You Want to Get a Haircut? I Want to Not Die of COVID-19

Some people are protesting stay-at-home orders. The consequences may be deadly.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

In the United States, some Americans are taking to the streets in several states to protest the COVID-19 “lockdowns” or stay-at-home rules issued by their governors. They view lockdowns and stay-at-home rules as infringements on their personal liberty.

They carry signs such as “Don’t Tread On Me,” “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” “Live Free or Die,” “Open Our Bars.” At the Michigan protest, people chanted "Open up Michigan!" and "Lock her up" (speaking of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer). Some protestors complained about wanting to get haircuts.[1] At least a dozen barbers turned up to cut hair at a protest at the Michigan Capitol.[2] US President Donald Trump encouraged these protests by tweeting: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA."

Although the protests appear to be grassroots activism, many are actually astroturfing activism. (Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization to make it appear as though it is a grassroots protest.) For example, the "Operation Gridlock" protest in Michigan was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is a conservative group linked to US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.[3] As another example, the “You Can’t Close America” protest in Texas was organized by Owen Shroyer, the host of a show on the conservative website Infowars, founded by Alex Jones. Jones has claimed that COVID-19 is a “bio-weapons attack” from China and a “hoax.”[4]

One psychological theory sheds light on what motivates such protests — reactance theory. Reactance theory was first proposed by social psychologist Jack Brehm.[5][6] It has much in common with the non-scientific lay theory reverse psychology. Reactance theory proposes that people desire to have freedom of choice and therefore have a negative, unpleasant, aversive reaction to having their freedoms restricted by other people or by external forces. The term reactance refers specifically to the negative feelings people experience when their freedom is reduced or eliminated. For example, if the governor of your state establishes a stay-at-home rule, people might experience reactance. 

Reactance produces three main consequences.[5] First, reactance makes people want the forbidden option more and/or makes it seem more attractive. Second, reactance may make people take steps to try to reclaim the lost option, often described as “reasserting your freedom.” Third, reactance may make people feel or act aggressively toward the person who has restricted their freedom.

It is important to recognize that the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are not just there to protect individuals, but the public collectively. If someone chooses not to practice responsible social distancing, they are also forcing that choice on others. There is no way to prioritize personal “freedoms” like being able to get a haircut without causing a ripple effect that impacts others, including health care workers. People who are willing to reopen the economy are putting others at risk by doing so.

The protests might be partisan, but COVID-19 and its consequences are not.[7] Based on different models, experts predict that if people abandon social distancing measures (including adhering to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders), hundreds of thousands of Americans could die.[8] In addition, a new poll shows that most Americans fear states will reopen too soon.[9] Although peaceful protests are allowed in the US, these protests may be putting everyone at risk, including health care workers. As Don Lemon from CNN said, "You're slapping the face of the people — the health care workers who put their lives on the line every day because you want a haircut!"[1]

Author Note: I would like to thank Becca Bushman and Nathan Bushman for their feedback on this post.

References

[1] Wolfsohn, J. (April 21, 2020). CNN's Don Lemon rips stay-at-home protesters for 'complaining that they don't have haircuts.’ Fox News. Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/media/cnn-don-lemon-stay-at-home-protestors-haircuts

[2] Censky, A (May 20, 2020). Barbers cut hair on the Michigan Capitol lawn to protest anti-coronavirus shutdown. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/20/859921600/barbers-cut-hair-on-the-michigan-capitol-lawn-to-protest-anti-coronavirus-shutdo?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=nprblogscoronavirusliveupdates

[3] Fernandez, M. (April 18, 2020). Conservatives fuel protests against coronavirus lockdowns. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/texas-protests-stay-at-home.html

[4] Smith, A. (April 15, 2020). Lock her up!': Anti-Whitmer coronavirus lockdown protestors swarm Michigan Capitol. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/politics-news/lock-her-anti-whitmer-coronavirus-lockdown-protestors-swarm-michigan-capitol-n118442

[5] Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

[6] Brehm, J. W. (1972). Responses to loss of freedom: A theory of psychological reactance. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

[7] Bushman, B. J. (2020). You can’t kill a virus by finger-pointing. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/get-psyched/202004/you-cant-kill-virus-finger-pointing

[8] Whyte, L. E. (April 21, 2020). What happens if U.S. reopens too fast? Documents show federal coronavirus projections. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/04/21/839456638/what-happens-if-u-s-reopens-too-fast-federal-documents-show-coronavirus-projecti

[9] Lucey, C. (April 19, 2020). More Americans Fear Lifting Coronavirus Restrictions Too Soon, WSJ/NBC Poll Says. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/more-americans-fear-lifting-coronavirus-restrictions-too-soon-wsj-nbc-poll-says-11587301203