphasised the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for people’s mental health. Not only has the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing mental health disorders, but it also has triggered the onset of psychiatric symptoms in people who did not suffer from these conditions before.

What is unclear is whether pandemic-related stressors and mental distress have been having any implication for political engagement. We believe that this can be the case for two reasons. First, political psychologists have long examined the effect of emotions on political evaluations and attitudes. In particular, some scholars have proposed that anxiety may increase or decrease political support depending on the origin of the threat and the expertise and relevance of the actor involved. Other research, instead, suggests that anxiety may foster blame attributions by facilitating higher levels of information seeking and learning. These dynamics are likely to occur in COVID-19 times as well. Second, previous research has shown that poor mental health reduces political engagement and that people who suffer from depression tend to perceive a lower responsiveness of the political system (what political scientists call external political efficacy) and evaluate political objects more negatively than their counterparts. Therefore, there is enough ground to expect that pandemic-related stressors and mental distress may be negatively associated with political engagement.

Thanks to the support of The British Academy and the assistance of YouGov, we tested for these expectations by fielding two online surveys – in August 2020 and in March 2021 – on a representative sample of the British population. We report three sets of findings that are robust to the inclusion of a large number of socio-demographic and political factors. First, we found that people who are more worried about COVID-19-related issues such as becoming seriously unwell or die, being preoccupied that the same fate may happen to family and friends, or find themselves in financial troubles also report lower levels of external political efficacy and satisfaction with the way the government has been handling the pandemic. Relatedly, we also found that people who are more stressed by COVID-19 due to restrictions on leaving home, reduction in social contacts, and wearing a face mask in public spaces also report lower levels of satisfaction with government on COVID-19 and lower levels of trust in government (but the latter only later on in the pandemic). Second, we found external efficacy, trust in and satisfaction with government to be lower amongst people with higher symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Finally, in line with other research, we also found a strong and positive relationship between COVID-19 stressors and symptoms of mental distress. Although our findings help us better understand how COVID-19 may have put our democracy under pressure, future research needs to take a step forward and examine whether our associations are causally related and whether there will be longer-term effects of the pandemic on political engagement.

This research was authored by Dr Luca Bernardi, Department of Politics and Prof Ian H. Gotlib, Department of Psychology at Stanford University.

You can email Luca Bernardi for the paper, or it can be accessed online here.