YANSS 185 – Why the reason some people refuse to wear masks during a pandemic has little to do with the masks themselves

In this episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, we sit down with four experts on human behavior to try and understand how wearing masks, during the COVID-19 pandemic, became politicized.

In the show, we take a take a deep dive into tribal psychology, which, in essence, says that humans are motivated reasoners who alter their thinking, feeling, and behaving when thinking, feeling, and behaving in certain ways might upset their peers.

At times, since belonging goals are so vital to our survival, we value signaling that we are good members of our tribes much more than we value being correct, and in those circumstances we will choose to be wrong — if signaling we believe wrong things seems like it will keep us in good standing with our peers.

This is not entirely irrational. A human alone in this world faces a lot of difficulty, but being alone in the world before modern times was almost certainly a death sentence. So, we carry with us an innate drive to form groups, join groups, remain in those groups, and oppose other groups. To do that effectively, we must signal who is US and who is THEM.

We’ve covered that before on the show with two episodes on tribal psychology:

How does all this apply to masks? Well, as you will hear, we sometimes act as if we disagree on certain fact-based issues, and we produce reasons for why we disagree, but it is just an act, and the reasons are justification and rationalizations produced for public consumption. In other words, it’s performative, but it doesn’t feel performative.

With masks, like many modern wedge issues, we only disagree because the issue has become political, which means feeling one way or the other carries social rewards and social costs. Masks have unfortunately entered that domain, moving out of the realm of facts and scientific evidence and into the realm of tribal signaling. They have become an overt symbol of who you trust, and so wearing one or not has become a badge of loyalty or a symbol of shame, depending on who you consider US and who you consider THEM.

Dr. Shana Gadarian

Dr. Shana Gadarian is a political psychologist and professor of political science at Syracuse University. In 2015, she co-authored a book titled Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. Her research focuses on how citizens learn and form attitudes when politics is threatening, whether threats come from terrorism, public health outbreaks, or media and elite rhetoric.

TWITTER: @sgadarian

Dr. Liliana Mason

Dr. Lilliana Mason is a professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland where she researches partisan identity, partisan bias, social sorting, and American social polarization. She is the author of Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and National Public Radio.

TWITTER: @lilymasonphd

Dr. Dan Kahan

Dr. Dan Kahan is a professor of law and psychology at Yale Law School were he studies risk perception, criminal law, science communication, and the application of decision science to law and policymaking. Today he is a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, an team of scholars “who use empirical methods to examine the impact of group values on perceptions of risk and related facts.”

TWITTER: cult_cognition

Dr. Joe Hanson

Dr. Joe Hanson, is a science writer, biologist, and YouTube educator. He is the creator and host of It’s Okay To Be Smart, an award-winning science education show from PBS Digital Studios that celebrates curiosity and the pleasure of finding things out. His science writing has been published by WIRED, Nautilus, Scientific American and Texas Monthly.

TWITTER: @DrJoeHanson

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This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with The Psychology of Human Behavior taught by David W. Martin. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world and what motivates us to think, feel, and behave differently from one another. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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Previous Episodes

Tribal Psychology

Uncivil Agreement

Shana Gadaraian

Lilliana Mason

Dan Kahan

Joe Hanson

The Minimal Group Paradigm

Cultural Cognition Project

Behavioral economist Peter Atwater discusses tribal moods

Kahan paper on politically motivated reasoning

Political Polarization in the American Public

Related Papers:

Music: Mogwai and Caravan Palace