Behavior Economics

Follow ALL of the Science: The Predictable Confusion of the Changing Mask Guidance Hurts #COVID19 Effort

To wear a mask or not to wear a mask that is the question. Vaccinated? One dose or two? Which vaccine did you have, again? Indoors, outdoors, in a crowd, alone? On a plane? In a train? With a louse in a house?

Whose guidance are you following? The CDC’s? California’s? WHO’s? The “science?”

It’s all so confusing. Literally. And, it was all so predictable.

The CDC and everyone else shoulda known that no one was going to like the shifting ever changing landscape of the #COVID19 pandemic mitigation guidelines. This was going to be true no matter who was in office, but politicizing it all for personal gain only made a bad situation worse. There are several factos that make it so: Our social media-based informaiton system, our emotional decision making, and adjustment reaction.

Social Media

Living in a social media environment where followers, like, and shares are gained and lost by who said what first: if following the science was the demand under Trump, it has to be the demand now and science says no masks if you’re vaccinated! So, there liberals, suck it. Now that we’ve driven that point home, and the anti-vaxxers feel like they can lie claim to vaxxed — no passports, right? — and spread as much #COVID19 as they can before they die, we’ve got the delta variant spreading like wildfire across the world threatening to undo any gains anyone has made anywhere, and we’ve still got the debate over who should be wearing a mask when and where and under what circumstances.

You know social media where any and every iNfLuEnCeR is trying to improve their brand by predicting any and every outcome and then hyping the ones that were correct like some kind of common Jean Dixon.

It is an unholy, ungodly, seemingly no win situation created by those who seek personal gain — we’re looking at you Ol’ Pussy Grabber and the GQP — in the chaotic contradictory confusion.

Emotional Decision Making: Somatic Marker Hypothesis, Easier Question, and Intensity Matching

As a species we evolved to like black-and-white, cut-and-dry, straight-up or down, hard-and-fast solid reliable information. For the human brain something either is or it is not. There is no gray area. We do not deal with subtlety, nuance, complexity well.

In the instant of encountering a person, place, thing, or idea, we either like it or we don’t whether we consciously realize it or not. As Damasio explains with his somatic marker hypothesis, when we face a decision, we respond by generating an emotion about the success or failure of the choice. Sometimes we’re aware of the emotion, sometimes not, but they influence our decision anyway. In fact, without the somatic marker, we wouldn’t be able to make a decision at all.

Tversky and Kahneman add to this the idea in two ways: (1) we substitute a related yet easier question when faced with a complex difficult one and (2) we match the intensity of the answer to the simpler question to the complex one.

Let’s apply these ideas to whether or not we should wear a mask. Should I wear a mask, today, Sunday 4 July 2021, when I leave the house? Man, that is a complex question given all of the conflicting guidance we’re getting. How can we solve it?

  • Look for an easier question, have I been wearing a mask when I left the house in general? See how that works? If you say yes, then you’re more likely to wear a mask today. If no, then not.
  • How intense was your feeling about the answer? If you hated it and didn’t wear a mask, then you’re more likely to be adament about not wearing a mask now. If you loved it and wore it religiously, then you’re more likely to be insistent about wearing it today. If you’re ambivalent, well, you’ll find compromises — I’ll wear indoors, but not outdoors.
  • The comments: I would love to hear about how you’ve resolved the mask wearing dilemma in the comments, especially if you have any thoughts on the applicability of either Damasio or Tversky and Kahneman in your choice.

What we did in the past often guides how we react now, after all, we lived through whatever happened in the past, so it must’ve worked, right? So, how did we decide on whether we would be mask-wearers or mask-rejecters?

Adjustment Reaction

At the very beginning of the #COVID19 pandemic, I wrote about adjustment reaction as a way of explaining how people were reacting to the prospect of the pandemic using adjustment reaction. You know hording toilet paper and hand sanitizer and that kind of stuff. Now that the nature of the pandemic is changing yet again, adjustment reaction helps us understand our behaviors now.

Adjustment reaction is, according to Stella Chess and Mahin Hassibi, a combination of the stress response and compensatory adaptive mechanisms that characterize the behavior of an individual who experiences disruptive life events, usually of an unpleasant nature. I think we can all agree that resuming “normal” life is a disruptive life event and given the life-and-death risks involved, it is an unpleasant one. In other words, how do you know when it is safe to go about without a mask when the science is so contradictory?

When faced with novel life-threatening situations, people react with a predictable pattern, or at least most of us do: (1) We avoid doing activities that we deem dangerous. (2) We seek more information. (3) We envision how we’ll be affected. And (4) we become more cautious. Notice how many of these things are relative: What is deemed dangerous? It varies substantially from person to person. What is information and where do we get it? Some of us are satisfied with the MSM, some with social media, and some with the thoughts that occur to us when experiencing bad gas. You get the idea. It varies. A lot.

Part of the issue when confronted with a novel threatening situation is that there is a lack of information. The steps to securing our safety are ambiguous. People automatically become open to new sources of information and will react to it quickly, thus, so many people began hording 18 months ago.

The same thing is occuring now. It is just not clear whether or not you should be masking. We are hearing contradictory information. Dr. Fauci and the CDC are saying no mask if fully vaccinated. The WHO is saying mask even if fully vaccinated because Delta variant.

Your choice is going to vary depending on your tolerance for risk and danger. However, those of us who discounted the severity of the #COVID19 pandemic during the past year probably are not exhibiting adjustment reaction behaviors at all. It is only those of us who view returning to normal as being a possible new threat who are.

Ambiguity is scary. Contradictory information is confusing. Complexity is overwhelming. People seek reassurance in those situations. One of the biggest problem during the past eighteen months is that we had to keep revising our receommendations based on new scientific findings. We started knowing very little and gradually added information. Dr. Fauci and the CDC made their best recommendations based on what they knew at the time.

As tempting as it was for the CDC and WHO to recommend going maskless when vaccinated, they should’ve known two things: (1) Using that conditional, if you’re vaccinated, then… was only going to confuse things and shoulda used, Once we’re at herd immunity, then… to help mitigate the confusion and still follow the science. And (2) variants were coming. The Delta variant was known for many months. We’d seen how the UK variant swept through nations to become the dominant strain. We can’t relax until we get to herd immunity because variants are going to continue to crop up and they’ll be more contagious, more deadly, and more resistant to the vaccines.

That’s following all of the science including what we know about how people react to ambiguous situations.

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“Fuck Covid” by 7C0 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

14 replies »

  1. My company, after a ramp-up period of carrots and sticks to encourage people to get vaccinated, has now mandated all employees to return to the office full time. For me this is the first time back since March of 2020 – most people have been back half time for about a year. I live in MA, which has a very high rate of vaccinated people, and the office of my company has an above average vaccination rate for MA. Company policy once people returned to work last year was to not require a mask when sitting at your socially distanced workstation, but requiring a mask whenever you moved about the office. That rule is officially still in effect, and most people follow it I haven’t done so to date, although I have brought a mask in. We’ll see how I feel next week. If most people are still masking while moving, I will do so as well to get along, although for the reasons above I don’t feel a need to do so. I still mask when I go anyplace crowded or small – the local supermarket at rush hour and every time I go to the local five and dime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Larry!

      What a story you’ve got. It so reflects the complexity of the issue and how difficult it is to parse. I’ve been impressed with the discipline that Massachusetts has displayed in combating the virus, and it has paid off, too, especially with the coming dominance and devastation of the Delta variant.

      When I read that your company’s policy was unmask at your desk, mask when moving around the office, I thought about the “absurdity” of it all. Personally, I feel the annoyance of masking more in the taking off and donning of the mask than in just wearing it. I tend to put it on until I get home just because I dislike taking it off and putting it on again. But, I know I’m in the minority and it is due to my hyposensitivity to physical sensations and my pathological demand avoidance (part of the autism spectrum).

      To me, the better company policy is (a) get vaccinated, (b) all returnees to the office must be vaccinated, and (c) everyone must return to the office by this deadline, i.e. no vaccination, no job. It really is that serious. If everyone is vaccinated, you should be able to go maskless indoors. Of course, with the Delta variant that may be in question now.

      I’m in Cambodia where a single international traveller who violated quarantine back in February triggered a nationwide #COVID19 outbreak that took our infections from about 300 to over 50,000 today and climbing and from zero deaths to 720 as of today. She had the UK variant. Now the Delta variant is sweeping the country. Briefly it looked like they were getting it under control, but over the past two weeks the seven-day average went from about 500 to 1,000. Don’t mess with the Delta variant.

      Stay safe and healthy! And, thanks for the comment, it is much appreciated.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. A large percentage of humans have a basic misunderstanding of science, largely based in how it is taught as a source of certainty (“Laws of Nature”, “Science proves …”, and such). We have trouble dealing with the reality that scientific knowledge is always an approximation of truth subject to change, and worse, also often expressed in terms of probabilities (another difficult subject). Now, with the question of mask wearing we face the added complication of location with wildly different vaccination percentages not only between regions, nations, and states, but down to the level of towns, neighborhoods, and workplaces. That’s about context, the specific situational context for which the advice is being formulated. Then we have to make a judgement about our own risk context and how the advice does or does not apply to it. Oh! There’s that pesky problem of probability again.

    Another problem is the idea of “getting back to normal”. Forget it! Normal times are over. We have suffered, are suffering, a collective and personal trauma – more than one – we have climate change and divisive politics and all manner of social change in addition to a pandemic. We are irrevocably changed and changing. Humans don’t like that.

    Anyway, my own habits in retirement kept me at relatively low risk from the beginning. I wasn’t going to work in an office or factory, or going to bars or sporting events or mass gatherings, and rarely eating out. My exercise was ( and is) out in the open air, not a gym. And, I masked up early, first improvised, and then with store-bought. I don’t wear the mask much currently, but I am also never without one, and my general risk through close contact is still low.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      We just don’t get probabilities and conditionals without devoting large amounts of cognitive resources to them. In the field dealing with the hunt and gathering surrounded by predators, or the possibility of predators, you just don’t have the time to dither over the likelihood of something happening and the consequences of getting it wrong. Survival is based on having “accurate” gut reactions, which aren’t randomly distributed. Unfortunately, the gut reactions that we evolved to help us survive under those conditions, aren’t serving us well in our current situation.

      The notion of getting back to normal is reminiscent of the politics of eternity, the longing for a halcyon past in which espoused values were implemented so that we were living in some kind of cultural zenith, which of course never happened. The remarkable thing is the propensity to which we habituate to our current circumstances, and they become normal. This is one reason why we haven’t reacted more strongly to climate change. The gradual shift in temperature and wild resources leaves us feeling that the situation we’re in now is normal. I don’t mean the heatwave, Western wildfires, or the severity of hurricanes, but the gradual increase in average temperatures and decline of fish stocks. It is hard to realize that the summers haven’t always been this hot on average and winters haven’t always been this warm on average or the number of fish available for the catch haven’t always been this scarce on average.

      The pandemic is one situation where autism, and maybe retirement, has paid off. I don’t mind the diminished social contact. Staying home suits me just fine and the few times I am out, I’m going at the off-hours.

      Keep that low risk, brother, the Delta variant is nothing to triffle with. And, future variants will only be worse.


      Liked by 2 people

      • I recall a report of interviews of people (I think it was in Vermont) were Summers have changed significantly over the past 30 years. Most of them, even those born, raised, and lived all their lives there had not noticed the change. Our frogs are easily boiled.

        The virus is adapting to its new host species. The more bodies it gets into, the more it will change. With luck, eventually it will become a mild, chronically recurring inconvenience like the common cold. The other pathway is likely to be terrifying.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          I cannot stop thinking that someone is deliberately promoting this self-destructive disinformation chaos campaign for their own benefit. It only seems to serve the oil industry and the Koch Bros. I try to keep an open mind, but it all keeps coming back to that. The more chaotic and divided we are, the less likely we are to make a break from fossil fuels and the longer they’ll be making a bigger profit off of us.

          I also can’t get over the small mindedness of McQarthy and McQonnell and the rest of the GQP gang in so knowingly going along with it all.


          Liked by 1 person

          • When someone or a class or feasted interest group believes they have the power to not be forced to change their business model, they will use that power and seek more. The fossil fuel industry may be key, but they are not alone. Industrial agriculture is there too, and others. When a political party has made winning the only measure of success, and cannot imagine a way to win but more-of-the-same, you get the present day GOP.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Howdy Bob!

              All essentially falling prey to groupthink. They just aren’t looking at the situation critically. It is plainly obvious that the smart move by Big Oil would be to heavily invest in renewable energy so they can dominate that emerging market and slowly get out of oil since it is a dying industry. That is the only move that makes sense. To do anything else is suicidal on their part. All of the big monopoly-like industries, oil, agriculture, pharma, plastics, fashion, have forgotten the basis of capitalism, purchasing power. It was the genius of that old racist Henry Ford to realize that he needed to pay his workers a fair wage so they could buy his products so he could afford to make more of them.


              Liked by 1 person

              • Some of the oil companies are, perhaps tentatively, beginning to move toward renewables, but mostly the big foreign ones (Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and the Norwegians). Some of the US based firms are making noises that way, but it looks like Greenwashing. The GOP have spent so much time talking about the ultra rich as the “job creators” that the whole gang have forgotten that nobody builds a factory or store and hires people to work in it unless they are pretty sure somebody is going to be able to buy the product. It is consumers who drive 70+% of GDP. We are the job creators.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Howdy Bob!

                  That’s the role that groupthink is playing. They are only listening to themselves which means being distracted and driven by greed. That way lies the destruction of the nation. It is not sustainable.



  3. I carry a mask with me everywhere I go. I don’t wear one when I’m outside walking – I never did. But they’re still required on the bus & in a doctor’s offices & a few other places, so I wear it. & I have masks to go with most of my favorite outfits, of course!

    I still see people wearing masks on a regular basis, even though restrictions have been lifted in most places. I notice that most of these people are either much younger than I am or much older.

    From the beginning, I said that masks were here to stay. I had seen people wearing masks for years, mostly college students during the flu season. But you’re going to see masks everywhere from now on. I think some people just like to wear them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Silver!

      I certainly take a good bit of comfort in wearing masks. I wear myanytime I’m outside of the apartment. I had a mild cold last week and Ma Belle Femme was about to leave for Canada, so I wore one in the apartment in the days leading up to her departure. Of course, here in Cambodia, with our ongoing outbreak, masks are still required and most everyone does wear one.

      You may be right about masks being here to stay. Most people have realized that there were a lot fewer colds and flus last year either through a lack of exposure or due to masks being worn. We habitutate so quickly to new circumstances.

      I’m hoping that our new good habits, frequent hand washing and staying home as much as possible, also continue. Not that I think going out is bad or anything, but I think we’ve all found routine and things we like to do at home. It will cut down on communicable diseases and give us all a smaller carbon footprint.


      Liked by 1 person

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