Why anti-maskers ignore risks even after Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis

  • President Donald Trump, who has long mocked others for wearing masks, was diagnosed with coronavirus. 
  • Following his diagnosis, family members and White House staff that previously flouted mask wearing recommendations since appear to have reconsidered, and are now wearing masks in public. 
  • That may not be enough to persuade some staunch anti-maskers to change their minds, since evidence of the risks is “irrelevant” to their ideological concerns, according to psychologists.
  • But for those who oppose masks as part of a partisan identity, seeing influential people like the Trump family wearing masks may be enough reason to follow suit, as group norms are a powerful motivator.
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Wearing a mask is recommended by health officials and experts around the world as one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

Yet in the US, it’s become a contentious issue, in part due to inflammatory statements from politicians like President Donald Trump, who has mocked people for wearing masks. 

But since President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19, the people around him, including daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, have been spotted wearing masks in public, after previous high-profile instances of declining to do so. 

Their change of heart may not be enough to convince staunch anti-maskers to do the same, psychologists say.

That’s because masks have become a powerful symbol of ideology and identity, according to Jacob Teeny, an assistant professor of marketing at Northwestern University who has written about the psychology behind opposition to masks. This can lead to top-down processing, wherein people interpret data to fit their pre-existing ideas of how things work. 

“The ambiguity of Trump’s handling of this situation will allow people to shift it to seem however they want,” Teeny told Insider.

Anti-maskers may be unlikely to change if they’re more concerned with ideology than risks or harm

Seeing that there might be negative consequences to an action is a big source of behavioral change, Teeny explained. That means one motivation for wearing a mask may be observing that non-mask-wearers become ill.

In theory, that could be the case with Trump, and his diagnosis might serve as a warning of the serious risk facing those who eschew mask-wearing recommendations. 

But more than seven months into the pandemic, there’s a wealth of evidence that wearing a mask can protect against the deadly viral infection. Even the risk of serious illness or death hasn’t stopped people from opposing masks, according to Andrew Luttrell, professor of social psychology at Ball State University and co-writer of a Psychology Today column with Teeny. 

“The one thing that’s strange about it is that this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a consequence,” Luttrell said.”The folks that have been anti-mask have acknowledged and rejected those consequences, which makes me wonder if this new piece of evidence would change their minds.” 

That may be because anti-maskers aren’t interested in debating the science of masks or viral risk at all, he said. Their arguments are instead focused on ideological concepts like freedom of choice. The risks of not wearing a mask are irrelevant to that abstract ideology and, as such, aren’t persuasive to people who think that way.

“If it’s about the moral value of freedoms, this type of consequence is irrelevant,” Luttrell said. “If we continue to appeal to things people don’t care about, it’s not going to change their minds.”

Contrary evidence can make some people double down on beliefs

Adding to the difficulty of resolving the mask debate is that it’s been seven months since the pandemic began, enough time for some people to have already made up their minds and become impervious to new information. 

“When people have thought a lot about an issue, even if their knowledge isn’t correct but they feel it is, they develop a feeling of certainty,” Luttrell said. 

That conviction can grow even stronger in the face of direct opposition — Luttrell said experiments have shown that contrary evidence or counter arguments can sometimes reaffirm people’s beliefs, rather than dissuade them.

“When people feel like they’ve successfully defended our beliefs against attacks, they become more certain of those beliefs,” he said. “They become more adept at resisting new information.”

But social norms can still be a powerful influence

While staunch opponents might be unconvinced, President Trump’s illness is still a major influence in how people think about the coronavirus. A recent poll from National Geographic found that more Americans than ever support mask wearing. The number of people who reported always wearing a mask in public has risen by 25% since July, according to the poll. 

That suggests that, for many people, reluctance to wear a mask may be more social than philosophical. As such, seeing respected figures shift toward mask-wearing could be enough to persuade them, since following the prevailing attitude of the group is a huge motivator of behavior even among people who pride themselves on going against the grain. 

“If you look at representative samples, lots of people don’t have a strong ideological approach to things, but almost everyone can tell you what party they belong to,” Luttrell said. “We know that norms are really powerful, so I’m hopeful that is the case.”

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