How warmly or coldly people feel toward scientists is associated with their compliance with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to new research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. The study also found evidence that medical experts such as Anthony Fauci can help motivate people to maintain social distance from others and use disinfectant products amid the pandemic.

Many scientists became recognizable public figures following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and the researchers behind the current study were interested in learning more about the impact of this new phenomenon.

“I had never seen so many scientists go on television before. Now they were there all the time. Some of them were pretty likeable and others not so much,” said study author Carmen Sanchez, an assistant professor at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois.

“For example, on the one extreme, people were making Fauci socks, eating Fauci donuts, and singing songs about him (Randy Rainbow has a really funny song about him). This made me curious. Maybe people listen to scientists, not because of how knowledgeable they are or their political affiliation, but because of how much we like them. The more we like them, the more we listen to them about stuff they are knowledgeable about, regardless of how much we know or our political affiliation.”

In an initial survey of 415 individuals, the researchers found that those with warmer feelings towards scientists were more concerned about COVID-19 and engaged in greater preventative behaviors, such as social distancing. This was true even after controlling for cognitive ability, education, gender, income, and political ideology.

“A lot of people speculated that people were not engaging in pandemic reducing behaviors because of their political affiliation. This may be the case. But what we are showing here is that how people feel towards scientists plays a much larger role in people’s intended behaviors. When people do not like scientists, or they show an anti-scientists bias, they are less likely to listen to their advice,” Sanchez told PsyPost.

In two additional studies, the researchers examined the impact of watching Fauci, who is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The participants were randomly assigned to either view a short video featuring Fauci or — in the control condition — view a short video of a burning log.

In one study, Fauci talked about the importance of “flattening the curve” with COVID-19 mitigation efforts on CNBC. In the other, Fauci discussed the lack of scientific evidence behind hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 on Fox News.

The researchers found that those who held more optimistic views about hydroxychloroquine were less likely to engage in preventative behaviors and tended to be less warm toward scientists.

Surprisingly, watching Fauci did not appear to change attitudes about hydroxychloroquine. But the researchers found that watching Fauci on Fox News did lead people to commit to engaging in more preventative COVID‐19 behaviors, indicating that prominent scientists can sway public behavior.

“Positive feelings towards scientists, rather than political attitudes or knowledge, relate to people’s willingness to engage in pandemic reducing behaviors,” Sanchez told PsyPost. “But just because some people do not like scientists, all is not lost. You can change people’s minds about scientists. You can do this by having scientists engage in public outreach. Put them on television. Invite them to explain to people what is going on with COVID.”

Watching Fauci talk about the importance of COVID-19 mitigation efforts on CNBC, however, did not appear to significantly impact intentions to engage in preventative COVID‐19 behaviors. “For whatever reason, he was only effective at changing intended behaviors on Fox News,” Sanchez said. “It could have been a lot of things that led to this happening.

It might have been the topic he discussed on Fox News versus CNBC, or it could be the network itself. We should try to figure out the platform where scientists can have the biggest impact.”

The study, “The anti‐scientists bias: The role of feelings about scientists in COVID‐19 attitudes and behaviors“, was authored by Carmen Sanchez and David Dunning.