Seek First to Understand: Mask Resistance

Improving mask wearing is better achieved by communication than coercion.

Posted Jul 30, 2020

How do you change someone’s mind? Answers to this timeless question date back to philosophers such as Socrates, who famously employed skillful questioning to help others separate truth from false assumptions and illogical thinking.

More recently, researchers such as Dr. Robert Cialdini spent decades studying the science of influence; his research identified the core principles of persuasion and his books discuss their many beneficial applications in areas such as families, businesses, and interpersonal relationships.

Although examples of Socratic questioning are found freely in many places on the internet, and Dr. Cialdini’s principles are cheaply available in his best-selling books, there appear to be few readers these days. What other conclusions can be drawn from observing the widespread, counterproductive methods used to encourage collective mask wearing during the pandemic? If you studied media and individual strategies for persuading mask wearing in the summer of 2020, you’d find the following strategies dominate:

  • Use of statistics and the citing of experts and scientific evidence
  • Character questioning, such as accusing non-mask wearers of low intelligence, low morals, or radical political ideologies
  • Guilt trips and public shaming
  • Anger and threats
  • Physical force, such as fines, laws, and police enforcement

Be honest: When was the last time someone changed your mind about something important to you with one of the above methods? The above methods may change outward behavior temporarily — while the lecturer, accuser, moralist, or enforcer are nearby — yet decades of behavioral research show that they rarely change underlying attitudes that are the key to lasting behavioral changes.

Seek First to Understand is the 5th Habit from Stephen Covey’s classic, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. As the name implies, the 5th habit is a method for improving interpersonal communication and influence by understanding the perspective of the other person. If you do not understand your children, whatever influence you have on them will likely be negative. If you do not understand your customers, your business will likely fail. And if you do not understand your fellow citizens, you will likely spend much of your time in conflict with them.

What does it mean to understand another person? Practically, if you cannot articulate another person’s perspective to them in a way that they agree with your summary of their position, then you do not understand them. Lacking this understanding, your ability to influence others is limited to the fleeting, brute force methods listed above.

The challenge for all of us is that understanding the perspective of another person requires effort. We must temporarily suspend our own ideas, for example, be curious and really listen. The accuracy of our opinions feels undeniable. Our personal sense of right and wrong arrives instantly and resonates strongly with our life experiences. The result is that we are usually too convinced by our own views to bother exerting the effort to understand someone who doesn’t agree. However, this is our shortcoming, not theirs, and we all suffer from the discord and societal friction this pattern collectively produces. The remedy, fortunately, is readily available.

What happens when you really listen to people who resist wearing masks? As a psychologist who has spoken with hundreds of patients about their pandemic views and experiences this year, I’ve kept mental track of what seemed to be their soundest arguments. Perhaps surprisingly to some, what I have observed in this admittedly non-scientific exercise is that few mask naysayers are ignorant, evil, or anarchists. Some had financial or personal stakes motivating their position. Most, however, had plausible perspectives to consider even if I didn’t find them wholly convincing. Here is the shortlist:

Social hypocrisy. One of the most common justifications I heard for resisting mask wearing was the divide between what types of social gatherings are deemed unhealthy. For example, throngs of people gathered closely together for hours at beaches or churches is routinely condemned, whereas throngs of people gathering closely together for hours at protests is rarely criticized. Presuming that microorganisms are not aligned with social causes, this form of hypocrisy is hard to deny to those believing mask wearing policies are a political ploy.

Disease hypocrisy. Another common rationale expressed was the inconsistency between contagious and deadly respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 and contagious and deadly respiratory illnesses such as the flu. The mortality statistics from COVID-19 exceed those of a typical flu year by a large margin; yet tens of thousands of Americans (including many children) die each year from the flu. Their lives, presumably, could also have been saved by mask wearing policies. Yet these steps were never proposed. For some, this is also a compelling reason to see mask wearing as motivated by a tense election year instead of health concerns.

Collective good argument. A third defense against mask wearing were arguments against the collective good rationale. Mask wearing is recommended not only for our personal protection but also for those around us. It is, therefore, a guideline promoting the collective good of society even though this places some modest restrictions on individual freedoms. Some people, however, cry foul with the collective good perspective. They ask, for example, if the collective good is important enough to restrict freedom over mask wearing , why are people free to smoke and drink alcohol despite their large adverse effects on the collective health of society through second-hand smoke, pollution, and car accidents?

Personal experience. The final line of reasoning I observed was often combined with one or more of the above: mask wearing seemed unnecessary to many in part because they didn’t personally know anyone who’d been affected by the pandemic. The frail logic of using personal experience as a standard for truth is readily apparent when it comes to other people. It is the equivalent of conducting a study with a single participant. Yet when it comes to ourselves, personal experience is highly persuasive. Imagine a weather forecaster talking about the terrible weather outside when all you see out the window are sunny skies. Which would you believe? That is precisely what many have experienced this year; hearing frightening pandemic information from their televisions without seeing or experiencing any of these events firsthand.

Would knowing the reasoning behind a person’s mask wearing defiance enhance your opportunity to influence them? Would it change the way you to talk to them, compared to seeing them as an immoral or selfish person? I hope your answers are yes. It is a counterintuitive truth that the best way to change others is to change ourselves. And whether it is police reform, marijuana use, or health habits, the results would probably be the same as for mask wearing. People have their own collection of attitudes, experiences, and feelings supporting their choices. They find their thoughts and feelings just as convincing as we find our own. Until we’re willing to engage in dialogue based on respect and curiosity, we’ll remain unable to discuss sensitive topics or be a force of positive change in the lives of others. In current times, we are in desperate need of these qualities.