Convincing the Mask-Less

We’re watching what will turn out to be the costliest and most tragic risk communication failure in modern human history. I’m talking about communicating the probability and magnitude of risks that actually harm people but don’t bother them enough for them to do anything about. We’re setting new COVID-19 daily infection and death rates with more than 300,000 Americans dead from COVID – at least half a million expected by the end of February. COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the United States, having overtaken heart disease and cancer for that honor. Yet docs say simply convincing people to wear face masks and stay out of crowds could save 130,000 of us. One might think that people couldn’t help but see this to be the immediate and critical health crisis that it is. But here’s the conundrum: if you’ve spent the past nine months denying the existence or downplaying the seriousness of it, admitting now that those beliefs might have been wrong is a very hard thing to come to grips with. Because once you start questioning those beliefs, you’ll likely also have to start questioning your beliefs in whatever or whoever convinced you to think that way in the first place, as well as their associated beliefs, and, for most people, that’s just a bridge too far. So most people just shrug at those numbers unless it’s them or their mom on a ventilator. Health experts have for years predicted and planned for pandemics, including how best to get these simple safety precautions through our thick skulls to save ourselves. Scaring people into smarter behavior now isn’t the answer, but there is another approach that would probably work better. 

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