Frustrated by the Lack of Masks and Social Distancing?

You have the power to change your community norms. You can shape public health.

Posted Aug 13, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

We are now in the sixth month of the COVID-19 pandemic and no one knows when life will go back to “normal.” When will kids go back to school safely? When can we hug our friends again? When can we host a big family party?

From a psychological standpoint, when a situation is uncontrollable and uncertain, it causes us a lot of stress. We try hard to find things that we can control. Back in March, it may have meant washing and cleaning all of our groceries. Maybe we scheduled endless Zoom calls with friends.

And as the months have gone by, it is clear that one major public health intervention is actually under our personal control. We can wear face coverings (masks) and we can social distance from people who do not live in our household. We can urge people in our community to wear masks. We can encourage our kids to wear masks and social distance.

And yet, there has been an absence of a coordinated public health campaign that provides consistent, evidence-based messaging to the country. Now is the time for public service announcements that show us how to wear masks and keep distance correctly. But until we see that national campaign, it up to us. So how can we—as individuals—influence the norms in our family and community?

The Health Beliefs Model is very useful when exploring why people do (or don't) engage in various preventive health behaviors (vaccines, cancer screenings, etc). One aspect of the model focuses on cues to action, which can be things that trigger us to take steps to protect our health—like advice from someone we trust and observing others in our community.  

We can apply the Health Beliefs model to mask-wearing and social distancing in some effective, personal ways. These are things you can do, starting today:

 Sarah Pflug/Burst, used with permission
Post pictures of yourself wearing a mask in public.
Source: Sarah Pflug/Burst, used with permission

1. Post pictures of you and your family wearing masks in public. Other people will start to think of masks as normal, acceptable, and even a way to show care and respect to those around you. I especially love the pictures of school-age kids in masks. It makes all parents want to tell their kids to “mask up” because other kids are doing it successfully.

2. Avoid posting “normal” pictures. Yes, it sounds harsh, but we urgently need to create new norms. If you take pictures with people outside of your household without masks on (and you are not social distancing in the images), don’t post those pictures on social media. It does not matter if you have a great explanation about why the situation was safe. Perhaps you’ve all been tested for COVID and quarantined for two weeks prior to your extended family vacation. Perhaps you just took a “quick picture” with your masks off. Even though you are well-intentioned, these kinds of photos just reinforce the notion that no one else is wearing masks and social distancing. People are more likely to give up on their own prevention efforts if they feel they are alone in their sacrifices. If you must post these kinds of pictures, please include a description of all the precautions you took before that photo. But better yet, just email or text those pictures to the people who were there.

3. When you see groups of kids, crowds at an event, and business enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing, offer public praise on social media or other community forums. We change norms a lot faster by pointing out what people are doing well. It’s likely that other businesses or even organizers will take notice and adopt those practices. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association noted that almost 80% of US adults found prevention measures like wearing masks and social distancing to be reassuring in these stressful times. When you are promoting safer practices, it helps to know that you are in the majority.

 Samantha Hurley/Burst, used with permission
You have the power to change norms.
Source: Samantha Hurley/Burst, used with permission

We are at an uncertain time, and it’s hard to feel in control. But there are simple things we can do to shape community norms and get people to act in healthier ways. If we see people close to us doing things to protect public health, we are more likely to follow along. Social norms sometimes get us to do the right thing, to protect ourselves and others. Decades of behavioral and public health research suggests that people influence each other’s health behavior—it’s a cluster effect. For example, if you have too many cocktails in front of a table full of responsible friends—hopefully, you call an Uber instead of driving home. If we know that most of our friends are getting a yearly mammogram, going for their dental check-up, and getting their kids vaccinated, it nudges us in the right direction. Mask wearing and social distancing are no different. Do whatever you can to promote the narrative that social distancing and wearing masks are important. And in a time that feels so unpredictable, remember that together, we do have some control over our community’s health.