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Social Influence, Groupthink, and the Coronavirus

Why people who refuse to wear masks aren't as free as they might believe.

Aaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock
Source: Aaron of L.A. Photography/Shutterstock

Surveys show that the majority of Americans routinely wear masks. So why have some people taken the uncommon and unsafe position of objecting to masks and social distancing, despite scientific evidence that these actions help prevent the spread of the coronavirus? Or why did some individuals gather to protest stay-at-home orders, even though officials issued such orders to safeguard public health, and these measures were effective?

Scientists have considered assorted explanations at an individual level, such as aspects of someone’s personality, how scared a person feels, and whether someone holds baseless ideas about the coronavirus. These are certainly valuable lines of research. Recently, however, scholars have also highlighted the potent role that social factors play in affecting the ideas and behavior of people who have opposed masks, social distancing, and stay-at-home orders. And these scholars note that even as such individuals are likely operating under the notion that their views and actions stem from their own personal, self-determined assessment of the situation, they’re not actually thinking and acting as freely as they might believe.

Ample research shows that we humans are social creatures who are far more impacted by other people than we realize. If we believe that plenty of other people are behaving in a particular way, we’re also more apt to fall in line, regardless of whether that behavior is positive (e.g., conserving water) or negative (e.g., stealing wood from a national forest).

In the current context, scholars point out that not only did the pandemic lead people’s social units to become more constrained and less diverse, but the anxiety and strain of the situation may also have lead people to develop more close-knit ties among the people who were in their social group. These conditions set the stage for a phenomenon known as groupthink, which is “the deterioration of judgment and rationality that sometimes occurs in highly cohesive groups.” As one scholar, Dr. Forsyth, put it:

“A group that would, under ordinary circumstances, correctly answer such questions as… ‘Should we ignore the advice of medical experts who know more about this deadly disease than we do?’ …and ‘Does wearing a face covering in public threaten my freedom?’ may stray from rationality when group-level processes align.”

So what elements are associated with groupthink, and how might they explain some people’s strong opposition to masks, social distancing, and the like? Let’s take a look at a recent analysis of this question by Dr. Forsyth, who comments on the following factors:


It can be wonderful to feel like you’re a part of a connected group. People can feel more attached to a group because of their relationships with the individuals in it, or because of their agreement with the group as a whole and what it stands for. At the same time, this kind of bond has a downside, because the more a group feels united, the more people feel compelled to follow the group’s conventions. And if one of those conventions involves pushing against public health guidance, such as wearing masks, members of the group are apt to adhere to this too.


The more people see themselves as part of a collective, the more their personal investment in the group grows, and they try to bring their views and behavior in line with the rest of the group. In other words, a person who might have been inclined to wear a mask otherwise (i.e., if they weren’t a member of the group) sees them as an impingement on their personal freedom if this is what the larger group believes.


Even without a pandemic, groups can become ideologically isolated if the people within the group listen to what affirms their beliefs and disregard whatever refutes their ideas. Arguably, the pandemic heightened this by diminishing people’s access to a diversity of perspectives even more, including varying viewpoints on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.


Not only does stress lead groups to become more close-knit (which is also a double-edged sword, as we talked about earlier), but it interferes with people’s ability to process information in a fruitful way. For example, a band of people may lean into reaching conclusions too quickly and dismissing information that negates their views, such as scientific information on the public health benefits of masks.

Group Illusions

When groupthink takes hold, the members of that group can hold important misconceptions about their group. For example, people may feel sure that their cause is noble, that their views and actions are right, and that everyone else in the group is in agreement. Within the framework of the pandemic, people who think that wearing a mask is pointless and infringes on personal liberty believe they’re correct, and they may also think they’re rightfully speaking for everyone else in their group and for a significant segment of the population.

Normative Pressures

Groups generally have a tendency to cultivate harmony and unity while also being open to individuality and dissent. But this is not the case where groupthink is concerned. People within the group receive potent messages about how they’re supposed to behave, and the group’s support for differences decays.

Individuals in positions of power can also foster groupthink when they share their opinions first and encourage others to fall in line. If anyone in the group privately disagrees, it’s improbable that they’ll voice these views, in part because they fear being shut out and don’t want to lose their connection to the group. In this social environment, by way of illustration, Dr. Forsyth notes that President Trump’s endorsement of factions who protested against stay-at-home orders probably strengthened that message. And people in groups that advocate messages such as, “People shouldn’t wear a mask, engage in social distancing, or follow stay-at-home orders,” are more likely to take in such messages and adopt them as their own, believing they did so entirely of their own accord.


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