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Of Dragons And Norms: The Psychology Of Wearing Masks During A Pandemic

Even phantoms have started wearing masks in Northern Colorado.

Despite some confusion early in the pandemic about the benefits of wearing a mask, scientific experts have since cleared the matter up: masks help reduce the spread of COVID-19.

What underlies our decision to wear a mask?

According to a survey from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, three out of four Americans favor requiring people to wear face coverings in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. While the majority have caught on, many have not.

Dr. Lindsay Diamond is the co-founder of Community Immunity, a Front Range nonprofit that focuses on vaccine education. Her research shows that people don't make decisions based on data. She said that you can't come at people with, "the firehose of science and data. That doesn't work."

Instead, she said decision-making is an emotional process. "It's very personal," she said. "It's something they feel and so, you have to come and meet that person in that same space."

You can't come at people with, "the firehose of science and data. That doesn't work."

In her experience talking with individuals who do not choose to vaccinate their children, she said, "sometimes what really helps is to land on the common ground and then go."

To do this effectively, we need empathy. And a lot of it.

Why is it that we'll listen to people who we feel understand us? For an explanation, I reached out to a social scientist, Dr. Leaf Van Boven, at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

He said, "It's unclear where the resistance to mask-wearing originates from, to be honest. I don't think we have a really clear sense of that."

Whether or not you wear a mask has to do with how you make sense of the world — how you make decisions.

"It is incredibly challenging to know what to make of the world. What is reality? What does the evidence tell us is the right thing to do? And so, we resolve that largely by looking to our social context," said Van Boven.

He clarified that we're not just blindly following what other people are doing, "it's a much more nuanced, I think sophisticated, version than that. Where we're really looking to other people to help us interpret what is the right course of action here."

These processes are natural and functional; they help us know how to behave. Social scientists call these norms.

"A norm is not necessarily what most people are doing. A norm is what people in our group, people who have similar identities are doing. A norm is what they value," said Van Boven.

He's not talking about large groups of people; norms are the values you share with your friends. They bridge the gap between our self as an individual — and our self as a member of a group.

Van Boven said, "It really ties back to this idea of, 'How do we think of ourselves?' Like, 'Do I think of myself as a competent member of a group that I value? Yes, I would like to. But what does that mean?' And that's where we're really open to being kind of swayed by the norms within our communities."

"It just becomes compelling in a very subtle but powerful way, to adopt similar kinds of behaviors."

Even the behavior of even a single person you value can have a big influence on your actions.

"You can imagine if you're in close contact with your significant other or your best friend and those people start adopting certain behaviors, it just becomes compelling in a very subtle but powerful way, to adopt similar kinds of behaviors," noted Van Boven.

We've been living with the coronavirus for five months.

At this stage, it's like a dragon has appeared in your school lunchroom. It seems to be eating lunch, burping slight bursts of flames, and you're trying to evaluate this unprecedented situation. The jocks look to the quarterback. The nerds look to the nerdiest nerd. Maybe you're a goth and you try to play like you haven't noticed the dragon, and if you did, you wouldn't care about it — like all your goth friends are doing.

Some kids in the lunchroom like the adult. Some kids look to others to see how they feel.

Finally, the principal shows up, and this is where it gets interesting. Van Boven explains there are a few things that can happen. If all the group leaders like the principal — and the principal sets a good example through behavior — students will listen to him. If not, the principal may not have the power needed to take control of the situation.

Right now, we're working with mixed messages from leaders.

At a press conference last Tuesday, President Donald Trump said, "Wear a mask, get a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact. They'll have an effect, and we need everything we can get."

After making those comments, he was later seen in public not wearing a mask.

"The behaviors that we see among political leaders doesn't mesh with the messages we've been given," said Van Boven. He's taking advantage of the situation by studying how people respond to the same information given from different types of leaders.

His current study has not been published — but trends are emerging. Unsurprisingly, Van Boven says people are biased toward policies proposed by leaders of the party they identify with, but the data show experts have an even stronger sway.

"When the same policy proposal comes from experts in medicine, public health, economics, epidemiology, there is much greater support for that policy across the board," he said.

In other words, we need the principal to call in a dragon expert. For the expert to be effective, Van Boven said they need to have buy-in from enough people to initiate widespread behavioral change. Everyone, including the principal, needs to look up to this expert. In social psychology, this is called a "behavioral contagion." Right now, what the public needs is to get infected with a message everyone can trust.

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