INTRO: What this Essay Will/Won’t Cover
Someone recently asked on Twitter why people seem more upset about others visibly protecting themselves from Covid (which is perceived as doing “too much”) than they are about the death and disability that can result from infection.
Being me, I chimed in, and then was asked to elaborate. As I said Over There, a serious answer is more than a Twitter thread, or even an essay; it’s a book, and plenty of books have been written about how and why people think obviously wonky things. (I’ll cite a few at the end of this piece, for those wanting a deeper dive.) But there are some obvious cognitive heuristics, biases and fallacies that come into play, and if people want to know just a bit about them (but don’t want to learn it from Wikipedia, which does a pretty good job with this stuff), I can oblige. Well, kind of. I’ve been battling in intestinal infection (which has now become two) since May, I am feeling worse and worse all the time, and I am despairing of every getting out of pajamas again – so I can basically give this one afternoon, and almost zero proofreading. It is what it is.
First, what this isn’t: It’s not a blueprint for getting people to think more clearly. First, changing behavior on an individual scale isn’t really my thing: I know much more about group interventions, especially the kind where group members have together solicited help changing group mores or behavioral dynamics, or people have joined an existing group intervention because they already want to change.
Second, as any substance abuse group leader can tell you, it’s almost impossible to alter the behavior of folks who don’t want to be there. And in fact, “debating” with people about their beliefs or behavior very (very!) often has an unfortunate “backlash” “boomerang” or backfire effect, causing them to dig in even deeper. (Some relevant concepts to google that explain why people are so resistant to the truths you tell them are Belief Perseverance, Confirmation Bias, Social Conformity, Conservatism Bias & Anchoring and Post Decisional Cognitive Dissonance.) The classic cognitive psych. view of this backfire is that it happens because, in debating with people, you are actually helping them rehearse and refine their arguments, as well as to sell those arguments (to themselves, not to you). Some theorists also suggest that this digging in is an adaptive strategy for our species – that, for survival, winning arguments (and so, power) is more important than being right, so people pick winning when they can’t do both. Other theorists emphasize the flip side: that it can feel (and be) very threatening to go against your own group’s views, even if you kinda-sorta know there’s something amiss. As with most phenomena studied in social psych., the reason people are so disinclined to adjust fallacious thinking, even when you take pains to explain reality to them, is undoubtedly not either/or, but both and more.
In any case, changing the behavior of those with whom you interact is really hard. After the 2016 election, I joined an ongoing discussion group at my highly educated UU fellowship to discuss how to reconcile with friends and family on the Other Side, led by a grad student with an interest in conflict resolution. (Unbeknownst to them, I came because I was curious about how willing UUs were to get their britches in a bunch about Fixing Things, not because I wanted to reconcile with anyone.) We read articles, we watched videos, we practiced techniques. But I never got the impression that most people, in most daily interactions, would have the opportunity and facility to pull it off.
That said, I might write a Part B of this piece in a bit that focusses on attitude/behavior change (if I ever get to the point where I can stand up without feeling like I’m about to fall down), since I do know something about it – the cornerstone of the risk reduction research I did during my grad years was grounded in Fishbein & Ajzen’s Theory of Reasoned Action, which later spawned their Theory Of Planned Behavior. The theory holds that beliefs, attitudes and “subjective norms” (basically, the attitudes of and peer pressure by those who matter, in a given situation), as well as a sense of personal control over behavior (or “perceived self-efficacy’), lead to intentions to behave in given ways, and so, (in the absence of external obstacles), Doing A Thing (like, wearing masks or getting vaccinated). I also know a fair bit about persuasion, which is the foundation of consumer psych. (a subfield within social psychology). There are ways to convince people to think and do all manner of stuff, and industries do this to us all the time – the example I usually give is the scene in The Devil Wears Prada, during which Meryl Streep’s character tells Anne Hathaway’s character exactly why she “chose” her sweater. (You can watch it here: https://youtu.be/us52976XA28) There’s a reason my favorite color is blue, but that reason is not Free Will.
Anyway, today I’ll just give you a non-comprehensive run-down of various biases (which are basically rules of cognition that become errors when they’re incorrectly applied) and heuristics (which are basically thinking shortcuts or strategies that can lead to thinking errors), focusing on those that can cause people to be more alarmed by risk reduction than by the risk posed by actual threats. There are other important issues, such as various social pressures that motivate people to believe particular narratives, but I was asked to elaborate on specific forms of fallacious thinking, and I’m already fading, so I’m gonna focus on that. (It’s going to be lot less conversational than my essays usually are, and a lot more academic and lecturey, but today, chatting would cost extra.)
PART 1: Why people don’t seem to care about the health risks
First, the reasons underlying the second side of the equation (why people aren’t more concerned about the potential for negative Covid outcomes) are fairly obvious. They include (but aren’t limited to) the following:
1. Death and disability are alarming, so people try not to think about them. When they’re presented with information about such threats, they often feel emotionally overwhelmed and tune out. But if you won’t think about these potentialities, you can’t form a reasoned response to them.
2. In US society, death and disability are also hidden, so generally remain an abstraction. They are therefore easier to ignore than in places where the bodies of pandemic victims are going through rigor mortis in the street, or in situations where you, yourself, are caring for a disabled person and so can appreciate all the restrictions, requirements and other challenges involved. When people look around at a concert and see only (seemingly) healthy people, they are also prone to selection and survivorship biases, such that they misperceive those healthy concert goers as representative of the whole population while forgetting about all those who died, even though the latter could fill many, many large concert venues. (Many years ago when I was babyproofing my house, my mother – a cognitive psychologist, btw – asked me why that was necessary when “we all survived without furniture anchors and cabinet locks!” Well, no, in fact: we all didn’t.)
And even when someone you know dies (making death “personal”) perception of the suffering and death itself may be elusive – what people really notice most is the deceased’s absence in their own lives. That may or may not be motivating. (This is why I shared on social media every photo of ICU patients I could find, early in the pandemic; I wish there had been many more.)
3. Even when people do see suffering and death of others, personal experience can be more relevant and persuasive in the formation of beliefs and attitudes about risk reduction. I recently spoke with a nurse who has cared for Covid patients in the ICU. She has seen some Bad Stuff. But when she herself got Covid, she was asymptomatic, and that experience has disproportionately influenced her belief that vaccines aren’t necessary, because the virus is “so mild.” (I was talking with her about strokes and adverse infection outcomes in kids; she is not interested in having her kids – or other people – vaxxed and masked, but we had a nice chat.) This overreliance on personal experience is due in part to a tendency called the Availability Heuristic, by which people estimate (sometimes incorrectly) how likely an event is by how easily instances come to mind. You’d think that images of critically ill people would be pretty vivid and memorable, but (probably for reasons relating to the emotional discomfort of threat, as well as the weight of personal experience and social pressures), this nurse’s own, very easy experience with Covid was what was most cognitively available to her, and so she generalized that experience to form (or support) her beliefs about the necessity of vaccination and masking.
This sort of thinking also reflects a base-rate fallacy: people are much more swayed by single dramatic events than by large numbers or probability statistics. That’s why they buy lottery tickets, and it’s why they don’t blink when you say we passed a million deaths in the US many months ago; all they know is that they were infected once, and it just felt like a cold.
4. This state of affairs is also partly due to Optimism Bias and Perceived invulnerability. As a rule, people generally underestimate the likelihood of negative events happening to themselves, and overestimate the likelihood of their own positive outcomes; on some level, they may not believe in their own susceptibility to a negative outcome at all (as when folks dismiss the threat of long Covid, because they “eat right and workout.”) This is a huge issue in health psychology. Note that this bias also affects people’s inability to accurately assess the effect their behavioral choices can have on the health of others, especially when those others are anonymous strangers whose illness, disability or death can never be explicitly connected back to them. (A whole lot of people have been infected, but it was never by us.) Diffusion of Responsibility plays a role here, too. And unfortunately, people in our society are very comfortable with lots and lots of adverse events, as long as they and those they love most aren’t the victims. For example, that white Americans became less interested in Covid mitigations after being informed that negative outcomes disproportionately affect BIPOC says a lot about how we think, what we’re willing to do to help others, and who we are as a society.
5. With regard to those risks we pose to others, Just World Thinking is also a huge problem, as it causes folks to assume that people get what they deserve. (You reap what you sow.) There’s real self-interest inherent in this bias, because if you can look at people who suffered some sort of frightening outcome (poverty, crime, serious illness, death) and then think of ways that you are not like those victims, then not only does the world feel safer in general (because the occurrence of bad events makes sense, rather than being random and unfair), but it feels safer to you, personally – so people may be becoming disabled in large numbers, but because they’ve done something you haven’t (say, like getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated), that’s probably both the reason they suffered and the reason you won’t. But that sense of safety comes at the cost of how we view and treat other people. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was undoubtedly well aware of this when she made statements (more than once) about how it’s really just the old and chronically ill who will suffer Covid’s worse effects – she knows perfectly well that all lives never matter, and, as a society, we’re more than willing to throw some groups under the bus just to feel better about our own odds of a good outcome.
Similarly, the Simulation Heuristic also makes it hard for some people to imagine elderly or chronically ill people living for years ore enjoying their lives anyway, and that makes those deaths seem less tragic than the deaths of others. And the Fundamental Attribution Error, which leads us to focus on personal vs. situational causes for other people’s behavior and outcomes – though not for our own – also has an impact, here, as does the Ultimate Attribution Error, in which people make false and negative assumptions about the dispositional causes of outcomes for entire groups of people.
I don’t think any of that is a surprise to readers, so what I’d like to do for the remainder of this essay is focus on why people are so bothered by other people’s decisions to reduce Covid infection and negative outcome risks.
PART II: Why do people seem to care so much that YOU care about Covid health risks?
First, the big issue at play, which you may well be familiar with, is Cognitive Dissonance. This is the backbone of a lot of work in social psych., across many research domains (including health risk reduction). The basic idea is that, when a personal holds two inconsistent thoughts – say “I am a generous person” and “I don’t like to donate to charity” – or when she has a thought that isn’t consonant with something she’s done or intends to do (a behavior) – say “I oppose violence” and “I just punched that guy,” – this situation of inconsistency causes dissonance, which is an unpleasant emotional state that makes people uncomfortable. And just as dissonant music makes you go “ouch” and put your hands over your ears, psychological dissonance that is caused by incongruent thoughts and/or behaviors motivates people to change their internal situation (usually their beliefs or attitudes) to bring themselves back to a comfortable feeling of balance.
There are basically two big ways (though lots of tactics) to achieve this:
1. You can change an incongruent thought. (You can’t change a behavior that’s already happened.) So, for example, if you previously believed that dieting was an activity important for you to be doing right now, but you just ate an entire cheesecake, you could decide that dieting is not that important for you, because you’re actually happy with your weight.
2. You can also add other thoughts (rationalizations, justifications, etc.), so that you can still accept the first two thoughts (or thought and behavior), but now they make sense together. So, using the example above, you could tell yourself you’re still committed to dieting, but cheesecake doesn’t break your diet, because it’s dairy and eggs, and that’s nutritious. I mean, protein.
(There are also other ways to reduce dissonance, like telling yourself you had no choice but to engage in a behavior that violated your beliefs or attitudes; I saw this a lot in my HIV behavioral risk reduction work, and I see it now among supposedly pro-mask people who don’t wear masks when they should.) Another way to reduce dissonance that involves behavior is to tell yourself it didn’t happen at all (or not in a way that would implicate the person or their group), and we’ve saw some of that with regard to the January 6 insurrection.
I threw together a lighthearted essay last June on cognitive dissonance that’s posted on this site (Of Insurrections, Spaceships, and the Promise of Zombies – Cognitive Dissonance Theory Redux). But how does it apply to Covid mitigation (and anger directed at those who mitigate risk)? Well…
1. Every time anti-mitigation folks see you buying a Covid test, masking or turning on your air purifier, or hear you promoting vaccines, you call into question the decisions they’ve made not to do those things. That causes dissonance, which is, by definition, unpleasant, so of course they resent you for provoking this sensation. (I was recently in the hospital for several days because my colon is trying to kill me; every single nurse I encountered over that entire period suggested I take off my N95, even though they were themselves wearing surgicals. My guess is that my N95 was a visible reminder that a surgical mask isn’t good enough – and so, that they were lazy, remiss or potentially causing harm to their patients. They could have remedied any negative emotions triggered by my mask by putting on an N95 themselves, but harassing me was the easier option, as it required no further mental gymnastics on their part.)
This is to say, in order to reduce post-decisional dissonance, part of justifying the road taken means denigrating the paths you didn’t take – and by extension, the people who did.
2. By visibly mitigating risk, you are also reminding non-mitigators that the pandemic isn’t over; that health risks remain. One of the justifications many people have told themselves to support their risk behavior (including really high risk behavior, like attending indoor crowd events unmasked) is that the pandemic is over; that the risk is gone. (Biden said so, right?) Getting a different message from you may make them feel very uncomfortable, and they will not be grateful to you for it. They may well want to share this experience of discomfort with you, the person who made them feel unsafe. It’s the virus, not the mask, that is really causing the threat, but in their minds, the source of their discomfort may well get confused. (That’s why people tend to “shoot the messengers” who bring bad news.)
Second, another big issue is Confirmation Bias, which is the tendency to differentially seek out, interpret and remember information (and even to create it, via actions that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies) that backs up our pre-existing beliefs. Due to this bias, we become more and more wedded over time to what we originally thought, despite any new evidence to the contrary. In short, humans have a strong tendency to zero in on information that supports what we already think (and have committed to doing!) while ignoring all that which contradicts our beliefs.
This state of affairs leads to “cherry picking” not only of information, but of the experts and news sources we’re willing to seek out and trust. And that outcome is all the more likely these days, given that we’re swimming in an information ocean. During the pandemic, we’ve seen a glut of experts weighing in, such that everyone can find something and someone who supports their views, regardless of what those views are.
So, when anti-mitigation folks see you in a mask, you are providing information they don’t want and are trying to avoid (see cognitive dissonance above), but you’re also modeling behavior to them that they have truly decided is unnecessary, and so, really dumb. (And it’s possibly also threatening to their own perceived ability to behave in ways they believe appropriate). Due to a variety of self-concept- and group-protective motives, a lot of folks also feel a strong desire to get you on board with their in-group’s “scientifically informed” program, based on whatever they have decided is the One True Word (whether it’s according to Eric Topol or David Leonhardt or Tucker Carlson). They may say the plan is “you do you,” but as is generally the case in human society, most people feel, deep down, that it should be “you do me.”
Interestingly, because people are so predisposed to listen to messages most consonant with what they want to hear, the messengers we view as “trustworthy” can change with the situation. Right now, I’m seeing a whole lot of MAGA folks proclaiming “Biden says the pandemic is over!” Do they trust Biden in general? Of course not. But where inconsistent humans are most consistent is in going towards reward, whoever happens to be dolling it out. (And confirmation of one’s beliefs is very rewarding). My guess is that this is one reason Biden decided to be a “pandemic is over” messenger here. (He also seems to think it will translate into votes, though, and I don’t; pandemic deniers don’t view Biden as a leader, simply as someone who finally admitted the truth long espoused by Fox News)
A third huge issue is Psychological Reactance, which is a negative emotional (and often behavioral) response – generally anger and hostility – to the perception that one’s personal freedoms may be challenged or one may lose control of one’s outcomes. (It’s one reason very young kids are so fond of saying “No!’ – having just recently established a sense of themselves as autonomous beings, they aren’t about to give that up without a fight. And that’s why “reverse psychology” sometimes works to get little kids to eat their dinner.) Even being told why your beliefs are inaccurate or attitudes unreasonable can provoke reactance, which is one reason why debate doesn’t change minds. (See discussion of this sort of backfiring in the intro. section, above.) When people fear they are in danger of losing options or the ability to choose among them freely, or are being strong-armed into changing their beliefs or attitudes, those beliefs, attitudes and options suddenly become much stronger and more appealing, and seem more worth fighting for even if the topic was previously deemed unimportant. (That may be why, as one report found, workers who previously were happy to use N95s to prevent exposures to workplace irritants are now suddenly loathe to do so.)
For some people, rules imposed by the government or other powerful entities inherently trigger strong feelings of reactance (in part because the pundits they listen to encourage this response). The more that people have been told they deserve or should expect freedom and control, the more negatively they will view concepts they see as threats. If the threat to personal freedom has broader implications in unrelated realms (for example, re: future threats to what’s being framed as free movement or bodily autonomy), that will also make reactance worse. (Note: see my twitter thread on mandates for an explanation of why mandates still work, despite reactance.)
When people experience reactance, they often try to engage in behavior that re-establishes control. That’s what all those videos of unmasked, defiant people picking fights in fast food joints and airports were about. People who mitigate risk are also a perfect target for this vitriol, because they generally tend to be much more physically accessible than actual policy makers; it is easier to scream a diatribe out your minivan window at the masked couple taking a peaceful walk in their neighborhood (yes, that happened to us) than it is to sit down and write a letter to your Congressperson. Many pandemic minimizers also seem to view people who mitigate not just as a reminder of why they’re angry, but also as the source of their loss of freedoms, in that both sides of this culture war seem to view the decisions policy leaders make as subject to tremendous influence from constituents. In fact, the major source of influence in this situation is probably primarily large entities that have a much more dramatic grip on the reins (such as lobbies for health care delivery systems, early on, and corporate economic interests like the airline industry, more recently). But individual maskers are, again, more visible, and so, are a perfect target of anger (largely from the right, which has long framed the left as the political force trying to eliminate personal freedoms, despite evidence to the contrary).
Though this is wading into the weeds a bit, I’ll also just mention there are other biases that can turbo-charge reactance. One example is hedonic relevance, which is when people rate someone else’s behavior as “worse” if it affects them directly. (Anti-mitigation folks clearly do perceive the mitigation of others as somehow affecting them, for the reasons stated above). In fact, previous behavior by others that we perceive as causing us harm (such as a person voting against our own interests) may make us prone to viewing their later, unrelated behavior (like risk reduction) as harmful as well, sort of in a “guilt by association” way. Anti-mitigators already perceive the “type” of people who mitigate risk to be pro-regulation Democrats who are trying to control or otherwise harm them. The right has long protested this perceived subjugation, which they view as taking place via Big Government regulations and through perceived threats to their “way of life.” Currently, resisting, rejecting and refusing pandemic mitigation has become a way for those on the right to feel powerful personally, but also for group members to assert the power of their far right groups, whose adherents have, in recent history, felt ignored and dismissed. (See the essay on this site entitled “Not Your Grandmother’s Intervention Population” for a fuller discussion of this issue.) We are truly in a culture war, and reactance is a powerful weapon. (That sort of tribalism goes both ways, btw: ask yourself how often you’ve blamed negative pandemic outcomes solely on the horrible anti-maskers/anti-vaxxers, rather than on the myriad other causes that have little or nothing to do with them.)
Finally, in cases where people personalize the actions of others, inferring that those people mean to have a negative effect on them – for example, thinking that masked people are deliberately trying to make them irate or imply they’re stupid or “contaminated” – reactance will also be greater. (This is known as hostile attribution bias.) Such perceptions fuel reactance (against, say, mask wearing) but also make people angry at the compliant, and so, more likely to lash out.
Personal Risk Estimates and Social Issues:
It goes without saying that people also base what’s reasonable and what they’re willing to do to reduce risk (in the absence of mandates) – as well as how they respond to people doing something different – on many other factors related to personal identity, social (group) identity and practical external factors.
Framing risk in relative terms: People wish to be seen (by themselves and others) as reasonable. Because of this, when folks try to decide on a “rational” response to an environmental threat, they often look at the array of available risk mitigation options and try to pick a percentage of these that is neither an ‘under-response’ or an ‘over-response.’ So, if there are 10 actions you could perform to avoid a certain threat, you might decide that doing only one or two is rather cavalier, but doing all 10 is being pretty anal/OCD, and so you might say ‘well, five sounds fair – I’ll do that!’
Unfortunately, that’s not the way risk actually works; a threat is what it is, and it isn’t going to negotiate with you regarding how much you have to do or what is a “fair” amount of effort. But I saw such attempts all the time in HIV intervention — people would say ‘I do X (a necessary thing) but I don’t need to do Y and Z (also necessary),” or “I often use condoms with partners of unknown serostatus, just not every time.” This sort of “path of moderation” can be very reinforcing, if you happen to avoid negative outcomes. (I recall the case of an alcoholic author who for years promoted a “moderation” approach to drinking by alcoholics – until she finally hit and killed a man and his young child while driving drunk and realized that her approach had not been nearly as reasonable as she’d thought.)
And when others engage in more comprehensive risk reduction, the “moderation” folks (like the current “vax and relax” bunch) are likely to feel threatened and respond hostilely, both because mitigation above and beyond their own reminds them that they could be doing more (and so, aren’t as responsible as they think) and because people who are doing All the Things inherently seem unreasonable, and so, can be perceived as an obstacle to appropriate societal (and economic) functioning.
Unfortunately, US public health leaders have been promoting this framing of risk in relative (vs. absolute) terms throughout the pandemic. Their stated reason is that they believe they’d never get full compliance anyway, and that asking for it would only trigger reactant noncompliance. But when policy makers are also clearly more interested in economic heath than in public health, I suspect that argument is something of a dissonance-reducing rationalization on their part. People in many other societies have willingly done much more to reduce risk than we have here. If US residents had been told clearly why and how to reduce risk, and the government had made various tools more available, we would likely have seen both a larger uptake in risk reduction measures and a more positive attitude toward that mitigation. (Remember that free N95s were ready to mail out to the whole country, when Trump pulled the plug.) Thanks to the illusory truth effect (which holds that statements are more likely to be accepted as true the more often they’re repeated), messaging from people like Rochelle Walensky and Ashish Jha has created and endlessly reinforced the notions that “Mitigation is Hard,” “People Are Too Tired,” “Previous Mitigations Are No Longer Necessary” and “It’s Totally Fine for Everyone if Everyone Does ‘You Do You.’” Those who push back against those messages are both violating group norms and reminding others of unpleasant truths they’ve been already assured they can stop thinking about. It’s no wonder the sight of a masked face promotes resentment.
Group consensus and conformity issues are also at the forefront, here. For example, during the early months of the pandemic, I was amazed at how often very highly educated women I knew, all completely capable of reading the scientific literature on Covid (and in fact, they were reading it) were repeatedly asking a friend group what others in the group were doing with regard to risk reduction. I kept suggesting that they should seek this information from experts rather than from friends, but they weren’t having it. (And they continue to rely on group consensus to this day – for example, just this past week with regard to taking the bivalent booster).
A large part of that habit is based in the desire to appear reasonable to other in-group members – which, in effect, means not deviating from group behavioral norms. The good news is that role models can move the needle on norms — so keep gently promoting consistent mask use, especially among friends who are not anti-mask in principle. The bad news is that violating norms can cause rejection (and expulsion from the group), especially if the norm violator isn’t an established leader with “cred.” And anti-mitigation group norms can cause people to react very hostilely to both in- and out- group members who are mitigating risk – both because being a good group member demands such a display and because folks know that affiliating with people who aren’t behaving in pro-group ways might put their own status in question.
So it’s probably no surprise to anyone, at this point, that the importance of group identification (especially as it currently exists in our politically polarized society) often leads to group think, whereby keeping the peace within one’s own group (via member conformity) becomes much more important than listening to outside information in order to make reasonable decisions. This often results in group polarization, or the tendency of group beliefs, attitudes and behavioral decisions to become more extreme and less reasonable over time. And that movement often is in the direction of risky shift (the tendency for group views and decisions to become more risky over time). As humans, we need our groups – they define us and we’d be lost without them – but they sometimes lead us to engage in harmful activity that we wouldn’t otherwise do, and to denounce those who won’t leap off those cliffs with us.
I’m sorry this was so dry, academic and technical (it’s not my normal essay style; but hey, I’m siiiiiickkkk). But if you’ve read this far, it may be that when you’re later reading the news or interacting with people and just go “What the Actual Fuck?” you’ll now be able to answer your own question. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to say that it probably won’t make you feel better. But it might make hanging out alone with your cat all evening seem like a more and more viable option.
Some books you may enjoy:
Mistake Were Made (But Not By Me) by C. Tavris & E. Aronson
When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, by L. Festinger, H. Riecken, & S. Schachter.
Thinking Fast and Slow by D. Kahneman
The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by S. Sloman & P. Fernbach
Denying To The Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us by S. Gorman & J. Gorman
The Enigma of Reason by H. Mercier