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Q&A: Pandemic Psychology

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Dr. Thad Leffingwell is a clinical health psychologist and professor at Oklahoma State University. In his years at OSU, he’s worked his way up to being the head of the psychology department. The O’Colly interviewed Leffingwell about the psychology behind the decisions to not wear masks, and to go to large gatherings during a pandemic.

Q: What goes into the psychology of someone refusing to wear a mask?

A: It’s complicated. I think there’s lots of explanations why a lot of folks are struggling to wear masks. I think part of it is the psychology of risk and risk perception that we’re dealing with low-base rate risks and not that’s something that we humans are very good at adjusting our behavior around. We tend to adjust really well for acute risks, like “don’t play with fire,” but things that seem to be long term far away, or unseen risks, we have a hard time remembering those and believing those. I think that’s the baseline problem as far as our human nature. I think the other problem we have right now is the unfortunate politicization of mask wearing where it’s “are you blue team or red team?” Whether you wear a mask is tied up in political slogans about freedom or collective action that I think drives a lot of the mask wearing or refusal to wear a mask right now is unfortunately a political statement, not so much a public health action.

Q: Let’s say it’s not a mask. Let’s say there’s a device you had to hold on to, or a shirt you had to wear, that guaranteed 100% immunity to COVID-19. Do you think that, even with 100% protection, there would still be opposition to it?

A: That’s a fun thought experiment. I think probably among some because it would bend on who’s telling them to wear the shirt. If it comes from somebody who they perceive to be a leader of their team, maybe so. But if it was coming from the other side, maybe not. Your experiment makes me think of something else that’s a problem with mask wearing is… if you ask the question “do masks work, or do they not work?” it depends what you mean by “work.” So if the standard is, in your thought experiment, that the shirt you wear 100% prevents COVID, well of course there is no such thing as that does anything like that, including masks. So wearing masks, on the one hand we know that even if both parties wear a mask and one party is shedding the virus, the person who doesn’t have the virus could still contract the virus, it just dramatically lowers the chances. But does it 100% prevent infection? No it does not. Does it drive down community spread? Yes. So if that’s what you mean by “do masks work?” Yes, it slows down the spread, it reduces the portion of the population and the rate of infection over time, but it doesn’t 100% protect anybody wearing a mask. So I think some people when they say “masks don’t work,” they’re picking up on that piece that “well it doesn’t guarantee, I can still catch COVID.” That doesn’t mean masks don’t work. It means they don’t work the way you’re defining them to work. They’re dramatically shifting the odds. In fact, that’s how almost every safety precaution we take works. Wearing seatbelts, keeping your trigger off of a weapon if you’re a person who uses firearms, locking up your weapons, don’t play golf in a thunderstorm. All of those things reduce your chances of very bad things happening dramatically, but we still have accidental gun violence, we still have people struck by lightning and we still have people die in car accidents. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear a seatbelt or keep your finger off the trigger.

Q: Have you been impressed or displeased with OSU student’s mask compliance so far? 

A: My observation on campus has been very positive. I have not personally observed anybody not complying with the mask expectations. I think I’ve seen people outside without masks that I would have rather they not be so close to other people, but usually I saw a mask in their hand and that means they’re probably putting it on to go inside. I think that’s a good thing. But personally, I’ve been very impressed with student behavior on campus. I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve found OSU students to be by and large respectful of the rules, respectful of authority, respectful of one another when they’re on campus and I’m very impressed to see that continue with the masks. 

Q: What’s the mentality of someone who is throwing a party or going to a party or bar during a pandemic?

A: This is just speculation, but I think part of it is that for students, they view this time in their life as a very precious and fleeting time. Opportunities that get missed to do things that are part of the college experience feel like a real sacrifice because it’ll never be able to be repeated. So I think that’s part of it. I think part of it too is the fact that once there’s a critical mass, that there’s people willing to come to your party, you’re more bold to have that party. If nobody shows up to your party, you’re probably not going to be so bold about having the party. I think it’s kind of a groupthink phenomenon that if enough people gather who seem to be like minded about it, they all get a bit more bold about it.