If You See Somebody Not Carrying a Masks, Do You Say One thing?

If You See Someone Not Wearing a Mask, Do You Say Something?

As sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out, people within groups generally try to “persist” and not behave in the way that others see as stigmatizing, “depraved” or bad. Many people are reluctant to put on masks because of implicit peer pressure and concerns about what others might think. In general, people want to be liked and accepted, not rejected or shunned. You want to appear friendly and open, not hostile, paranoid, or fearful. Yet these deep-seated emotional responses are now hurting us in ways that public health professionals and the rest of us need to address more urgently than we do.

However, stigma can work both ways, promoting or blocking behaviors that can be life-saving to public health. Smoking went from a “cool” norm to a widespread frown, despite the fact that it required years of medical research and public health campaigns. Before September 11th, you could briefly leave your suitcase in an airport terminal to go to the bathroom. Now it triggers fear and police interventions, which are also reinforced by incessant public messages: "When you see something, say something."

In the mid-1990s, as a faculty member at the Columbia School of Public Health, I had heated debates over trying to stigmatize people who did not wear condoms. Many AIDS patient advocates have argued that we would then “blame the victim” because people who were infected with H.I.V. would be forced to reveal that they had the virus. But public health experts persevered, arguing that anyone who is sexually active with multiple partners should wear a condom, not just those who were H.I.V. positive. Celebrities like Magic Johnson reinforced the message by publicly announcing their own infections and promoting safe sex practices to increase condom use.

A number of competing psychological factors can play a role in whether people choose to wear masks. For example, research suggests that when few people in a community wear a mask, others are more likely to believe they are at increased risk of infection. As the virus spreads through a community, the norms can change. Now, in my own Manhattan neighborhood, not wearing a mask can be stigmatizing. Everyone seems to attract one. If you don't, then you are looking dirty at people or look carefully at them. I too looked askance at carelessly exposed passers-by.

But elsewhere, the wearing of masks plays the main role. At a Walmart in Pennsylvania, even though signs said the state needed masks in stores, many people were missing them and no one seemed to care. I've seen Manhattan bars that were full of young people in the evenings with no one covering their faces. It seemed "cool" not to care.

Studies have shown that people who have had personal experiences with a particular risk believe it is more likely and they weigh it more heavily in their decisions. In general, young people know fewer people with severe Covid-19 symptoms and are therefore less concerned.

Research also suggests that the more people see others wearing masks, the more likely they are to wear one themselves. When people are exposed to groups covering their faces, they feel less strange about doing the same.


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