The Crowding of Social Isolation: How Personal Relationships Shape Compliance with and Attitudes Towards Social Distancing Policies

The Crowding of Social Isolation: How Personal Relationships Shape Compliance with and Attitudes Towards Social Distancing Policies

by Dr. Debra Leiter, University of Missouri-Kansas City

The below is a research update from one of APSA’s Centennial Center Research Grant recipients. We are currently accepting applications for research grants. Learn more at the bottom of this post.

Political scientists pay quite a bit of attention to governmental approval ratings. From shaping election outcomes to indicating political stability, research shows that these evaluations matter. The coronavirus was a key test of government responsiveness and capacity at all levels, and we see marked differences in the strategies and effectiveness of these governments. With this in mind, we might expect to find predictable differences in how constituents evaluate their government’s pandemic response. But evaluations are not based solely on objective factors; our own preferences, partisanship, and personal context shape how we view government actions and who we hold accountable. The isolating nature of social distancing, and variations in how people experienced it, likely also shaped evaluations of government response. Previous research has consistently shown that our social connections play an important role in shaping what we believe and how we act about politics. Social distancing reinforced the importance of these connections – whether it was a lack of face-to-face connections or an overabundance of the same faces. Given how much our social distancing impacted our day to day experiences, and how much it was associated with government policies, this might lead us to wonder how much interpersonal connections shape evaluations of the quality of government during a pandemic that required dramatic social distancing?

With support from a grant provided by the American Political Science Association, Dr. Debra Leiter, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Dr. Jack Reilly, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at New College of Florida, and Dr. Beth Vonnahme, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri-Kansas City surveyed Americans in May and August about their social context and how they felt government had handled the Coronavirus epidemic.

“Previous research has consistently shown that our social connections play an important role in shaping what we believe and how we act about politics.”

The researchers asked people to evaluate how satisfied they were with the way different levels of government handled the coronavirus pandemic on a scale of 1 (not at all satisfied) to 4 (completely satisfied), we see quite a bit of variation. Local and state governments were generally held to be the best performers, with an average rating near 3. By contrast, presidential approval was the lowest, with an average of 2.3 and congressional evaluations fell near the middle, at an average of 2.5. Some of the variation researchers found in these evaluations was driven by the usual predictors of government evaluation, including partisanship, region, economic evaluations. But, personal connections also played a key role.

As shown in the figure below, government approval in handling the coronavirus pandemic was shaped by social connections, although the size of the effect differs across levels of government. Presidential approval was drastically shaped by how many people someone interacted with during the height of social distancing. Isolated citizens, those interacting with no one else during the day, thought poorly on average of how the president had performed in handling the crisis, ranking his performance at 2 on a 4-point scale. By contrast, those citizens who were well connected thought much more highly of presidential response, increasing expected evaluations by more than half a point. While presidential approval was most strongly shaped by access to interpersonal connections, we find significant if small improvements in the evaluations of government at all levels as people interacted with others to a greater degree.

Taken together, these results demonstrate that our response to the coronavirus was shaped by our personal context. However, these social affects were, as is often the case in American politics, primarily focused on the president. In the United States, we frequently use presidential approval to measure overall satisfaction with government, and the handling of the Coronavirus demonstrates that even under extreme circumstances, with high levels of variation in the state and local handling of the epidemic, our focus returns to the top. And, in a time of social distancing, those that were most isolated were the most likely to express their displeasure.

We might all expect to experience a global pandemic similarly. Yet for many of us, it feels like every person seems to be thinking about, experiencing and reacting to Covid-19 differently. Our research was inspired by our research team and the unique challenges we faced under the pandemic. Whether it was not seeing another person face to face for weeks at a time, waking up to a crying infant in the middle of the night before trying to lead a zoom-based student seminar, or having a rambunctious 3-year-old use you as a jungle gym while you tried to code your data, we quickly realized that we all faced the same virus, but our different living situations and interpersonal interactions were leading us to experience the social distancing associated with Covid-19 in very distinct ways. The coronavirus has reminded us all that the importance of our connections is not just personal, but exceptionally political and who we stand with may be just as important as where we stand.

We are now accepting applications for APSA 2021 Spring Centennial Center Research grants. Previously called Small Research Grants, these grants are available to contingent faculty and to faculty in political science departments that do not grant PhDs, including community college faculty. Grants are available to support research on all topics in political science, and in amounts up to $2500. The next deadline is April 15, 2021. Learn more and apply here!

In order to provide additional support to our members during the ongoing public health crisis, this year the Centennial Center is making research grants more flexible by expanding the categories of costs eligible for funding. Eligible costs now include: 1) Research costs associated with interviews and surveys, access to archives, and more 2) Salary support for PIs 3) Salary support for research assistants 4) Per diems regardless of location 5) Research software and hardware, including devices necessary for scholars with disabilities to conduct their research. We recognize that APSA members may have needs not included in the above list. If you have a cost that is not listed here, please contact us at