Mask up

This psychological trick could get people to follow Covid-19 rules

“The advocacy-mindfulness combination is so powerful because it makes people think about their own behavior.”

Passengers on train wear Covid-19 masks
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One of the most frustrating parts of living through a pandemic is knowing people aren’t adhering to Covid-19 safety guidelines and recommendations — like wearing a mask in indoor public spaces and getting vaccinated — when research shows such behavior curbs the lethal disease.

With so much at stake — as of September 21 there are more than 200 million infections and 4 million deaths — a pressing question has emerged: How can “anti-makers” and “anti-vaxxers” be convinced to follow expert guidance? These are individuals who ideologically reject the notion that Covid-19 is a serious threat and refuse to mask, vaccinate, or socially distance on ideological grounds.

However, while the hard-liners may be the loudest on social media, there’s a much wider swath of people who fall into a less rigid category. These are the “hesitant” — folks who don’t think Covid-19 is a hoax but, for various reasons, haven’t complied with such precautions.

For example, a recent study facilitated by the USC Center for Economic and Social Research found that while 83 percent of adults in the United States “view wearing a mask as an effective way to stay safe from COVID-19, their mask-wearing behavior is very inconsistent, even while they engage in higher-risk activities.”

People wear masks while attending an indoor performance in Portugal.


But researchers at Princeton University believe they’ve found a way to convince this population.

They conducted experiments to see what would persuade people in this grey area to change their behavior and consistently follow Covid-19 safety protocols. The results of that study, published Tuesday in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, suggest behavior can change if you put into practice two actions:

  • Inducing cognitive dissonance by asking a person to advocate for an action
  • Asking them to remember when they didn’t follow through with that action

Lead author Logan Pearce, a Ph.D. candidate, tells Inverse her team used “the hypocrisy paradigm to induce hypocrisy. “Induced hypocrisy may initially sound pejorative, but in psychology, it is a statement rather than a judgment,” she explains. “Induced hypocrisy works by having people advocate the importance of some behavior and recall times when they did not follow this behavior.”

What you need to know first — Essential to the experiment is the notion of cognitive dissonance: in which a person holds two contradictory beliefs in their mind at the same time.

Previous research out of Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology suggests cognitive dissonance could be part of an effective strategy in changing attitudes about Covid-19 mitigation measures. Participants were asked to:

  • Rank Covid-19 mitigation strategies from most to least effective in preventing the spread of the virus
  • Estimate the percentage of people who would contract Covid-19 if the practice was followed or not followed

A masked passenger rides among passengers without masks on the London Underground.

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Participants then read expert testimony about why the mitigation measures they thought weren’t effective were actually effective.

Subsequently, the participants were asked to write a paragraph explaining how the measures worked and why they were effective. Finally, the researchers again had the participants estimate the percent of people who would contract Covid-19 if they did or did not follow the measures. This metric was compared to their initial estimates.

By the end of the survey, “most participants had more faith in preventative measures that they initially considered ineffective.”

Peace and Joel Cooper, a Princeton psychology professor, sought to build on this kind of research by creating cognitive dissonance and then adding another crucial element: mindfulness.

What they did— Pearce and Cooper recruited 101 volunteers to complete their surveys. The volunteers were from 18 different countries, ranging in age from 18 to 67.

In one group of volunteers, the researchers established cognitive dissonance by encouraging them to advocate for a specific Covid-19 mitigation guideline (for example: “Masks are important to slow the spread of Covid-19”) and then asking the volunteer to remember times in which they didn’t follow that specific guideline.

This combined the two key components:

  • Advocacy
  • Mindfulness

Visitors to the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana are asked to wear a mask before going indoors.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The researchers also had three control groups, all of which were required to watch a short video encouraging measures like masking and social distancing.

  • The first control group was the advocacy group: participants were asked to advocate for specific Covid-19 mitigation behavior
  • The second control was a “mindfulness” group: participants were asked to recall a time they hadn’t followed prevention guidelines, but did not advocate for the importance of any mitigation measures
  • The third group was a strict control group: They were neither mindful nor advocated for a position but did watch the video

A week later, all the participants reported how, if at all, their behavior changed from the week prior to the study.

What was discovered — A week later, the results among the cognitive dissonance-mindfulness group were remarkable. The majority of this group reported complying with most safety measures (mean: 51.58).

“... humans have a natural drive to reduce psychological tension.”

The Mindfulness group reported 21.63, the advocacy group reported 21.71, and the control group was 27.64.

Pearce was particularly surprised by the numbers from the mindfulness group, which expressed more negative intentions toward following Covid-19 guidelines and less willingness to lead others to a Covid-19 resource.

“These participants recalled times that they lapsed in adhering to safety measures, but they did not advocate the importance of following them,” she says. “We hypothesize that the participants changed the way they perceived themselves — that they were the type of person who didn’t follow guidelines consistently.”

Reported successful behaviors following COVID-19 guidelines (logarithmic values). via Pearce, Cooper.

How this can be used— Pearce says this paradigm can be useful in getting people to change their behavior, but it’s crucial to approach it from a constructive, not critical perspective. It also helps to do this in a ”naturalistic” setting.

For example, “You could engage in a casual conversation with someone who you know believes in Covid-19 guidelines but doesn’t consistently do so,” she says.

“During this conversation, you could bring up the recent trends regarding coronavirus and express how terrible the situation is, leading that person to agree with you on the importance of following guidelines,” Pearce explains. “Next, you could point out to them a time you noticed that they didn’t follow a guideline.”

Whatever approach one takes, the combination of advocacy and mindfulness is essential, Pearce stresses.

What it means for the future— This paradigm isn’t limited to Covid-19 protocols. It reveals something larger about human behavior.

“The advocacy-mindfulness combination is so powerful because it makes people think about their own behavior,” Pearce says. “The discrepancy between saying what they believe about Covid and reminding themselves that they did not follow through creates a state of psychological tension.”

“Advocacy by itself — saying that it’s important to do something — doesn’t lead to tension,” she says.

Pierce says this strategy could be used to change other behaviors that people are resistant to —as long as they believe the behavior they’re not doing is something they should be doing, like exercise.

“This study reveals that humans have a natural drive to reduce psychological tension,” Pearce says. “Dissonance creates a sense of discomfort, causing people to modify their behavior so that they no longer feel bothered.”

Abstract: There is an urgent need to persuade the public to follow behavioral guidelines in order to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Using cognitive dissonance as a guide, the current study’s aim was to increase compliance with coronavirus safety measures, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated. In Phase 1, participants experienced dissonance by advocating consistent adherence to safety protocols and recalling instances when they did not follow them. Their attitudes and behavioral intentions were measured. A week later, we assessed reported behavior. We found that dissonance participants complied more with guidelines and were more likely to seek vaccination than participants in three non-dissonance control conditions. We conclude by recommending ways of implementing the findings in the current COVID-19 crisis.
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