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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