We can change COVID-19 social norms. Here’s how to get started


It’s no surprise to me that a large number of Americans choose not to wear face masks in public or to practice social distancing on beaches, churches, and social gatherings.

Irritating beyond belief, yes. Surprising, no.

We Americans don’t like to do what we’re told. Even though it can kill us or threaten the lives of those around us. New Hampshire, for example, still does not have a mandatory seat belt law for adults. And only 26 states have laws prohibiting smoking in public places.

As Stanford psychologist Hazel Markus says, we are in love with the idea that we are the captains of our own ship. We cherish the freedom of choice and really, really don’t like it when we perceive that someone is taking one of our freedoms away from us. This is how we started as a nation, and 244 years later, nothing has really changed.

The benefits of this cultural approach are well established. But when it comes to public health issues, it can be irresponsible. And deadly. Five states – Arizona, California, Florida, Mississippi and Texas – have broken records for average daily deaths from COVID-19 in the past week. In total, the United States has now recorded 3.3 million cases of COVID-19 and more than 135,000 deaths, far surpassing that of any other country.

In at least some parts of the country, we have been successful in changing our ways in the past for the public good. Think about seat belt laws, motorcycle helmet requirements, and smoking bans in public places.

But these have taken decades to adopt and implement. We need to change our habits immediately if we are to slow down and eventually stop the virus. Is it possible ? And if yes, how ?

I explored this question with Markus, an expert in social psychology whose research focuses on how cultures shape thinking, feeling, and acting.

The reprimand does not work. Or harass. As every parent knows, these often lead to even worse behavior.

The most effective and fastest way to collective change, she said, is a strong, cohesive message starting at the top.

Think how different things could be if, as comedian John Oliver suggested, President Trump had from the start of the epidemic donned a “Make America Great Mask” and encouraged every American to wear a mask.

Imagine the impact if, as Representative Ro Khanna, D-San Jose proposed on Sunday, we had a bipartisan message from Washington asking Americans to come together and wear face masks for the good of the country. “If you care about getting our kids back to school, if you care about businesses reopening quickly, if you want the market to keep going up, if you want our GDP to rebound, wear a mask,” he said. he declared. “It’s that simple.”

“Instead,” says Markus, “what we have is complete messaging, starting at the top.”

The second best alternative is a grassroots movement urging people to change their behavior for the good of their community.

“Americans are individualists, but they also like to contribute and be a part of things,” says Markus. “The most important thing behavior scientists know is that people will do things because others around them are doing it.”

That’s why it’s so important for people to model by wearing face masks and respecting social distancing. Not only do they protect those around them and, to some extent, themselves, but they also put additional pressure on others to do the same. People of all ages and backgrounds are sensitive to the subtle social pressures of perceived norms. They influence the decisions we make, sometimes without people realizing their impact.

I am a strong believer in the Law of Accumulation, which says that all of life’s great achievements are due to hundreds and sometimes thousands of efforts and sacrifices that often go unnoticed. Each of us has a role to play in changing our norms of behavior for the benefit of our children, health and the economy.

There is work to be done. At work. Put on your mask and make a difference.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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