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The appeal and futility of mask meltdown videos

Shaming people who don’t wear face masks is popular, but it won’t really change anyone’s mind.

A giant chicken statue outside a restaurant wears a face mask and a sign reading, “Don’t be chicken to wear a mask!”
The chicken statue in front of the Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, Family Restaurant and Bakery on May 28, 2020. 
Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

They all start in the middle.

The videos, blurry and shaky, look like the beginning of a found-footage movie, one of those horror flicks where you don’t know what you’re looking at it until it becomes impossible to miss. In this case, it’s a first-person point of view. Our cameraperson, a woman in Scottsdale, Arizona, is slapping masks out of a display.

“This shit’s fucking over,” she says, again and again, her free hand slapping away mask after mask.

Plastic crumples. The metal display screeches. The bottom of the video reads “@Target” in cheerful, rainbow-colored letters, seemingly unaware of the human-on-mask violence its director is unleashing.

That video, posted on July 5, currently has been played 9.9 million times.

The next day, a similar video appeared on the internet. A man at a Fort Myers, Florida, Costco, the beloved purveyor of discounted big-screen televisions and 30-roll packs of toilet paper, has gone into a rage. He wears a red shirt that reads, “Running the world since 1776.” His face, sharpened and angry, screams at our cameraperson. The caption explains that he’s been asked to put on a mask.

“I feel threatened,” he shouts so hard his voice cracks. “Back off.”

These are two of the more recent additions to the genre of videos of people not wearing masks freaking out in public places over having to wear one. This expanding oeuvre includes a woman going ballistic in Trader Joe’s, another woman terrorizing bagel shop patrons by coughing on them, another throwing food, and an older, smaller man tumbling, belly-first, through a Walmart to assert his non-mask dominance:

While the antagonists are different, the message is the same: These people believe masks aren’t necessary and that they have the right to flagrantly disregard public health advice and guidelines.

Their frustration with masks seems to stem from the ongoing conservative politicization of masks as a liberal affectation having no basis in science. According to a June 25 Pew Research poll, 71 percent of Americans say we should wear masks in public either most of the time or always. But it splits on a partisan level. Pew reported:

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican leaners to say that masks should be worn always (63% vs. 29%). Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say that masks should rarely or never be worn (23% vs. 4%).

Republicans also are less likely than Democrats to say they have worn masks in stores or other businesses always or most of the time in the past month.

This happens in spite of directives and pleas from epidemiologists, doctors, nurses, scientists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization to continue wearing masks, continue washing your hands, and continue to practice social distance to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. It’s also happening as several states in the US report record-breaking numbers of new cases.

The shoppers-gone-wild videos make examples of these people, and are often accompanied by headlines like “Maskless ‘Karen’ coughs on complaining customer in Queens bagel shop” and “8 Karens and Kens who threw huge tantrums instead of putting on masks.” Their popularity and millions of views make it seem like everyone is on the same page about why this behavior is bad.

“I share this to say please choose kindness in these situations. Look out for one another like patrons who took this video and asked if I was okay,” Ally Goodbaum, a videographer who captured the “maskless Karen” who began coughing on her, wrote on Facebook in June. “I know there are bigger problems in the nation right now but more and more it seems the people who are just trying to stand up for the right things are getting bulldozed by bullies.”

But if the meltdown content’s pro-mask agenda was effective, you’d think there’d be less and less of this behavior and less and less footage of it as time went on. The videos would have stopped after the first berserker got famous. Instead, there seem to be new ones posted every day.

It turns out, as satisfying as it is to watch someone reprimanded for bad behavior, the videos themselves might not be an effective tool to change attitudes toward public health. And according to health and behavior experts, changing someone’s mind about masks is much more difficult than embarrassing them on candid camera.

Why people love these mask freakout videos

A vendor wearing a mask and face shield at Trump’s June 2020 rally in Tulsa.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

To fully understand these freakouts and the reactions they inspire means understanding the emotional state we — regardless of political affiliation — are all in. For the past four months, we’ve dealt with an entirely new reality wrapped around a deadly threat that we still don’t fully comprehend. That takes a toll on us emotionally, and we’re constantly coping with it.

“From a psychological point of view, when there’s a massive unknown new threat, humans’ survival instinct triggers and they become highly vigilant and emotional,” David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health, told me. “You have the rug pulled from under you, and suddenly your instinct is immediately to become hyperalert. And as that adrenaline pumps, you get into what we call the fight or flight — an emotional response that overrides cool-headed rationality.”

This stress manifests itself in different behaviors.

In my home, it manifested as copious amounts of dessert-scented hand soap (at the time, Bath & Body Works was one of the few places with stock) and learning how to cook caramelized shallot pasta. This was, as Abrams explained to me, completely natural.

“When [fight or flight in response to a threat] happens, you fall back on your instincts,” he said. “You become hypersensitive to messages from other people. You look around at what other people are doing and what your leaders are saying. You become a copycat to quickly latch onto something that someone else is doing. And you’re highly vulnerable because of your hypervigilance, and the threat is urgent.”

An example Abrams cited was 9/11. After it occurred, we began — for better and worse — trusting our leaders and following new social rules like enhanced security screenings at airports. I still remember when we were allowed to walk our loved ones to the gate.

The key part of Abrams’s explanation, though, is that the virus isn’t as concrete as a human terrorist — it certainly doesn’t win a moral victory when you put on a mask — and that in 2020 America, we all have different ideas about who we determine to be leaders.

Following leadership cues can be helpful; those who see health officials and medical experts as leaders then copycat behavior that stamps down on the virus, like thoroughly washing hands, social distancing, and wearing masks.

It also works the other way. That’s what makes, as Abrams cited, Vice President Mike Pence’s maskless visit to the Mayo Clinic in April so important. Those who see him as a leader copy that behavior. Add to that other leaders who don’t wear masks and the predominantly conservative rhetoric about how they aren’t useful (see: Trump, Donald) and it undermines the legitimacy and importance of health officials’ advice.

While following cues from those we trust isn’t the only determining factor in what kind of behavior we display, it’s a powerful one. Other factors, as sociologists and epidemiologists told me, include one’s sense of community, shifting social norms, and personal experiences (like losing a loved one to the virus).

Our own behaviors then become the same ones we want to see reflected in the world around us. And when they don’t, it sets up a clash.

The videos of people without masks freaking out, people in masks reacting to said freakouts, and the urge to share these clips all stem from what some sociologists believe is a release for all the frustration, hypervigilance, uncertainty, and stress that we’ve accumulated since the original lockdowns in March.

“Frustration leads to anger; it leads to resentment,” Gary Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University, told me, explaining that because the virus isn’t tangible and the threat is invisible, it leads to humans lashing out at the most concrete target: each other. For people who hate masks, this means flying into a rage at those who encourage wearing them. For people who have made the commitment to masks, this may mean recording or watching the unmasked in an embarrassing situation.

“So say you’re in a state of frustration, and you see someone who is doing something that you find unappealing, whatever that may be. Because we have cellphones with cameras in them, we can take these videos and we have social media and we can post those videos,” he continued.

The spectacle of the maskless throwing temper tantrums and getting thrown out of stores appeals to individuals and groups who generally wear masks because it feels like a little bit of justice. The videos also affirm a sense of in-group superiority, as both Abrams and Fine explained. They confirm to one group (mask wearers) that the other group (people who don’t wear masks) is incorrect. But aside from whatever karmic itch these videos might scratch, they’re largely ineffective at changing anyone’s behavior.

Shaming and scolding won’t change anyone’s mind about masks

A teacher and examinee high five in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China.
Wang Gang/China News Service via Getty Images

Epidemiologists like Jared Baeten, the vice dean of the School of Public Health and professor of global health, medicine, and epidemiology at the University of Washington, know that shaming someone into acting “better” doesn’t really work.

Baeten’s background is in HIV. The HIV and AIDS pandemic (which still affects thousands of Americans today) is often used as an analogy when talking about the coronavirus because they’re both national infectious disease emergencies, and because of the emphasis on prevention. For both the coronavirus and HIV, experts prescribe a set of behaviors to curb the spread.

And one of the most important lessons gleaned from that pandemic is that shaming was detrimental.

“An antagonistic argument with someone about wearing or not wearing a mask is not going to be successful,” Baeten told me. In the AIDS crisis, the corollary to masks could be condoms, which researchers learned were more successful when education didn’t stigmatize individuals. “[Effective] HIV prevention is much more about self-empowerment, individual decision-making, pleasure with safety than it was about dirty and shaming and bad. Scolding is a generally difficult public health strategy.”

The problem with scolding and shame, according to all the experts I spoke to, is that individuals respond with resentment and anger. Those emotions are closely tied to defiance and withdrawal. It’s not unlike the research that shaming and scolding children is ultimately not very effective in changing behavior.

“It’s hurtful. It’s hurtful to the individual,” Barun Mathema, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, told me. “And it perhaps may have the opposite effect. I think we should sort of steer away from more caustic strategies of trying to force people into doing A or B. We know these sort of approaches don’t really work very effectively.”

The benchmark public health officials want to hit with not just mask-wearing but all the other coronavirus precautions is for these behaviors to become a social norm. The tipping point of when something becomes a social norm has been a key, historically, in terms of public health.

A recent example: smoking.

The more we learned about the deadly effects of cigarettes, the more we acted to curb smoking. When it was more socially acceptable, Americans pushed back against mandates that banned smoking in restaurants and bars. But that shifted to a point where not smoking became the dominant norm.

“Smoking today is not viewed the way it perhaps was in the ’80s or ’90s,” Mathema said. “I wouldn’t say it was necessarily social shaming, but social acceptability, right? I think that has an impact on behavior.”

Seat belts, which Mathema also points to, went through a similar cultural tipping point (“Before a federal mandate came along, and even when that came along, there were a lot of people who said,I don’t want to be strapped down. It’s my choice,’” he explains), but smoking is perhaps a closer corollary. If I don’t wear my seat belt and I’m in an accident, it doesn’t really affect the person in the other car who’s wearing theirs. But if I’m smoking and exposing others to secondhand smoke, that may be more akin to spreading the virus.

The difficult thing for public health officials is that initiatives like seat belts and anti-smoking campaigns took a long time to get where they are today. They didn’t happen overnight. The coronavirus, on the other hand, needs to be dealt with immediately. States throughout the country are reporting record numbers of infection. And epidemiologists and medical experts are being asked to help get this message across to the public in a compressed amount of time.

So how do you change someone’s mind?

All the experts I spoke to pretty much said the same thing when it comes to changing someone’s mind about masks and public health in general: You have to be the bigger person, and you have to be empathetic.

Shaming someone into behaving better, while satisfying, doesn’t work. People respond better when they feel good and are respected. That means earnestly listening to someone’s concerns and their experiences.

“You have to give a lot of people the benefit of the doubt, right? That if given all the right sort of information and the right context, people may come up with very similar decisions,” Mathema told me. “Personal circumstances are also very important. Are you talking to somebody who’s just lost a job? Who’s very stressed out? Or somebody who strongly believes in XYZ because of these reasons?”

An example: For the past few months of the pandemic, a narrative from right-wing pundits emerged pitting public health against the economy. Economic hardship then becomes tethered to public health, and it’s not unreasonable for someone who believes in this narrative to resent public health when facing economic hardship. Someone being laid off from their job because of the coronavirus could possibly see it as the fault of public health officials. And listening to and understanding that is part of the way you can talk to them.

“When I do my teaching, I like to ask, ‘What’s the basis of the question? What’s inspiring you? What’s the context of the question?’” Mathema said. “And then I ask myself, ‘How can I now use that context to sort of nudge the person to see one way or the other?’ And certainly, to empower them to make those decisions. Again, I think that’s a really important point.”

The difficult thing for all of us — and for public health officials especially — is that we might not be in the right time, space, or place where we can have those deep, thoughtful conversations with those who disagree with us.

We might not have the kind of relationship with someone to talk about how health officials are still learning about the virus and that guidance is shifting to accommodate the new research. Or to advise them that instead of thinking of the economy and public health as antagonistic, it might be helpful to frame them as connected — that it’s not a good idea to restart the economy with a sick workforce.

It’s also especially difficult since we tend to gravitate to people who are generally like us and share our belief system. Changing someone’s mentality on public health requires effort and time. I suppose that’s why public health officials get paid to strategize and educate the masses.

Listening to and empathizing with people who don’t agree with you “is easier said than done,” Abrams, the behavior expert from NYU, said. “I think you have to accept that you can’t force people to do anything. You can only be a role model and do it yourself and point to the people you admire. We shouldn’t forget that it’s about saving lives.”

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