The Costs of Polarizing a Pandemic: Antecedents, Consequences, and Lessons

Jay J. Van Bavel, Clara Pretus, Steve Rathje, Philip Pärnamets, Madalina Vlasceanu, Eric D. Knowles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Polarization has been rising in the United States of America for the past few decades and now poses a significant—and growing—public-health risk. One of the signature features of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the degree to which perceptions of risk and willingness to follow public-health recommendations have been politically polarized. Although COVID-19 has proven more lethal than any war or public-health crisis in American history, the deadly consequences of the pandemic were exacerbated by polarization. We review research detailing how every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has been polarized, including judgments of risk, spatial distancing, mask wearing, and vaccination. We describe the role of political ideology, partisan identity, leadership, misinformation, and mass communication in this public-health crisis. We then assess the overall impact of polarization on infections, illness, and mortality during the pandemic; offer a psychological analysis of key policy questions; and identify a set of future research questions for scholars and policy experts. Our analysis suggests that the catastrophic death toll in the United States was largely preventable and due, in large part, to the polarization of the pandemic. Finally, we discuss implications for public policy to help avoid the same deadly mistakes in future public-health crises.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • COVID-19
  • pandemic
  • polarization
  • politics
  • psychology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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