Sunday, November 15, 2020

Dr. Mark Pagel explains why people don’t wear masks although they know it is risky

 14:30 into the podcast 

Celine Gounder: Today, it's my great pleasure to have on the podcast Dr. Mark Pagel. Mark is an evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Reading. He studies how evolution imprints on human behavior from genes to language and culture. And he’s the author of one of my favorite books, Wired for Culture. 

Celine: So Mark, I want to start with talking about why humans form tribal groups. As a public health expert who's very much involved in, in the coronavirus pandemic, it's been very challenging to communicate and to cross sort of political divides in the United States. And I think it would be helpful to understand, um, why those tribes are forming in the first place. 

Mark Pagel: Humans have, have sort of explored the earth in these little co-operative societies that we in a kind of shorthand refer to as tribes. And all manner of rules and sort of personality or psychological traits have sprung up in us to make sure those small groups work. One of the strongest and can lead to some of the most disturbing outcomes is that we've evolved a whole lot of tendencies for and abilities to identify people that we think are in our group. And some of them are obvious like skin color or facial shape. Others are less obvious, like an accent that you have. Those things give you a way as coming from a certain area. And so humans really are tribal in this way, probably in a way that no other species is.  

Celine Gounder: And so a question that's more directly, you know, applicable to the current pandemic. Why do people risk their health and even their lives on behalf of their culture, their, their social affiliations?

Mark Pagel: This is a really, really difficult subject. Humans seem to be a species in which we have evolved this, these psychological tendencies to look out for our societies and, and the most vivid examples of that are when we go to war and fight for our societies. And this kind of altruism seems to be widespread in human societies. 

Mark: This is a personality trait that humans have that you just don't see in other animals, you would never expect a chimpanzee to go around worrying about how it can improve the wellbeing of the group of chimpanzees it lives in.

Celine Gounder: So why is it that people might choose not to wear a mask, even though the science would indicate that that protects them and, and others in the midst of the pandemic.

Mark Pagel: It comes back to the psychological traits that we've evolved as a species. This, this strong need to identify and to advertise the group that we belong to because we think in doing so, we attract other like-minded people to be around us. And, we notice this with the groups of people who don't want to wear masks, they're quite vociferous about it. It isn't just that they're quietly going about their business, but they want it to be known that they're not a mask-wearer and in some sense, this attracts like-minded people to them. 

Celine Gounder: Why is it whether it's politics or science, you know, why is it we're best persuaded by our family and friends rather than science and facts?

Mark Pagel: Yes. I think we have to be aware that we go through life taking direction from other people. Most of us have to make decisions about things on a daily basis that we really don't have the information to, to make the correct decision about. If you look around you at any given time, the ideas and the behaviors that you can observe are ideas and behaviors that by and large have kept the people alive who have them. And so in a sense, I think that we follow those who are most close to us in terms of our family or in terms of the tribal identities we have, and we look to what they're doing and we just take it on board, that those are going to be reasonable things to do. It's a kind of predisposition we have as a species.

Celine Gounder: There’s been a lot of back and forth among public health leaders about how best to message about masks. Is it to say, it’s to protect yourself? Is it to say, it’s to protect others? Which message is more convincing and why? 

Mark Pagel: Typically, our first allegiance is to ourselves, and so we probably want to convince people that wearing a mask will protect them. And then I think our second allegiance is going to be to our society. To the extent that we think our societies are going to be organized in a way that will bring us good. We’re willing to engage these kinds of altruistic acts like wearing a mask if we think that if everybody wears a mask we’ll all be better for it. So we’re not willing to do it simply to help others but if we think we’ll all be better for it. So one of the benefits that might come from everyone wearing masks is that I, personally, will be less likely to get coronavirus. So, that will be a motivation for me to join in with that campaign. And then secondary but, you know, in close, um,  succession, also appealing to people not to harm others, because that  is a very powerful moral, or ethical principle in human society. 

Celine Gounder: One of the arguments for mask-wearing has been to protect yourself, but it's also to protect others. What is reciprocal altruism and how is that different from altruism? 

Mark Pagel: So a, a pure altruistic act might be putting on a mask to go out shopping simply because you think it's wrong to expose others to a virus that you might be carrying. You're not expecting anything back. Our societies are, are based on an even more abstract form of altruism that we call indirect reciprocity. So, mask-wearing becomes a value. I don't wear a mask in front of you just so you'll wear a mask in front of me. I wear a mask because I want to advertise to people I'm a mask-wearing kind of person that that's an important thing to do. And then I'm hoping that others will adopt that value and will all simply wear masks. That's what governments are desperately trying to do. They're desperately trying to convince us that we should wear a mask simply because it's the right thing to do and one of the most effective messages I think in that campaign has been to say that you could kill somebody if you didn't wear a mask. Killing another person is probably the most strongest prohibition we have. And so perhaps that has worked somewhat.  

Celine Gounder: So I would say personally that wearing a mask is patriotic. That it's something that's for the good of my community, for the good of my nation. Why is it that wearing a mask might not be seen as patriotic by somebody who's conservative? 

Mark Pagel: There has been this sort of polarization, especially in American society. And, and some groups are seeing wearing a mask as a patriotic thing to do because it improves public health of the nation. Other groups are seeing wearing a mask, for example, as, uh, statement that you're not a member of their tribal group. And so we can see again, that depending upon the tribal identity, that one is adopting we can get completely different behaviors and actions and beliefs

Celine Gounder: In your book, you say that the more arbitrary the norm or signal of group commitment, the more powerful that signaling. You know, and again, going back to wearing masks, why is it that maybe the seemingly more arbitrary that, that signal becomes more powerful? 

Mark Pagel: So the more arbitrary they are tells me that somehow they've really adopted those behaviors because they want to demonstrate their commitment to my tribal group because they're not getting anything out of those. They're not benefiting from them in any other way, other than to advertise that they're a member of a group.

Mark: [00:53:09:24] And the very risk that's associated with that tells me if I'm looking for other people, I want to know are a part of my group. It tells me that they're probably a, a real member of my group. They're willing to take risks to be part of my group. So not wearing a mask. It could, in that sense, indeed be a very powerful measure of tribal identity. 

Celine Gounder: So, what about how we enforce some of these norms? Um, shame and, and stigma are often used, you know, in addition, to say, mandates or fines. Are shame and stigma, useful tools and, and enforcing such behavior. And when they're targeted, say at the individual versus at a group, how effective are they and can they backfire? 

Mark Pagel: They're probably very effective and yes, they, they can backfire. I mean, what has to happen is that shame needs to come from the group that we hope to be a part of. If we can get enough people in that group, our immediate society, the people that we spend time with to be sort of in a sense, threatening to ostracize us, we will come around because we don't want to be excluded from that group. And so if that shame can arise sort of naturally out of one social group. I think it can be very, very powerful. If it feels imposed upon us, especially by people we don't identify with people who aren't in our group. Oh, those people who think wearing masks is important. Then I think it will backfire very, very badly. 

Mark Pagel: So I think it has to be applied very, very carefully. It can’t come, come from above, it needs to rise up out of our societies naturally. 

Celine: Well, Mark, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mark Pagel: Thanks very much, Celine.