Indirect Message Transcript

Episode 15: Mask Hysteria 

This transcription relies on AI technology and contains errors.

Laci Green: (00:18)
What's up you guys? This week, I am coming at you from the Oregon coast. I've been up here taking in the ocean breeze and attending my grandpa's funeral. It's been a rough few weeks. I'm sorry that there won't be a video version of this episode, uh, since I'm not home.


So I'm in the tiny town of Tillamook, which some of you may recognize for their cheese. It's about a thousand miles from where I live and on the long drive up here, it's been interesting observing how other towns and areas are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, there are a lot of people without masks. On my first coffee run when I got into town, there's this little coffee hut. And there were a bunch of, you know, young baristas packed into this little hut, shoulder to shoulder making coffee...and not wearing any masks. Which really um, gave an unfortunate new meaning to their name "Killer Coffee'. All over America, as mask mandates are being debated, there is a fierce backlash underway.

"Now, if you want to wear a mask and live in fear, the rest of your life, it's certainly your prerogative, but the vast majority of well adjusted, sane, common sense people that aren't sheep, they can reason for themselves. Agree with me. Hell I would rather die from coronavirus then to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a damn mouth." 

Laci Green: (01:50)
That's former major league baseball player, Aubrey Huff there. He is joined by thousands of videos that have been posted to YouTube, TikTok, Twitter and all the rest capturing mask freakouts. These confrontations usually happen at shops where a patron is being asked to wear a mask


Laci Green: (02:24)
Good old America. The backlash to masks, to me, has been kind of tragic. Part of the problem is that masks have become, you know, yet another political symbol, uh, joining the likes of Starbucks holiday cups. Chick-fil-A, Goya beans? But masks are different in one key way. Masks save lives, which gives this particular debate a special kind of urgency. The mask hysteria that we're witnessing is a good example of how our beliefs can shape a pandemic. They are just as much a psychological threat as they are a physical one. Physically there's a virus, of course, and it is killing people. But psychologically the spread of that virus depends on our behavior. Our collective decision making...the risks that we're willing to take...can change the outcome of the pandemic entirely. So I've been wondering, you know, why do some people just, you know, put their mask on and that's it...and other people are so incensed by them? Is it something about American culture? Is it personality types? Or is there something more?

Joining me today to discuss is Dr. Steven Taylor, he's a psychologist at the University of British Columbia and he just happened to publish a book about the psychology of pandemics right before COVID-19 hit. The incredible timing of his book means that it now reads as this weird sort of scientific prophecy, uh, that explains much of what we're experiencing right now. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

So I'm curious, have you found that what's unfolding socially right now with COVID-19 is what you expected to happen?

Steven Taylor: (04:20)
It's remarkable. It's one thing to write about the psychology of pandemics. It's another thing to see the things you've spent two years writing about unfold before your very eyes. Virtually everything we're seeing in COVID-19 has been seen before in previous pandemics. For example, the early anticipatory anxiety ahead of any actual infection in communities, the rise of racism, um, the panic buying, the mask noncompliance. The big difference is that this pandemic is the first pandemic in the era of social media. What that means is the same phenomena are happening, like panic buying, but things are happening a lot more rapidly because information can be spread rapidly throughout the globe.

Laci Green: (05:00)
How do you think that social media has affected people's behavior at this point in the pandemic?

Steven Taylor: (05:05)
Um, social media is a two edged sword. On the one hand it made self isolation, well lock down, a whole lot more tolerable for many people, easier to endure. So you could be physically distant from other people, but socially connected. On the other hand, social media has been a vehicle for misinformation, uh, for rumors being spread, um, for conspiracy theories being spread, and also a vehicle for internet trolling where people could post fake images. And some of those panic buying images were fake.

Laci Green: (05:37)
Yeah, we actually did another episode about conspiracy theories, right as the Plandemic stuff was going viral. A lot of people think that the media is lying to them about masks and about COVID--  that the media is creating a disproportional, panic. You know, some people who to wear masks have said, you know, "the media is always reporting on how many people have died, but not how many people have recovered". I'm wondering what you think about how legacy news media is, is handling the reporting on this.

Steven Taylor: (06:10)
From what I've seen, maybe it's my choice of news media. I thought the media had been doing a fairly good job and by and large has been responsible reporting. There hasn't been much reporting for example, of outlandish conspiracy theories. The other complexity is that we as consumers are responsible to some extent to what the media presents. If we didn't find all those viral images of panic buying or protest by masked rebellions interesting, the media wouldn't present it. If we were more interested in how many cases have recovered or how many cases had mild symptoms, uh, there'll be more media coverage. So we need to take some responsibility too, for what's been happening.

Laci Green: (06:52)
I want to just kind of cut into the main bulk of what I wanted to talk to you about here, which is why people won't wear masks. I know you're up in Canada. Is it like that up there too?

Steven Taylor: (07:02)
To some extent, but the surveys, uh, up in Canada at least show that around about 50% of Canadians are often wearing masks when they go out and about 75%, uh, are okay with the idea of mandatory mask wearing. Uh, I'm not sure about the United States statistics, but my, my sense is at least from some of the data we're starting to collect is that most people are okay with the idea of wearing masks. It's only that vocal minority who get the, uh, the attention of social media and the news media who are, uh, who are rabidly anti mask. And this could be an example of where the media is distorting people's perceptions. But when you get media reports or social media reports of that vocal minority protesting, it can give people a distorted impression about how widespread this mask rebellion really is.

Laci Green: (07:51)
Yeah. The same thing happens on social media, right? Where we hear a minority opinion that gets echoed much more largely than it may have otherwise.

Steven Taylor: (07:59)
Exactly. And if I can give you an example from this past weekend here in Vancouver with a population of, I guess, about 1.5 million people, there was a protest rally. Um, they got picked up by the media, by these anti mask people, the protest, the number of people in this protest rally was two dozen. [Laughs]. So two dozen at a 1.5 million people were rabidly protesting against the wearing of masks. It just gives you an idea of how small this group is.

Laci Green: (08:29)
I haven't seen some data, and I know a lot of this is emerging right now, that shows the majority of people are wearing masks. They're okay with, you know, a mask mandate and things like that. But I think it was a larger portion than that [in America]. It was something like 30%, maybe people who were not all aboard the mask train. And certainly out here, at least anecdotally, there are a lot of people not wearing masks around me.

Steven Taylor: (08:53)
Yeah, it's a complex issue. Um, one difference between the United States in Canada is in the United States mask wearing has become politicized. And it's a Democrat versus Republican thing. To some extent, although now your president is being filmed, wearing a mask more often, these situations are fluid and can change quite rapidly. You know, it wouldn't surprise me at all. If in two weeks time, just about everyone is wearing a mask in the United States. Even the people who are vociferously anti mask, if they start to have loved ones around them, falling ill and die, that could change their opinion very, very rapidly.

Laci Green: (09:29)
It's going to take for most people to know someone who's died or are there other ways to encourage positive health behaviors before we get to that point?

Steven Taylor: (09:38)
Unfortunately, for some people, the hardcore rebellious people, it will take something like a loved one dying for, to persuade them, to wear a mask. Part of the problem is this pandemic is largely hidden in that we don't see corpses in the street. We don't see coffins. And that's very different from say the 1918 pandemic where the sight of coffins is a daily experience. So this gives people, this time around in this pandemic, a sense of unreality. Is this a real thing? Should I be worried about it? And some people, including the people who refuse to wear masks, uh, get the mistaken impression that it's not a serious concern. What will get people turned around and wearing masks is not so much government ordering people, what to do that that will trigger a backlash, but peer pressure, social pressure, um, your friends and family rejecting you or avoiding you or shunning you, if you refuse to wear a mask. And that's happened before. That happened, for example, in the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, if you actually went out and didn't wear your mask, you are shunned, avoided, criticized, and so forth. So that, that could be a very powerful motivator of mask wearing during COVID-19.

Laci Green: (10:50)
So when you say peer, so my, my background is I've taught sex ed for about 10 years. And you know, one of the first things you learn is that shaming people into wearing condoms, for instance, doesn't work. Um, so is there a difference between peer pressure in this case and in shaming, which we know can kind of cause people to dig their heels in even more?

Steven Taylor: (11:14)
Outrageous episodes of public shaming are likely to backfire spectacularly if you do that, but I'm talking about the more subtle forms of social influence. For example, if your friends aren't willing to hang out with you because you're not wearing a mask then that can, um, subtly, uh, persuade people to start wearing masks.

Laci Green: (11:34)
Okay. Yeah. I see what you're saying, like creating a tipping point in terms of the social norms.

Steven Taylor: (11:40)
I like that expression. You're absolutely right. Creating a tipping point in expectations. And we're not quite there yet. We're almost there though. 

Laci Green: (11:48)
We know that masks work and that they're safe, but they're not comfortable. You know, condom manufacturers worked hard to try to make them more appealing to people to make them more comfortable. And we haven't seen that with masks yet, but I wonder if that might help too.

Steven Taylor: (12:04)
I agree. I think that will help. And at least here in Canada, people are starting to get creative. Small mask manufacturers popping up everywhere, generating creative, funky looking masks. We don't have a culture of mask wearing in North America. So when people do put on masks here, they don't know how to use them or organize them. They feel uncomfortable. And so it will take some time for people to get, get used to wearing masks.

Laci Green: (12:28)
One of the things that I have been personally disappointed with is the public health communication around COVID. The CDC was telling people that masks don't work! I mean, it's kind of appalling that that was the early messaging and that's obviously made things worse.

Steven Taylor: (12:47)
So it's, it's, it's vital that the health authorities be seen as trustworthy, transparent, not hiding any information, that they're seen as being reliable. They're seen as acknowledging important uncertainties. And I agree, this is where they messed up early on in the pandemic. It was around mask wearing. And back then, there's more research now, but back then, there wasn't a lot of research around masks and the research was inconsistent. I think the health authorities back then were trying not to make people too alarmed. So telling them you don't need to wear a mask. It's okay. And they were worried about panic buying of masks. So in trying to deal with that, they were coming out with that consistent message. "Don't wear a mask." And that turned out to have backfired and probably contributes to the mask hesitancy nowadays, because now of course, as you know, the health authorities are telling us all that we should be wearing masks.

Laci Green: (13:41)
It just blows my mind that that was the message at all. And, like you said, mask wearing is not really normalized here, but when you go throughout parts of Asia, you know, it's very normal for people to wear masks just when they're individually sick, you see a lot of people wearing masks.

Steven Taylor: (13:55)
Exactly. Absolutely. It's a sign of respect for other people. If you've come down with a cold, you put on a mask and people don't think anything of it because it's - people are used to it.

Laci Green: (14:03)
Yeah. Are we more selfish here?

Steven Taylor: (14:06)
It's, it's challenging to generalize cause you run the risk of stereotyping people, but in countries like the United States in Canada, they tend to be more individualistic rather than collectivist. And, and so you can get more of that pushback that rebellion, that, that particularly when people perceive that their freedoms are being encroached upon. In highly individualistic countries, you get a phenomenon called psychological reactants or to put it in plain terms it's people being allergic to being told what to do. Interestingly, I mentioned earlier that just about everything we're seeing in COVID-19 has occurred during previous pandemics or outbreaks. A mask rebellion occurred during the 1918 Spanish flu in 1919 in San Francisco, the health authorities attempted to mandate mask wearing. And this caused that to the formation of the anti mask league. And the arguments they posed back then were the same as the ones we're seeing today.

Steven Taylor: (15:03)
The people in the anti mask league were not going to wear mask because they didn't think they were helpful. And they thought mask wearing-- or being forced to wear masks-- violated one's civil liberties. Same arguments this time around. But if we want to get people to wear masks, I think a better approach than, than trying to bully people into doing it would be to appeal, to people's sense of community or altruism or this sense of patriotism. So if you want to be a good citizen, you're going to do your best because it's a collective effort to battle the pandemic with freedom comes responsibility and responsibility to your community. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We're going to see later problems around the same issues when a vaccine becomes available. Vaccination refusal is the next big societal problem in managing COVID-19.

Laci Green: (15:49)
The vaccine issue really does give me pause. I think that there are going to be a lot of people who are skeptical of a vaccine, especially because it's happening 10 times as fast. I read that Pfizer is already producing the vaccine and they're waiting to get approval. And if they don't, they're just going to toss it out. I don't know how you refute the argument that there are legitimate concerns about corruption in the process when it's happening this fast with this much money on the line.

Steven Taylor: (16:21)
We found that 20% of Canadians, this is collected a few months ago, 20% of Canadians and 25% of Americans said they would not get the vaccine if one became available. And those people tend to have anti-vaxxer attitudes already. And the big concerns are one, as you mentioned, a big farmer profiteering, and another concern is people were worried that this thing was being rushed. To, to some extent they are legitimate concerns, especially the one around the vaccine being rushed. And so it's the responsibility of the pharmaceutical companies to convincingly demonstrate that they've taken due diligence, that they haven't cut corners, that it is not only effective, but safe.

Laci Green: (17:02)
You know, a lot of fear thrives in the unknown about how it's being know what the process is. 

Steven Taylor: (17:09)
Well, it could be in for a potential disaster if the pandemic is still around in December and January, which is around about the peak of flu season, and if people have anti-vaccine attitudes and are not getting vaccinated against either one. If we think it's bad, now it could be a whole lot worse.

Laci Green: (17:24)
You talk a bit in your book about personality types that are more vulnerable in a pandemic. Um, specifically you talked quite a bit about negative emotionality is neuroticism. Um, for people who are really fearful of what's happening. Can you talk to personality factors for people who are maybe more skeptical? Are there personality types that are more likely to reject masks, for instance?

Steven Taylor: (17:46)
It's a good question. We're still looking at that sort of thing, but it's the people who see the whole thing as being exaggerated or overblown, or that they see themselves as being impervious to infection. And on the other hand, people who do have that heightened level of negative emotionality, that is they tend to readily experience anxiety, depression, and so forth. That is actually motivating those people to wear masks.

Laci Green: (18:09)
Do you have any idea of how prevalent that end of the spectrum is?

Steven Taylor: (18:14)
We're finding evidence of what we call a COVID Stress Syndrome. They're frightened about the dangerousness of COVID-19 they're frightened of touching things, that they feel might be contaminated and they tend to have traumatic stress symptoms around COVID-19 and they're having nightmares a lot. How prevalent is the severe form of the syndrome? We're thinking at an estimate maybe 10% of people have the severe form at this point.

Laci Green: (18:38)
Another concept that I found useful was the unrealistic optimism bias. This is another thing that comes up with teenagers, a lot in sex ed. They think that nothing's ever going to happen to them. You know, they are impervious to disease or unplanned pregnancy or anything like that. It's a risk that is for other people. Where does that come from? It's a really confusing mindset to me cause I tend toward the neurotic side where I try to be really, really careful...perhaps too much sometimes.

Steven Taylor: (19:09)
Well, the, actually the people who are most accurate in their judgments, uh, have what's called depressive realism. They tend to, uh, be on a little bit on the negative side. Whereas most people tend to have that rosy bias, they see themselves as better than average or more attractive than average and so forth. Where does it come from? Uh, I think for some people it's just hard wired. It's, it's actually adaptive to have that unrealistic optimism bias. To some extent it's going to get you through tough times cause you think, Oh, well things will get better. So a little bit of, a little bit of this unrealistic optimism biases is okay. Probably a good thing, but if you have too much of it, it's going to get you in trouble! It's going to lead you to go and party on the beach of Florida and uh, and get COVID-19.

Laci Green: (19:56)
Exactly. So what do you think are the most important lessons for us to learn from the past, then, as we look into the future of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Steven Taylor: (20:06)
We've been really bad at learning lessons from the past. During the Spanish Flu, for example, it was largely forgotten people did it as soon as it was over, people went on with their busy lives, focusing on other things. And we didn't learn the lesson about mask rebellion or, or the lesson about deteriorating, um, adherence to social distancing. And we haven't learned the lesson about vaccination non adherence. To some extent, the health authorities have learned some lessons in the past. From the past, for example, they learned about what not to do with regard to naming the virus. So, you know, in the past there were things called, uh, Hong Kong flu, swine flu, avian flu, Russian flu. These are all bad names. So you never name a virus or an outbreak after people, places, or things because it can promote racism or the needless culling of animals.

Steven Taylor: (20:57)
So that was a great thing, the WHO calling it COVID-19. What are the other important lessons that we can learn is that people are resilient. We are, we know that a proportion of people will be highly anxious and some may have long lasting psychological problems as a result of this pandemic. But one important lesson is that most people pull through just fine. They might be distressed, but in some, some ways, some people, um, will grow as human beings as a result of this as a result of having endured lockdown or these stresses that will make them more resilient. So that's an important lesson.

Speaker 1: (21:40)
If you would like to learn more about mental health and the coronavirus pandemic checkout Steve's work at He has an assessment there that you can take and you can read about their ongoing research. Thanks so much for joining me guys! I'll be back in studio next time and take care out there.