Popular Los Angeles chain Hugo's Tacos recently announced it was shutting its doors. The reason wasn't the virus or the economy. It was that customers were going crazy when asked to wear masks. Staff were subjected to racist abuse, diatribes about "personal liberty," and even physical attacks.
"Our Taco Stands are exhausted by the constant conflicts over guests refusing to wear masks," owner Bill Kohne told BuzzFeed News. Judging by the number of videos of patrons throwing hissy fits over being asked to comply with basic social distancing doing the rounds on social media, Kohne's staff are far from alone.
Why are so many people behaving so selfishly in the midst of a pandemic that's already killed more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens? (As this doctor's demonstration makes clear, it's not because masks interfere with breathing.) Harvard's Steven Pinker thinks he has an explanation.
Blame tribalism and confusion
Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of several best-selling books (including one of Bill Gates's all-time favorites), points the finger of blame squarely at tribalism. America is divided into political camps, each of which feels aggrieved. Not wearing a mask can seem like an effective way to stick it to those you feel have harmed you and those like you.
"People tend to see their own tribes as victims of some kind of oppression or harm by some rival coalition," Pinker told Nautilus. "They believe their actions on behalf of the group, even if symbolic, are a kind of justice, a kind of settling the score, making a statement, advancing a moral cause."
The point of not wearing the mask, in other words, isn't anything about masks at all. It's often a way to show your identity, register your support for your "team," and convey your anger at those whom you perceive as opposed to you.
The general state of confusion about this new virus, which is vexing even to experts, isn't helping the authorities make the case for masks either. Advice may be shifting for the very sensible reason that scientists' knowledge of Covid is growing over time. But for those who are already suspicious of experts, changing recommendations can make the authorities appear bumbling or politically motivated.
"With coronavirus, it's genuinely hard to know whether surfaces are potential vectors, whether six feet is enough or not enough, whether masks help or don't help," Pinker admits. "From a scientist's point of view, it's not surprising the information would shift."
"But, partly because people think of experts as oracles, as opposed to experimenters and exploiters of trial and error, there's a presumption that either the experts know what is the best policy from the get-go, or else they are incompetent and ought to be replaced," he continues.
Is there hope?
Tendencies toward tribalism and cherry-picking evidence to suit our existing beliefs are baked into the human mind, and, as the Nautilus article makes clear, have been documented by decades of research. Does that mean there's no hope of getting people to wear masks without a fight in the future?
Pinker sees some cause for optimism, but his reasoning is pretty dark. While people are great at explaining away anything that contradicts their fundamental beliefs and self-image, the truth does sometimes get so obvious it is impossible to ignore. "What happens to the cult members on December 31, when the world doesn't come to an end? Now what do you do?" Pinker asks.
Sadly, those obsessed with ignoring scientific advice on the pandemic might be one such death cult about to crash head long into undeniable facts, as case counts and deaths mount. While you wait for that reality to dawn, my Inc.com colleague Emily Canal has practical advice on how to handle customers who won't follow safety rules.