That's the gist of a study out of the University of Texas - Austin this week, called, "Prosocial Modeling: A Meta-analytic Review and Synthesis," by Haesung Jung, Eunjin Seo, Eunjoo Han, Marlone Henderson, and Erika Patall. If behavior is characterized as helpful to others -- such as wearing a mask during a pandemic -- it triggers similar prosocial behavior in those who witness it.
[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Wereskowa, Wearing FFP mask during the COVID-19 pandemic in Khmelnytskyi, April 2020, CC BY-SA 4.0]
It's unsurprising, given that we're social primates, that we're influenced by the behavior of those around us. Not only do we learn by imitation, there's the tendency -- often nicknamed "peer pressure" -- to pick up behaviors, good or bad, from our friends and acquaintances, usually for reasons of group acceptance and fitting in. I vividly remember being a graduate student at the University of Washington, where my classmates were some of the most foul-mouthed, snarky, hard-drinking folks I've ever been around. They weren't bad people, mind you; but it definitely was the intellectual version of a "rough crowd." It took very little time for me to adopt those behaviors myself. We tend to conform to the norm for the group we belong to.
(Yes, I know, I still swear a lot. I swore even more then, hard though that may be to imagine. Like I said -- rough crowd.)
So the results of the Jung et al. study make sense. Get the ball rolling, she suggests, and the influence we have over the people we associate with can cause an increase in the overall prosocial behavior of the group.
The example the paper focuses on -- the wearing of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic -- isn't as simple as that. This isn't simply a case of enlightened people who understand risks wearing masks and waking up the uninformed, or at least encouraging them to behave in a socially responsible manner. Simultaneously we have a group of people who are consciously and deliberately using the same tribal tendencies to stop people from wearing masks. From the very beginning of the pandemic, we have had Fox News bombarding their listeners with the following messages:
- COVID is a hoax.
- Even if it's not a hoax, it's China's fault.
- It's really just seasonal flu, so it's nothing to worry about.
- Okay, it's worse than the flu, but the numbers being reported, especially from blue states, are wild exaggerations made to disparage the Trump administration.
- Which, by the way, has been doing an absolutely stellar job of managing the pandemic.
- Wearing masks is giving in to the Democrats' alarmist propaganda.
- All this is just the "deep state" trying to get you to give up your liberties, so it's nobler and braver to defy them and not wear a mask.
Just this morning I saw a post on social media of the "Meh, why worry?" variety, to the effect that Woodstock happened right in the middle of the Hong Kong flu epidemic, and that didn't stop people from partying.
Which may well be true, but doesn't make it smart.
So we've got a "news" outlet deliberately downplaying the danger, and worse, making it look like a conspiracy to bring down Dear Leader. The result is that wearing masks isn't seen as prosocial, at least amongst Fox viewers; it's seen as falling for the lies of the Democrats, and thus betraying Donald Trump and everything the GOP stands for.
This kind of thinking is remarkably hard to counteract, because the Fox mouthpieces -- people like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham -- started out by training their listeners to disbelieve the facts. The administration quickly picked up on this strategy, starting with Kellyanne Conway's infamous "alternative facts" comment, and it has proven wildly successful, if you can characterize getting a significant slice of the American public to trust nothing but the party line as "success."
As I've pointed out before, once you get people to mistrust the hard evidence itself, you can convince them of anything.
So the problem with mask-wearing in the United States is that it isn't universally being seen as a compassionate protective measure, it's seen as being a dupe. Besides the "how others are seeing our actions" factor that Jung et al. focused on, there's "how we see ourselves" -- and if we've been trained that a behavior is going to make us look like a gullible sucker, that's going to counteract the positive forces of prosocial modeling. (Especially if the training has included a message that the risk the behavior is supposed to protect us from doesn't exist in the first place.)
Yes, we're motivated to be compassionate and protect the people around us. But the ugly side of tribalism is equally powerful, and we now have a group of people in charge who are callously choosing their tactics to exploit those tendencies, with the end of gaining power and money.
Until we can stop the disinformation and propaganda, the kind of prosocial modeling Jung et al. describe is unlikely to have much effect.
This week's Skeptophilia book of the week is six years old, but more important today than it was when it was written; Richard Alley's The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future. Alley tackles the subject of proxy records -- indirect ways we can understand things we weren't around to see, such as the climate thousands of years ago.
The one he focuses on is the characteristics of glacial ice, deposited as snow one winter at a time, leaving behind layers much like the rings in tree trunks. The chemistry of the ice gives us a clear picture of the global average temperature; the presence (or absence) of contaminants like pollen, windblown dust, volcanic ash, and so on tell us what else might have contributed to the climate at the time. From that, we can develop a remarkably consistent picture of what the Earth was like, year by year, for the past ten thousand years.
What it tells us as well, though, is a little terrifying; that the climate is not immune to sudden changes. In recent memory things have been relatively benevolent, at least on a planet-wide view, but that hasn't always been the case. And the effect of our frantic burning of fossil fuels is leading us toward a climate precipice that there may be no way to turn back from.
The Two-Mile Time Machine should be mandatory reading for the people who are setting our climate policy -- but because that's probably a forlorn hope, it should be mandatory reading for voters. Because the long-term habitability of the planet is what is at stake here, and we cannot afford to make a mistake.
As Richard Branson put it, "There is no Planet B."
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]