ProPublica has an article that discusses why people engage in risky behaviors during the pandemic. In times of uncertainty, people tend to take their cues from social norms, from what other people around them and whom they know are doing.
When Las Vegas reopened, crowds showed up without masks. An estimated 365,000 people attended the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. Many didn’t wear helmets or masks. The festivities included a non-socially distanced concert by Smashmouth. And even though masks were distributed and required at a recent Trump campaign rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, some attendees did not wear them, and the campaign packed people into crowded buses.
It may not always seem like it, but people are rational and weigh the costs and benefits when they make decisions, said Eve Wittenberg, a decision scientist at the Center for Health Decision Science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “People are not stupid here,” she said. But they have no experience thinking through a pandemic and are also getting mixed and conflicted messages from leaders, she said. That creates uncertainty and can lead people to rely on patterns of risk perception that may not be accurate.
A well-known historical example of people being directed by social norms is smoking, Robinson said. For decades the societal norm said smoking was cool, even after it was known to kill people. That contributed to a lot of people smoking, willing to take the risk. Then the norm flipped and smoking became uncool, and fewer people smoked. “We take a lot of cues from our environment,” Robinson said. “If I see a lot of people wearing a mask, I wear a mask.”
Wittenberg pointed to the work of Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who coined the term “availability” to describe how we base our thinking on what we’ve seen or experienced. We see it show up when a person assesses his or her risk of a heart attack by recalling instances among acquaintances, the two researchers wrote in their 1974 paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty.”
The solution to this is for authoritative figures and institutions to present clear and consistent messages to combat the uncertainty. It is here that the US leadership completely failed, choosing instead to exude a false optimism, deny the scale of the pandemic, and even shutting down those who warned of the dangers of inaction. This has led to a state of uncertainty and enabled people to take their cues from what the people around them say and do, leaving them highly susceptible to those with dubious agendas to spread misleading information.
When public health officials did sound an early alarm, their voices were squelched. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, one of the senior leaders at the CDC, warned on Feb. 25 that there would be community spread of the virus, and that protective measures might include school closures and working from home. As ProPublica previously reported, her comments caused the stock market to drop, which infuriated Trump. Vice President Mike Pence was installed as communicator-in-chief, and the CDC officials were sidelined. “When it mattered most, they shut us up,” a senior CDC official told ProPublica.
Even now, the administration has not advanced a clear message. One hopes that that will change with the new Biden administration, where the scientists and the political leaders speak with one voice. Biden saying that he will call for a 100-day period of wearing masks is a good first step. But unfortunately, January 20 seems like an eternity away, especially since the intervening time is expected to see a rapid growth of cases.