The post-COVID paradox
It was hard to learn how to behave during a pandemic. Now that the CDC’s mask mandates are coming to an end, we have a new challenge: unlearning. Center Director Jeffrey Cole explains.
By Jeffrey Cole
This week, in the most positive sign yet (after vaccines) that we can see the light at the end of the COVID tunnel, the CDC lifted almost all outdoor and indoor mask mandates for those who have been vaccinated.
Since March of 2020, the CDC (and the rest of us) have had to deal with those who didn’t believe the Coronavirus was real, those who would not wear a mask, and most recently and dangerous for all, those who will not get a vaccine. To get people vaccinated, Shake Shack is offering free hamburgers and fries, West Virginia a $100 savings bond, and Ohio a weekly lottery with a grand prize of $1 million.
Getting people to re-consider deeply held beliefs and change behavior is a difficult business. Bribes may not be enough.
Now, as we make enormous progress in moving past COVID, we will face an entirely new and equally challenging problem: how to convince vaccinated people when it’s time to take off their masks.
It’s easy to categorize all the deniers into a group that does not listen to the science. It’s harder to classify those who have been carefully following the experts’ advice and now are reluctant to move past masks, staying at home, and general fear. To be sure, we still have a way to go before the virus is completely contained.
But we can already see signs that — even with vaccines, rapidly diminishing new cases, and even more drastic reductions in hospitalizations and deaths, as well as new guidance from scientists — there will be equally stubborn holdouts who refuse to change their behaviors to match the changing facts.
Our Coronavirus research last year in the middle of the pandemic revealed a remarkable insight: 37% of people said even after COVID becomes a distant memory, they will want to maintain distance and avoid people they don’t know.
We have come to fear strangers as a threat.
Even though Walmart, Trader Joe’s, and Costco are following the CDC’s new guidelines, many others will not. Ask anyone who removed their mask after the experts said they could, and they will tell you about glares from people on the street moving quickly away.
Many of us have been willing to follow the advice of Dr. Fauci and others about the dangers of the virus and the precautions we needed to take. But now we are seeing warning signs that some are not willing to follow those same experts as they tell us that the danger is lessening and that we can emerge from isolation and masking.
While those who want to remain at home and continue wearing masks are not as dangerous as the virus deniers, they do share a common trait: I’ll follow the science if it affirms my beliefs, but I’ll disregard it if it doesn’t.
Learning, unlearning, and lessons from history
Deniers aside, the experts in Federal, State and Local government, as well as those on television, did an extraordinary job explaining the dangers of COVID and persuading us to drastically change our behaviors. We listened. Markets were emptied of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and we started Googling terms like N95.
In short, we learned new behavior patterns.
We followed instructions so well that it may be difficult for some of us to unlearn those same behaviors when the science no longer makes them necessary or practical.
In introductory psychology classes, college students learn that one of the things that distinguishes humans from other animals (opposable thumbs are in there too) is the ability not only to learn but also to unlearn.
Coming out of COVID, the road to unlearning may be bumpy. Free burgers and $100 savings bonds probably won’t help.
I can think of previous examples of behaviors that we learned, only to find that–when the practical reasons for those behaviors no longer existed–they were difficult to unlearn.
As Joe Biden moved into the Oval Office in January, with him came a bust of Cesar Chavez: the California farm worker leader best known for organizing his union in the 1960s against the unfair labor practices of the grape growers.
It’s easy to categorize all the deniers into a group that does not listen to the science. It’s harder to classify those who have been carefully following the experts’ advice and now are reluctant to move past masks, staying at home, and general fear. To be sure, we still have a way to go before the virus is completely contained. But we can already see signs that — even with vaccines, rapidly diminishing new cases, and even more drastic reductions in hospitalizations and deaths, as well as new guidance from scientists — there will be equally stubborn holdouts who refuse to change their behaviors to match the changing facts.
In 1965, farm workers began to boycott grape growers, non-violently protesting for higher wages. Slowly, the boycott gained steam. Chavez was able to broaden the boycott through support of other unions, particularly the United Automobile Workers (UAW).
By putting a human and sympathetic face on the boycott, Chavez got millions of Americans to stop eating grapes, a learned behavior that lasted for years.
Although the road to settlement was rocky, the first agreements with the growers were signed in 1970. At that point, the farm workers ended the protests and asked people to buy and eat grapes again.
But there was a problem. Americans had learned a new behavior: support the farm workers; don’t eat grapes. Many had internalized a belief that eating grapes was bad. Nothing could change their minds. Even today, there are old veterans of the boycott that cannot eat a grape, if they do at all, without a pang of remorse and guilt.
In my lifetime, being born after the Nazis in Germany, there were few governments as overtly evil as South Africa’s.
In a brutal and indefensible system, apartheid segregated the races with all the benefits going to the minority white population at the expense of the majority and native black South Africans. Apartheid became the official policy of South Africa after the 1948 general elections.
Most countries paid little attention or did anything until the 1960s. Protests led to boycotts and isolating South Africa from international conferences, the Olympics, or anything in which most of the world cooperated. In the 1980s, great pressure was applied to governments, including on President Reagan, to sanction South Africa and for companies to divest any financial interests in the country.
South Africa became an international pariah. Entertainers would not perform even when offered massive paychecks to break the boycott (we’re not going to play Sun City).
The pressure began to work. The South African government saw they could not exist as the enemy of the rest of world and began to move away from the horrible policy. The election of a moderate President (for South Africa) F. W. de Klerk led to loosening of apartheid. Eventually, the government released the international symbol of resistance, Nelson Mandela, from a life-term in the notorious prison on Robben Island.
Mandela was soon was elected President of South Africa. Apartheid was demolished.
However, many had learned that South Africa was evil and must be isolated and punished. During apartheid, it deserved that stigma. But, after Mandela ran the country, it was time to return South Africa to the community of nations.
Many who had supported the boycott could not shake years of seeing South Africa as evil. People were slow to travel there and performers declined to play.
Many people could not think of South Africa (even when a freedom fighter was its president) without a visceral sense of anger and defiance. Even when it hurt the victims of apartheid by continuing to punish the country, many could not unlearn the behavior.
It can be harder to unlearn behaviors than it is to learn them.
During the COVID pandemic, we locked down in our homes, avoided other people, and wore masks because there were good scientific reasons to do. Now, as the science points in another direction, slowly and cautiously, we must unlearn the behaviors and get used to seeing each other’s noses and mouths again.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
May 19, 2021