Almost without exception, this blog and its’ varying topics has been written from the vantage point of the workplace. Being the leader, contributing as an employee and, in a general sense how to be effective in one’s role in whatever the role has been the focus. And even today, in the 7th month of living with and adapting to the existence of the Coronavirus, we have addressed challenges as related to the impact that COVID-19 has had on business in general and those who work within them are experiencing.
Today’s blog differs from those of the recent past for rather than addressing the COVID impact, I have become very curious to try and understand the lack of a unified approach to addressing and dealing with this current pandemic. I’m not referring to the lack of common leadership opinions of government or from within states, cities or townships. It’s somewhat simpler than that. I am referring to the lack of a common response to something that has proven itself to be a life threatening situation … one still on the rise or awaiting the next surge. Of course, I want to believe that the great majority of us do trust and believe in medicine and the way this informs us as to realities and threats of any such malady. Scratching my head in puzzlement gave me just one path … looking into things of the past to understand what we are all seeing today. Is the disagreement, anger, indignation and determination in different directions similar to earlier times when change was ‘imposed’ on us as a society?
Taking a historical look to a situation closely aligned with the COVID challenge, driving while intoxicated revealed meaningful similarities. As such and when we get behind the wheel of a car after feeling the effects of too
much alcohol intake, for certain we are putting our own life at risk of being in a serious or even deadly accident. As well, we are also putting the lives of those we encounter while driving in the same risk position. Thus, this becomes a situation that is, in meaningful ways, closely aligned with our decision to wear or not wear a mask … to put advised distance between ourselves and others … or not to do so.
As Ari Tuckman wrote in his article that appeared in Psychology Today “As a highly contagious disease, managing COVID-19 as a society involves the sum total of every individual’s actions. Just as with drunk driving, the choices of the individual can have serious consequences on those around them. Therefore, we all have a vested interest in how others respond to both of these threats. As Americans, we value individual liberties, but we still recognize that one person’s rights end where another’s begin. The best balance between individual freedoms and societal responsibilities has been fiercely debated through our history and is now being played out on the battlefield of mask-wearing. Do the societal benefits of wearing a mask outweigh the loss of individual freedom to not want to wear one?”
Tuckman makes several meaningful points that reinforce the similarities that exist between intoxicated drinking and mask wearing.
- Masks as Social Signal
Wearing a mask in public, or not, is visible to others. Whether we intend to or not, we are sending a signal to everyone who sees you about whether you are taking the pandemic seriously. Because the response to the pandemic in general, and mask-wearing in particular, has become so politicized, it’s hard to not have opinions about what one sees—one way or the other.Whether or not you wear a mask doesn’t only have a direct medical effect on those around you in terms of potential viral spread, but it also has a social effect when it influences what others will do. If someone sees lots of people wearing masks, they are more likely to also do it. If they see few people wearing masks, they are less likely. Some of this may be related to not wanting to stand out. But also, because masks are so visible, it’s an informal survey of how others feel, which consciously and unconsciously influences our own opinions on the matter.
The relationship to drinking?
If the people you hang out with tend to be rather lax about drinking and driving, then you may be likely to loosen your own standards. Alternatively, if the people you are with tend to be consistent about designated drivers, then you are more likely to lean that way, too. This social influence can happen completely implicitly, without any direct conversations about what one should do.
- What’s the Acceptable Risk?
We consciously and unconsciously look to others’ behavior to inform our own assessment of risk. If someone else is doing something and seemingly unharmed, then it’s probably OK to do it. Overall, this tends to work, but not for risks that take time to show their negative consequences (e.g., one can drive drunk a bunch of times before suddenly something terrible happens) or where one can’t accurately assess the risk (e.g., someone can be contagious but asymptomatic and infect people unknowingly). This is where we need to apply our higher-level cognitive skills and not just go by what our gut tells us about what is safe—which is why we don’t rely on drunk people’s self-assessment about their ability to drive safely. Social referencing is helpful, but it sometimes gets it wrong, as that old parental cliché points out: If all your friends were jumping off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?
The Relationship to Drinking?
Making a point of setting up a designated driver conveys to your friends that drunk driving is too risky and perhaps influences them to feel the same. Similarly, wearing a mask and being clear that you are taking other appropriate precautions also sends a message to the people around you that there is an unacceptable level of risk with unprotected exposure and you are taking steps to reduce those risks.
- Masks as Social Responsibility
Wearing a mask, as well as practicing various other risk-reduction habits, is not just about reducing one’s own chances of contracting coronavirus. There is also the matter of spreading it to others that one comes in contact with who may be more vulnerable—loved ones and strangers alike. But let’s not forget the influence we have on the behavior of others by the example that we set—are we normalizing riskier or safer behavior?
Nobody wants another lockdown, but to avoid one, we need to take the risk seriously. Wearing a mask and avoiding crowded situations seems a small sacrifice for a much greater good—keeping people healthy and employed. This pandemic has made it clear that, as a society, we are all in this together and we all have our part to play. What I’ve learned in looking into our current situation is that in the past, whether pertaining to the likes of driving while ‘under the influence’, wearing or not wearing seat belts or smoking in restaurants or on planes, each of these initially met real resistance in varying degrees and for varying amounts of time. Change happened because eventually, either there were laws passed that mandated certain behaviors or risk penalties … or, we suffered serious consequences as a result of our only thinking about our individual rights being infringed upon while thinking little or not at all about the greater good of ourselves and those around us. Yes, it’s our individual choice. Personally, whatever enables all of us to resume a full and fulfilling day to day life seems like a worthwhile goal for all. And you?