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Episode 1: The many faces of face masks
September 16, 2020
As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on, wearing a mask has become a hot-button issue, especially in areas where it's mandatory. For some people, the issue of wearing masks has become politicized to the point that it's a symbol of their identity and political leanings.
While we know that wearing a mask helps slow down the spread of the coronavirus, and some people are wearing them willingly, others are fiercely resistant.
In this episode, we talk with Dr. Cara MacInnis, a social psychologist in our Department of Psychology, about peoples' attitudes towards wearing masks and why it's such a divisive issue.
Mike MacKinnon (MM): Welcome to We Can Answer That, the podcast where we get UCalgary experts and scholars to answer your questions and shed light on topics that matter to you. Each episode, we sit down with professors and researchers, leaders and risk takers, artists and innovators to hear their answers to five questions submitted by you. I'm your host, Mike MacKinnon. Today, we're talking about masks and face coverings. As the COVID-19 pandemic carries on, wearing a mask has become a hot button issue, especially in areas where it's mandatory. For some people, the issue of wearing masks has become politicized to the point that it's a symbol of their identity and political leanings. We know that wearing a mask has shown to help slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Some people are enthusiastically adopting masks, while others are still fiercely resistant. There are regular news stories about altercations and conflicts over masks in public places, and people have gathered to protest in open defiance of mask wearing and physical distancing guidelines. Joining us today is Dr. Cara MacInnis, a social psychologist in our Department of Psychology. Cara studies attitudes and how they affect human interaction. She's here to answer your questions about why wearing a mask is such a divisive issue. Cara, thanks for joining us.
Dr. CM MacInnis (CM): Thanks for having me.
MM: So, we know that wearing a mask helps keep us all safer and slow down the pandemic, so why is it such an emotionally charged issue?
CM: Yeah, I think there's a few reasons for that. I think one of the big ones is just that it involves behaviour change and behaviour change is really hard. We don't generally like doing that. And one of the biggest predictors of being able to change our behaviour is having a positive attitude toward whatever the new behaviour might be. If you think of a behaviour that you've wanted to change in the past, you want to read more, or you want to eat more healthy, or you want to start exercising, things like that, those would be things that you would have a positive attitude toward doing. And even those things that you have that positive attitude toward are really hard. And mask wearing is something that probably none of us had a positive attitude toward in the first place, so that makes it all the more challenging. We're in this situation that I don't think anybody wants to be in. It's unprecedented. It's something that's really unpredictable for us and that's going to create emotions in and of itself. Just the fact that we have to do this new behaviour that we feel like we didn't have a whole lot of control over, that's going to bring up a lot of negative emotions for people across the board. And then the other part of it is, where we're falling on the political spectrum is predicting how we're feeling toward this. Regardless of voting behaviour or regardless of political party membership, everyone falls somewhere on this range from liberal to conservative and this predicts our behaviour, this predicts the way we think. It's associated with all sorts of outcomes, including our attitudes and behaviours toward mask wearing. For example, people who are more liberal, they really prioritize something that's called a moral foundation of harm/care. It means that they really care about not harming other people or really care about protecting other people. And both liberals and conservatives care about that. So, people who are more liberal or more conservative, everybody does, but liberals really prioritize this over other sorts of behaviours. So you might see the people who are more liberal are more willing to take on this behaviour, even though it's the behaviour that, like I said, nobody really is super gung ho to do it, but liberals might be a little bit more willing to do it. But at the same time, they're going to feel frustrated about it and they might feel frustrated that people who are on the more conservative end of the spectrum aren't taking it on as quickly as they did. And then the people on the more conservative end of the spectrum might feel the people who have taken it on more quickly took it on without a fight, maybe they should have questioned more. So, everybody, regardless of where they're falling, is feeling a bit frustrated about it.
MM: So further to that, wearing a mask or not wearing a mask seems to symbolize or indicate how we feel about following direction from authorities. Some people even refuse to wear a mask as an act of defiance. So is it realistic to expect everyone to willingly wear a mask?
CM: Yeah. The authority thing is interesting because I think this is more of an issue where wearing masks is mandatory. When it's mandatory in a store or in a city like ours, if somebody's not wearing it, then yeah, they are showing that I'm a person who does not feel like I have to follow what authority says to do. And it looks like for sure that that person is a person who defies authority and feels like they don't necessarily want to follow authority, but it might not always be that. It might be that they're a person who doesn't view the authority who has made the call that we have to wear masks as legitimate. Maybe in general, they're a person who always follows the rules whatever they may be or follows what the authority says to do, but if they aren't viewing the authority as a legitimate authority, then they might not do that. And that goes back to the whole liberal, conservative political spectrum thing because typically it would be people on the more conservative end of the spectrum who would be very much wanting to follow authority and follow the rules and not break norms and that sort of thing, and liberals would be more likely to be willing to go against the grain. But we're not necessarily seeing that here with the mask wearing. We're seeing that it's more people on the conservative end of the political spectrum that aren't doing that, and I think it comes down to the perceived legitimacy of the authorities because people are not necessarily buying the science behind wearing masks, at least some people aren't. And then the second part of your question about can we expect everyone to be willing to wear a mask? I don't think we really can because there are individual differences in not only the political spectrum, but in things like need for control, things like need for structure is something else, need for closure I want to say, which is associated with need for control. That's just needing things to be predictable and needing things to be the same as they usually are. People vary in the degree to which they're okay with a big change, and it is a big change even though it's been going on for a few months, so people who are less okay with change are going to be less able to take on these behaviours. And then there's also going to be individual differences in things like disgust sensitivity and that's the degree to which people feel disgusted by just things in their environment, and masks can induce a disgust response for people because they're usually associated with disease. Typically, it was when we see a person wearing a mask, it's because they might have something that might be infectious to us, which is not really what it means in the situation that we're in now, but if that's going to bring up those feelings for people, then they're going to be less willing to wear a mask or less willing to be in an environment where they're going to be around people wearing masks. So, because of all these individual differences, people are going to vary a lot in their willingness to wear a mask. I think we can work through them and we can expect people to get past those, but it's not going to be easy.
MM: We're talking a lot about behavioural changes. How are we influenced on this issue by social media, or by what we're seeing in other countries in the news, or even by what people in our own social circles are doing?
CM: Yeah, I think we're influenced a lot in general for our behaviours in general by other people, especially people in our close social network, but people on social media too and just people in whatever environment we happen to be in at the time. This comes down to social norms. We're always looking to other people to see how we should behave in a specific situation. Sometimes we don't know what the right behaviour is in a situation. If you're in a place where it masks are not mandatory, you're going into a store, you don't know if they want you to wear one or not, so you look to what other people are doing. If other people are wearing masks, then you're more likely to in that situation. Similarly, if you're really dedicated to wearing a mask, but you go into a situation where nobody is, although you might want to, you might be feeling a bit of discomfort being like, I don't want to be the only one wearing the mask in that situation. Conformity is really common. As much as we don't like to admit it, we tend to do what we see other people around us doing, regardless of those personal things that we're coming to the table with. In other countries, I think they are influencing our behaviour too, especially observing countries that are a bit ahead of us in when COVID first showed up there. I think it depends on the degree to which people are engaged with news media, the extent to which people might know people in that country and have personal connections to them because I think the more removed we are from these countries, the more easy it is to dismiss if it's like, well, they did this really strict thing and it works, but they're really different from us so it might not work for us or things like that. I think having more of a connection is going to lead to more influence in that particular case, but more so the people that we are directly interacting with, whether in person or online, those are going to be the people who are influencing us.
MM: And what can we learn from this pandemic about how people behave in times of crisis or what are we learning?
CM: I think it's becoming more apparent to everybody, it's been apparent to me for a long time because this is what I study, but behaviour change is hard. It's really hard. I'm like, see, it's not as easy as it looks. And a lot of people have become really frustrated with it and saying, people, we have a chance here to stop this thing. And it looks like on paper that the things that we have to do are very simple and just a blip in our routine, but they're not. Even those tiny, simple things are really hard to get people to do and especially get people to do on a collective level. I think, in general, people are a bit surprised by that. People will say things like, humans are stupid or whatever, and that's not what it is. It's just that we're creatures of habit and it's hard to break those habits, especially when we're in a situation where we feel like we've had very little control over this situation.
MM: Last question. How would you persuade someone who's resistant about the value of wearing a mask?
CM: Yeah. There's a fair bit of research into persuasion specifically and attitude and behaviour change, which go hand in hand and there's various strategies that can work for people across the board, but I think this particular situation is one where we have to look at factors that influence the degree to which these strategies are going to be effective. And here, I think one of the big things we need to look at is where people are falling on the political spectrum. There's been research in, for example, trying to get people to engage in pro-environmental behaviours where behaviour change and attitude change can happen for both liberals and conservatives, but it's that the messages need to be different and need to be tailored to their specific beliefs and ideologies. For example, when trying to get people to engage in pro-environmental behaviours, the liberal argument is things like care for the next generation and that sort of thing and that's very convincing for them. But the more conservative argument is if we engage in these pro-environmental behaviours, then it's going to save money and it's going to help the economy. And if you can show people data on that, then they're willing to engage in those behaviours that it looks like ideologically they would not. So, we need to have personalized arguments and we need to pick and choose because we can't do an individually tailored argument for every person. It would be great if we could, but that's not feasible. But the one big thing that I would pick out would be the political spectrum thing. If we can tailor arguments that will fit with people falling on the more liberal end, if we can tailor arguments that will fit for people falling on the more conservative end and target those, maybe a way to do that is through media in some way or another, that might work just based on previous research in other areas.
MM: Cara, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to us. That was really informative.
MM: Yeah. This has been We Can Answer That. We've been talking to Dr. Cara MacInnis, a social psychologist, about the divisive issue of wearing masks in public. You can subscribe to We Can Answer That on Apple, Google, or Spotify, or by visiting ucalgary.ca/podcasts. Follow our social channels to see who will take the seat in our next episode and to send us questions you'd like our experts to answer. We Can Answer That is a production of the University of Calgary. Thanks for listening.