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Clendaniel: We can change COVID-19 social norms. Here’s how to start

It’s no surprise to me that large numbers of Americans are choosing not to wear face masks in public or practice social distancing at beaches, churches and social gatherings.

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Irritating beyond belief, yes. Surprising, no.

We Americans don’t like to do what we’re told. Even if it might kill us or threaten the lives of those around us. New Hampshire, for example, still doesn’t have a mandatory seat belt law for adults. And only 26 states have laws banning smoking in public places.

As Stanford psychologist Hazel Markus says, we’re in love with the notion that we’re captains of our own ship. We treasure freedom of choice and really, really don’t like it when we perceive someone is taking away one of our freedoms. That’s how we started as a nation, and 244 years later, nothing much has changed.

The benefits of this cultural approach are well established. But when it comes to issues of public health, it can be irresponsible. And deadly. Five states — Arizona, California, Florida, Mississippi and Texas — broke records for average daily COVID-19 fatalities in the past week. All told, the United States now has had 3.3 million COVID-19 cases and more than 135,000 deaths, far exceeding that of any other nation.

In at least some parts of the country, we have successfully altered our ways in the past for public benefit. Think seat belt laws, motorcycle helmet requirements and smoking bans in public places.

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But those took decades to enact and implement. We need to change our ways immediately if we are going to slow and eventually stop the virus. Can it be done? And if so, how?

I explored that question with Markus, a social psychology expert whose research focuses on how cultures shape thought, feeling and action.

Scolding doesn’t work. Nor does nagging. As every parent knows, those often lead to even worse behavior.

The most-effective, quickest way for collective change, she said, is a strong, consistent message starting at the top.

Think about how different things might be if, as comedian John Oliver suggested, President Trump had from the outset of the outbreak donned a “Make America Great Mask” and encouraged every American to wear a mask.

Imagine the impact if, as Rep. Ro Khanna, D-San Jose, offered Sunday, we had a bipartisan message from Washington asking Americans to band together and wear face masks for the good of the country. “If you care about our children going back to school, if you care about businesses reopening fast, if you want the market to continue to go up, if you want our GDP to bounce back, wear a mask,” he said. “It really is that simple.”

“Instead,” says Markus, “what we have is complete chaos in messaging, starting at the top.”

The next best alternative is a grassroots movement urging people to alter their behavior for the good of their community.

“Americans are individualistic, but they also love to contribute and be a part of things,” says Markus. “The most important thing that behavior scientists know is that people will do things because others around them are doing it.”

That’s why it’s so important that people model wearing face masks and social distancing. Not only are they protecting those around them, and, to a degree, themselves, but they also are putting additional pressure on others to do the same. People of all ages and backgrounds are susceptible to subtle social pressures of perceived norms. They influence the decisions we make, sometimes without people being aware of their impact.

I’m a big believer in the law of accumulation, which says that all great accomplishments in life are due to hundreds and sometimes thousands of efforts and sacrifices that often go unnoticed. Each of us has a role to play in changing our behavioral norms for the benefit of our children, health and economy.

There’s work to be done. Let’s get busy. Put on your mask and make a difference.

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