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The COVID-19 pandemic presents an unprecedented challenge to humanity. Yet there seems to be substantial variation across individuals in knowledge and concern about COVID-19, as well as in the willingness to change behaviors in the face of the pandemic. Here, we investigated the roles of political ideology and cognitive sophistication in explaining these differences across the U.S.A. (N = 689), the U.K. (N = 642), and Canada (N = 644) using preregistered surveys conducted in late March, 2020. We found evidence that political polarization around COVID-19 risk perceptions, behavior change intentions, and misperceptions was greater in the U.S. than in the U.K.. However, Canada and the U.S. did not strongly differ in their level of polarization. Furthermore, in all three countries, cognitive sophistication (indexed by analytic thinking, numeracy, basic science knowledge, and bullshit skepticism) was a negative predictor of COVID-19 misperceptions – and in fact was a stronger predictor of misperceptions than political ideology (despite being unrelated to risk perceptions or behavior change intentions). Finally, we found no evidence that cognitive sophistication was associated with increased polarization for any of our COVID-19 measures. Thus, although there is some evidence for political polarization of COVID-19 in the U.S. and Canada (but not the U.K.), accurate beliefs about COVID-19 (albeit not intentions to act) are broadly associated with the quality of one’s reasoning skill regardless of political ideology or background polarization.
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