Joel Hulsey’s 70-year-old mother is at high risk for complications from Covid-19. But even as cases skyrocket across the country, he knows she isn’t taking proper precautions.
Hulsey said he can't even talk to her about wearing a mask anymore.
“She went from wearing a mask, to not wearing a mask, to getting very upset when I mention if she’s wearing a mask,” Hulsey said.
Like many Americans, Hulsey has found himself caught in the country’s divisions over public health measures needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic. For millions of people, the simple matter of wearing a mask has turned into a flashpoint driven more by politics and conspiracy theories than by science.
Without the ability to reach common ground, some like Hulsey are finding it hard to cope with non-believing friends and family members. But experts who have been studying the psychology of pandemics, and how human behaviors are shaped by moments of uncertainty and anxiety, say there are ways to prevent pandemic squabbles from fracturing relationships beyond repair.
They tend to agree on a central theme: Don't get into confrontations.
“You always want to offer your empathy first,” said Amy Pisani, executive director of Vaccinate Your Family, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to vaccine advocacy. “If they have a personal story, start with your shared values."
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With the first coronavirus vaccines potentially being available this month, Pisani and her colleagues have ramped up outreach in a bid to educate the public about how vaccines are developed and approved, and to combat misinformation specifically about the shots.
She said it’s always important to keep in mind where people are coming from, even when they have divergent viewpoints.
“You have to base it on who you’re talking to,” Pisani said. “You may have one person who is focused on a particular rumor, or you may have a person who wants more data, so it would be best to give them more data.”
Yet, finding those shared values can also be challenging.
Dr. Alexander Yudovich, a pediatrics specialist in Houston, knows firsthand how even the most well-intentioned posts on social media can be seen as provocations. After seeing false information being shared within his social networks, he decided to use his own medical knowledge to counteract bad information and provide outreach for anyone willing to listen.
Yudovich’s posts on Facebook have tackled everything from conspiracy theories about the virus’ origin to myths on the clinical effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine to misinformation surrounding herd immunity.
Yudovich said his posts have stirred some confrontations and gotten him blocked by a handful of acquaintances, but he relied on his medical training — particularly a tactic known as motivational interviewing — to find common ground. Rather than telling patients what they need to do to improve their health, motivational interviewing tries to engage with individuals so that their own motivations and values guide behavioral changes.
“My approach to medicine is that I like patients to come to their own conclusions,” Yudovich said. “I ask a lot of open-ended questions and let them talk, and then I can use their own words to help them understand their medical problems.”
But even those tactics can fall short for people dealing with friends and family that have embraced the many conspiracy theories that have run rampant on social media.
Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said that confrontation is particularly doomed to failure when talking to people who have fallen down conspiracy rabbit holes.
“Many conspiracy theorists score high in a trait called psychological reactance, which, to put it simply, is like an allergic reaction to being told what to do,” Taylor said. “We have to think of messages that don’t trigger that psychological reactance.”
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Rather, it may be more effective to find non-confrontational ways to appeal to people that don’t overtly challenge their sense of self or freedom — a concept that Taylor refers to as introducing “behavioral nudges.” Instead of harping on the scientifically proven benefits of wearing a mask, for instance, people could try to convince friends and family to don face coverings for the good of their community.
And while social media and the internet have made conspiracy theories part of the daily lives of millions of people, Taylor stressed that misinformation is not a new problem — which may mean it doesn't necessarily need new solutions.
In 2019, before the first case of Covid-19 was reported in humans, Taylor wrote a book titled “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease.” In the months since the first coronavirus outbreak emerged, he has been tracking the virus and its psychological fallout.
What he found most surprising is how much the events of this pandemic mirrored other large-scale outbreaks in history.
“The way we’re reacting today — whether it’s anti-maskers or people experiencing anticipatory anxiety based on how information spreads — is very similar to how people reacted a century ago,” Taylor said. “There is a certain consistency in human behavior.”
Taylor pointed to examples such as the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco, which emerged during the 1918 influenza pandemic in response to a city ordinance that required people to wear masks to slow the virus’ spread.
But for all the similarities, there are some key differences that have made social rebellion and the spread of misinformation even more challenging in 2020.
“The 24/7 news cycle and social media have created an echo chamber and given consumers the ability to take an active role in how prevalent a piece of news becomes,” Taylor said. “When it comes to conspiracy theories, misinformation or protests, people have the tools to make these things reach more and more people now.”
Hulsey said he has seen how his mother's social media habits have informed her views on the pandemic. He said Facebook helped expose her to conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccines under development, leading him to online communities such as Reddit's r/QAnonCasualties to find people going through similar challenges with friends and family members.
Hulsey's mother, Jan McAdams, said she doesn't believe masks are effective, but wears one when she's required to. She said she is very close with her son and wants to continue their relationship even when they strongly disagree.
"We still, you know, agree to disagree," she said. "Let's don't fight about it because you're not going to change each other's minds."
Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., said the emergence of conspiracy theories in times of upheaval has been well-documented throughout history.
“What you often see is that in times of uncertainty — whether it’s political uncertainty, economic uncertainty or social uncertainty — there’s a surge in conspiracy theories,” van der Linden said.
And that’s cause for real concern. Van der Linden’s research has shown that people who believe misinformation about the coronavirus are less likely to wear masks or get vaccinated, which makes it critical at this juncture of the pandemic to try to engage, rather than ignore, skeptical loved ones.
Shauna Bowes, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, has been conducting research on what makes individuals prone to believing in conspiracy theories. It’s an evolving field of research, but Bowes said some common threads are emerging.
“We found this blend of social detachment and alienation and in conjunction with reduced thoughtfulness, reduced impulse control and also maybe some undue intellectual certainties and overconfidence,” she said.
And if a person’s beliefs are linked to feelings of anxiety or social isolation, it’s important to approach tough conversations with respect and compassion, Bowes said.
“I think we want to try to strike this balance of providing accuracy, challenging their worldview, but saying: I am here for you. I love you. I hear you,” she said.
It’s that kind of empathy that could help families like Hulsey’s protect themselves and heal their divisions. And with an end to the pandemic within reach, surviving the events of this year may require strengthening the ties that bind in addition to preserving good health.
“At the end of the day, my family is always going to be my family,” Hulsey said.
CORRECTION (Dec. 11, 2020, 1:42 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of John Hulsey. He is Hulsey, not Husley.