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How to Handle the Face Mask/Vaccine Challenge

Why people's social networks are the key to defeating COVID-19.

For nearly a century, scientists have believed that behaviors and beliefs spread just like viruses do. If we disseminate accurate information, they reasoned, people will interpret it “correctly” and change their behaviors accordingly. But this assumption has left us with many vexing puzzles. Why have countless studies found that sexual harassment trainings don’t really affect bad behavior in the workplace? Why does new health data about “good” or “bad” cholesterol not change people’s dietary choices? And why does information about the dangers of the novel coronavirus have little impact on whether or not people wear masks?

The easiest way of understanding how social networks affect our behavior is by visualizing the connections between people. Most of us imagine a “pipe,” a direct line that transmits diseases or information. But network science shows that connections between people are more like “prisms” that refract information—determining what we believe and how we respond.

The way to change people’s behavior is to focus on networks, not information. But, as I show in my new book, Change: How to Make Big Things Happen, the reason that developing effective policies for everything from COVID-19 vaccination to sustainable energy has been such a problem in the U.S. is because the strategies that succeed at spreading information are the exact opposite from strategies that succeed at changing the way people behave.

To spread information, a successful approach is to broadcast your message widely and expose as many people as you can to the new idea. This strategy can backfire when it comes to interpreting that information. As we saw with Republicans’ initial reactions to the data on Arctic sea ice, without attending to people’s social networks, certain norms in those networks can lead people to interpret data incorrectly—even when they have access to accurate information.

So how do we get people to wear masks? By engaging people’s social networks. Social media companies are trying to figure out how to implement different networking tools into our lives. New social media start-ups are developing applications that connect people with peers who can help to inform behavior. In the case of health, sometimes the most influential peers are not family and friends, but the people who share the same health conditions as each other.

When people can find each other and interact with others who share the same concerns, the compounding effects of these social network interactions is to create a “critical mass” of support for a new idea within a community that can “tip” the social norm. While this approach can be a slow way to spread new information, it is a highly effective way to change people’s beliefs, particularly in a polarized world.

Network strategies for behavior change are even more essential for the COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy is deeply entrenched within people’s social networks, even more so than a relatively new concept like wearing masks. Hopefully, as we move into the next phase of treating COVID-19, we’ll learn from the policy mistakes of the past. We might not be able to get everyone to wear a mask, but with the right strategy, we can increase vaccinations. The well-being, indeed the survival, of the next generation depends upon social network strategies.

More from Damon Centola, Ph.D.
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More from Damon Centola, Ph.D.
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